The personal website of Scott W Harden

Programming Modern AVR Microcontrollers

How to program modern AVR chips using Atmel ICE, MPLAB Snap, or Serial Port UPDI programmers

This page describes how to program Microchip’s newest series of AVR microcontrollers using official programming gear and software. I spent many years programming the traditional series of Atmel chips, but now several years after Microchip acquired Atmel I am interested in exploring the capabilities of the latest series of AVR microcontrollers (especially the new AVR DD family). Currently the global chip shortage makes it difficult to source traditional ATMega and STM32 chips, but the newest series of AVR microcontrollers feature an impressive set of peripherals for the price and are available from all the major vendors. pressive set of peripherals for the price and are available from all the major vendors.


Blinking a LED is the “Hello, World” of microcontroller programming. Let’s take a look at the code necessary to blink a LED on pin 2 of an ATTiny286. It is compiled and programmed onto the chip using Microchip Studio.

#define F_CPU 3333333UL
#include <avr/io.h>
#include <util/delay.h>

int main(void)
	while (1)
		PORTA.OUT = 255;
		PORTA.OUT = 0;

ATTiny826 Pinout

From page 14 of the ATTiny826 datasheet

SMT ATTiny Breakout Board

Many of the newer AVR series microcontrollers are not available in breadboard-friendly DIP packages. I find SOIC-to-DIP breakout boards (available on Amazon and eBay) to be useful for experimenting with chips in SOIC packages. Here I added extra power and PA4 (pin 2) LEDs and 10 kΩ current limiting resistors.

I power the device from the 3.3V or 5V pins on a FT232 USB breakout board. Although the topic is out of scope for this article, I find it convenient to use FTDI chips to exchange small amounts of data or debug messages between a microcontroller and a modern PC over USB without requiring special drivers.

Why is programming modern AVRs so difficult?

I’m surprised how little information there is online about how to reliably program modern AVR series microcontrollers. In late 2022 there is a surprisingly large amount of “advice” on this topic which leads to dead ends and broken or abandoned projects. After looking into it for a while, here is my opinionated assessment. Mouser and Digikey have links to expensive programmers, and Amazon has links to similar items but reviews are littered with comments like “arrived bricked” and “can not program AVR series chips”. DIY options typically involve abandoned (or soon-to-be abandoned?) GitHub repositories, or instructions for Arduino-related programming. I seek to consolidate and distill the most useful information onto this page, and I hope others will find it useful.

Atmel-ICE: Expensive but Effective

After using $5 ICSP programmers for the last decade I almost fell out of my chair when I saw Microchip’s recommended entry-level programmer is over $180! Digikey sells a “basic” version without cables for $130, but that still seems crazy to me. Also, $50 for a ribbon cable?

I found a kit on Amazon that sells the programmer with a cable for $126. It was hard for me to press that buy button, but I figured the time I would save by having access to modern and exotic chips during the present global chip shortage would make it worth it. After a couple days of free Prime shipping, it arrived. It was smaller than I thought it would be from the product photos.

The cable that came with the device seemed a bit hacky at first, but I’m happy to have it. The female 2.54 mm socket is easy to insert breadboard jumpers into.

I’m glad this thing is idiot proof. The very first thing I did after unboxing this programmer was hook it up to my power supply rails using reverse polarity. I misread the pin diagram and confused the socket with the connector (they are mirror images of one another). This is an easy mistake to make though, so here’s a picture of the correct orientation. Note the location of the tab on the side of the connector.

Atmel ICE Pinout Programming Connection

You can break-out power and programming pins so you can power your device with this programmer and also not need the stupid ribbon cable for programming it! See my article Hack an Atmel ICE to Deliver Power for more information.

The Atmel ICE was easy to use with Microchip Studio. My programmer was detected immediately, a window popped-up and walked me through updating the firmware, and my LED was blinking in no time.

MPLAB Snap: Cheap and Convoluted

Did I really need to spend $126 for an AVR programmer? Amazon carries the MPLAB Snap for $34, but lots of reviews say it doesn’t work. After easily getting the Atmel-ICE programmer up and running I thought it would be a similarly easy experience setting-up the MPLAB Snap for AVR UPDI programming, but boy was I wrong. Now that I know the steps to get this thing working it’s not so bad, but the information here was only gathered after hours of frustration.

Here are the steps you can take to program modern AVR microcontrollers with UPDI using a MPLAB Snap:

Step 1: Setup MPLAB

Step 2: Re-Flash the Programmer

Step 3: Acknowledge Your Programmer is Defective

Defective may be a strong word, but let’s just say the hardware was not designed to enable programming AVR chips using UPDI. Microchip Studio will detect the programmer but if you try to program an AVR you’ll get a pop-up error message that provides surprisingly little useful information.

Atmel Studio was unable to start your debug session. Please verify device selection, interface settings, target power and connections to the target device. Look in the details section for more information. StatusCode: 131107 ModuleName: TCF (TCF command: Processes:launch failed.) An illegal configuration parameter was used. Debugger command Activate physical failed.

Step 4: Fix Your Programmer

The reason MPLAB Snap cannot program AVR microcontrollers is because the UPDI pin should be pulled high, but the MPLAB Snap comes from the factory with its UPDI pin pulled low with a 4.7 kΩ resistor to ground. You can try to overpower this resistor by adding a low value pull-up resistor to Vcc (1 kΩ worked for me on a breadboard), but the actual fix is to fire-up the soldering iron and remove that tiny surface-mount pull-down resistor labeled R48.

Have your glasses? R48 is here:

These photos were taken after I removed the resistor. I didn’t use hot air. I just touched it a for a few seconds with a soldering iron and wiped it off then threw it away.

You don’t need a microscope, but I’m glad I had one.

Step 5: Reflect

You can now program AVR microcontrollers using UPDI with your MPLAB Snap! Blink, LED, blink.

Can you believe this is the officially recommended action? According to the official Microchip Engineering Technical Note ETN #36: MPLAB Snap AVR Interface Modification

I feel genuinely sorry for the Amazon sellers who are getting poor reviews because they sell this product. It really isn’t their fault. I hope Google directs people here so that they can get their boards working and leave positive reviews that point more people to this issue.

UPDI Programming with a Serial Adapter

There is no official support for UPDI programming using a serial adapter, but it seems some people have figured out how to do it in some capacity. There was a promising pyupdi project, but it is now deprecated. At the time of writing the leading project aiming to enable UPDI programming without official hardware is pymcuprog, but its repository has a single commit dated two months ago and no activity since. Interestingly, that commit was made by buildmaster@microchip.com (an unverified email address), so it may not be fair to refer to it as an “unofficial” solution. The long term support of the pymcuprog project remains uncertain, but regardless let’s take a closer look at how it works.

To build a programmer you just need a TTL USB serial adapter and a 1kΩ resistor. These are the steps I used to program a LED blink program using this strategy:

Ping the Microcontroller

This command returns the device ID (1E9328 for my ATtiny826) indicating the UPDI connection is working successfully

pymcuprog ping -d attiny826 -t uart -u com12
Connecting to SerialUPDI
Pinging device...
Ping response: 1E9328

Write a Hex File

I used Microchip Studio to compile my C code and generate the hex file. Now I can use pymcuprog to load those hex files onto the chip. It’s slower to program and inconvenient to drop to a terminal whenever I want to program a chip, but it works.

pymcuprog write -f LedBlink.hex -d attiny826 -t uart -u com12
Connecting to SerialUPDI
Pinging device...
Ping response: 1E9328
Writing from hex file...
Writing flash...