Showing printf calls in AtmelStudio debugger window

11.02.2021 16:26

Writing debugging information to a serial port is common practice in embedded development. One problem however is that sometimes you can't connect to the serial port. Either the design lacks a spare GPIO pin or you can't physically access it. In those cases it can be useful to emulate such a character-based output stream over the in-circuit debugger connection.

A few years back I've written how to monitor the serial console on the ARM-based VESNA system over JTAG. Back then I used a small GNU debugger script to intercept strings that were intended for the system's UART and copy them to the gdb console. This time I found myself with a similar problem on an AVR-based system and using AtmelStudio 7 IDE for development. I wanted the debugger window to display the output of various printf statements strewn around the code. I only had the single wire UPDI connection to the AVR microcontroller using an mEDBG debugger. Following is the recipe I came up with. Note that, in contrast to my earlier instructions for ARM, these steps require preparing the source code in advance and making a debug build.

Define a function that wraps around the printf function that is built into avr-libc. It should render the format string and any arguments into a temporary memory buffer and then discard it. Something similar to the following should work. Adjust buf_size depending on the length of lines you need to print out and the amount of spare RAM you have available.

int tp_printf_P(const char *__fmt, ...)
	const int buf_size = 32;
	char buf[buf_size];

	va_list args;

	va_start(args, __fmt);
	vsnprintf_P(buf, buf_size, __fmt, args);

	// <-- put a tracepoint here
	return 0;

We will now define a tracepoint in the IDE that will be called whenever tp_printf_P is called. The tracepoint will read out the contents of the temporary memory buffer and display it in the debugger window. The wrapper is necessary because the built-in printf function in avr-libc outputs strings character-by-character. As far as I know there's is no existing buffer where we could find the entire rendered string like this.

The tracepoint is set up by right-clicking on the marked source line, selecting Breakpoint and Insert Tracepoint in the context menu. This should open Breakpoint settings in the source code view. You should set it up like in the following screenshot and click Close:

Setting up a tracepoint to print out the temporary buffer.

The ,s after the variable name is important. It makes the debugger print out the contents of the buffer as a string instead of just giving you a useless pointer value. This took me a while to figure out. AtmelStudio is just a customized and rebranded version of Microsoft Visual Studio. The section of the manual about tracepoints doesn't mention it, but it turns out that the same format specifiers that can be used in the watch list can also be used in tracepoint messages.

Another thing worth noting is that compiler optimizations may make it impossible to set the tracepoint at this specific point. I haven't seen this happen with the exact code I shown above. It seems my compiler will not optimize out the code even though the temporary buffer isn't used anywhere. However I've encountered this problem elsewhere. If the tracepoint icon on the left of the source code line is an outlined diamond instead of the filled diamond, and you get The breakpoint will not currently be hit message when you hover the mouse over it, this will not work. You will either have to disable some optimization options or modify the code somehow.

Example of a tracepoint that will not work.

To integrate tp_printf_P function into the rest of the code, I suggest defining a macro like the one below. My kprintf can be switched at build time between the true serial output (or whatever else is hooked to the avr-libc to act as stdout), the tracepoint output or it can be turned off for non-debug builds:

#  define kprintf(fmt, ...) printf_P(PSTR(fmt), ##__VA_ARGS__);
#    define kprintf(fmt, ...) tp_printf_P(PSTR(fmt), ##__VA_ARGS__);
#  else
#    define kprintf(fmt, ...)
#  endif

With DEBUG_TRACEPOINT preprocessor macro defined during the build and the tracepoint set up as described above, a print statement like the following:

kprintf("Hello, world!\n");

...will result in the string appearing in the Output window of the debugger like this:

"Hello, world!" string appearing in the debug output window.

Unfortunately the extra double quotes and a newline seem to be mandatory. The Visual Studio documentation suggests that using a ,sb format specifier should print out just the bare string. However this doesn't seem to work in my version of AtmelStudio.

It's certainly better than nothing, but if possible I would still recommend using a true serial port instead of this solution. Apart from the extra RAM required for the string buffer, the tracepoints are quite slow. Each print stops the execution for a few 100s of milliseconds in my case. I find that I can usually get away with prints over a 9600 baud UART in most code that is not particularly time sensitive. However with prints over tracepoints I have to be much more careful not to trigger various timeouts or watchdogs.

I also found this StackExchange question about the same topic. The answer suggests just replacing prints with tracepoints. Indeed "print debugging" has kind of a bad reputation and certainly using tracepoints to monitor specific variables has its place when debugging an issue. However I find that with a well instrumented code that has print statements in strategic places it is hard to beat when you need to understand the big picture of what the code is doing. Prints can often point out problems in places where you wouldn't otherwise think of putting a tracepoint. They also have a benefit of being stored with the code and are not just an ephemeral setting in the IDE.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Code

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