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Definition: flash memory


(1) For Adobe's multimedia authoring and playback system, see Flash.

(2) Flash memory is the most popular non-volatile, rewritable storage chip. Comprised of cells that hold a charge without power, flash memory is extremely durable and used in just about every electronic device, including cameras, smartphones, tablets, music players and USB drives. It is also the storage component in solid state drives (SSDs), which increasingly replace hard drives in computers and servers. All flash memory eventually wears out, but most users will have many years of service (see SSD write cycle). See solid state drive.

Evolving from the EEPROM chip, flash was invented by Toshiba in the mid-1980s and named after its ability to erase a block of data "in a flash." However, this block erasing is flash memory's least desirable feature. To update even one byte in flash memory, an entire block of cells from 16KB to 512KB must be copied out so the block can be erased. Then the updated block is written back. Writing is much slower than reading.

NOR Flash for Execution
NOR flash is used for program execution similar to RAM. Introduced by Intel in 1988, NOR supports one-byte random access, which means a program's instructions are executed directly from the NOR flash the same way computers execute instructions in RAM. Unlike RAM, NOR flash does not require power to hold its content. See computer and RAM.

NAND Flash for Storage
Toshiba developed the less costly NAND flash in 1989. It has denser cells and faster erasing and writing than NOR. For example, in a digital camera, an internal NOR chip holds the software, but the removable memory cards are composed of NAND chips. In a computer, a NAND flash solid state drive (SSD) functions like a hard drive for both program and data storage (see FTL). For more on flash architecture, see EEPROM, NAND flash and MLC. See charge trap flash, USB drive, memory card, solid state drive, flash BIOS, early memory and future memory chips.




From Spinning Platters to Flash
Slowly but surely, flash-based solid state drives (SSDs) are replacing the computer's hard drives for storage. Not only are SSDs faster, there is no read/write head to accidentally scratch a platter's surface (see head crash). See solid state drive.






USB Drives "Are" Flash Memory
The ubiquitous USB drives are not much more than a NAND flash memory chip.






Memory Cards Are the Camera's "Film"
NAND flash memory cards such as this 16GB SD card are used in all modern cameras and camcorders. SD cards are very popular, and they can hold up to 512GB. See SD card and memory card.






Disk Pack Storage - 1970s
The 16GB SD card in the digital camera example above holds eight times more storage than all the disk drives in this room full of ICL computers. See disk pack. (Images courtesy of The National Museum of Computing, Milton Keynes, U.K., www.tnmoc.org)






Flash For Sale
This 2014 Micro Center ad highlighted the flash memory products people use every day. Class 10 SD cards means a minimum of 10 MBytes/sec write speed for HD video recording. See SD card classes. (Image courtesy of Micro Center, www.microcenter.com)






The Floating Gate Transistor
Flash memory and EEPROM cells use a transistor with a floating gate that holds a charge. When charged, the action of the control gate is impeded, and the charged/uncharged state determines the 0 or 1 content of the bit.