Computer Memory Image Gallery
Computer Memory Image Gallery

An employee of Samsung Electronics shows a 32-Gigabyte NAND memory card and chip. See more computer memory pictures.

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Introduction to How Flash Memory Works

­We store and transfer all kinds o­f files on our computers -- digital photographs, music files, wor­d processing documents, PDFs and countless other forms of media. But sometimes your computer's hard drive isn't exactly wher­e you want your information. Whether you want to make backup copies of files that live off of your systems or if you worry about your security, portable storage devices that use a type of electronic memory called flash memory may be the right solution.

Electronic memory comes in a variety of forms to serve a variety of purposes. Flash memory is used for easy and fast information storage in computers, digital cameras and home video game consoles. It is used more like a hard drive than as RAM. In fact, flash memory is known as a solid state storage device, meaning there are no moving parts -- everything is electronic instead of mechanical.

Here are a few examples of flash memory:

  • Your computer's BIOS chip
  • CompactFlash (most often found in digital cameras)
  • SmartMedia (most often found in digital cameras)
  • Memory Stick (most often found in digital cameras)
  • PCMCIA Type I and Type II memory cards (used as solid-state disks in laptops)
  • Memory cards for video game consoles

Flash memory is a type of EEPROM chip, which stands for Electronically Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory. It has a grid of columns and rows with a cell that has two transistors at each intersection (see image below).

The two transistors are separated from each other by a thin oxide layer. One of the transistors is known as a floating gate, and the other one is the control gate. The floating gate's only link to the row, or wordline, is through the control gate. As long as this link is in place, the cell has a value of 1. To change the value to a 0 requires a curious process called Fowler-Nordheim tunneling.

In this article, we'll find out how Flash memory works and look at some of the forms it takes and types of devices that use it. Next, we'll talk more about tunneling.

Flash Memory: Tunneling and Erasing

Tunneling is used to alter the placement of electrons in the floating gate. An electrical charge, usually 10 to 13 volts, is applied to the floating gate. The charge comes from the column, or bitline, enters the floating gate and drains to a ground.

This charge causes the floating-gate transistor to act like an electron gun. The excited electrons are pushed through and trapped on other side of the thin oxide layer, giving it a negative charge. These negatively charged electrons act as a barrier between the control gate and the floating gate. A special device called a cell sensor monitors the level of the charge passing through the floating gate. If the flow through the gate is above the 50 percent threshold, it has a value of 1. When the charge passing through drops below the 50-percent threshold, the value changes to 0. A blank EEPROM has all of the gates fully open, giving each cell a value of 1.

The electrons in the cells of a flash-memory chip can be returned to normal ("1") by the application of an electric field, a higher-voltage charge. Flash memory uses in-circuit wiring to apply the electric field either to the entire chip or to predetermined sections known as blocks. This erases the targeted area of the chip, which can then be rewritten. Flash memory works much faster than traditional EEPROMs because instead of erasing one byte at a time, it erases a block or the entire chip, and then rewrites it.

You may think that your car radio has flash memory, since you're able to program the presets and the radio remembers them. But it's actually using flash RAM. The difference is that flash RAM has to have some power to maintain its contents, while flash memory will maintain its data without any external source of power. Even though you've turned the power off, the car radio is pulling a tiny amount of current to preserve the data in the flash RAM. That is why the radio will lose its presets if your car battery dies or the wires are disconnected.

SmartMedia card

Removable Flash Memory Cards

There are a few reasons to use flash memory instead of a hard disk:

  • It has no moving parts, so it's noiseless.
  • It allows faster access.
  • It's smaller in size and lighter.

So why don't we just use flash memory for everything? Because the cost per megabyte for a hard disk is drastically cheaper, and the capacity is substantially more.

The solid-state floppy-disk card (SSFDC), better known as SmartMedia, was originally developed by Toshiba. SmartMedia cards are available in capacities ranging from 2 MB to 128 MB. The card itself is quite small, approximately 45 mm long, 37 mm wide and less than 1 mm thick. 

As shown below, SmartMedia cards are extremely simple. A plane electrode is connected to the flash-memory chip by bonding wires. The flash-memory chip, plane electrode and bonding wires are embedded in a resin using a technique called over-molded thin package (OMTP). This allows everything to be integrated into a single package without the need for soldering.

The OMTP module is glued to a base card to create the actual card. Power and data is carried by the electrode to the Flash-memory chip when the card is inserted into a device. A notched corner indicates the power requirements of the SmartMedia card. Looking at the card with the electrode facing up, if the notch is on the left side, the card needs 5 volts. If the notch is on the right side, it requires 3.3 volts.

SmartMedia cards erase, write and read memory in small blocks (256- or 512-byte increments). This approach means that they are capable of fast, reliable performance while allowing you to specify which data you wish to keep.They are less rugged than other forms of removable solid-state storage, so you should be very careful when handling and storing them. Because of newer, smaller cards with bigger storage capacities, such as xD-Picture Cards and Secure Digital cards, Toshiba has essentially discontinued the production of SmartMedia cards, so they're now difficult to find.

CompactFlash cards were developed by Sandisk in 1994, and they're different from SmartMedia cards in two important ways:

  • They're thicker.
  • They utilize a controller chip.

CompactFlash consists of a small circuit board with flash-memory chips and a dedicated controller chip, all encased in a rugged shell that is thicker than a SmartMedia card. CompactFlash cards are 43 mm wide and 36 mm long, and come in two thicknesses: Type I cards are 3.3 mm thick, and Type II cards are 5.5 mm thick.

CompactFlash card

CompactFlash cards support dual voltage and will operate at either 3.3 volts or 5 volts.

The increased thickness of the card allows for greater storage capacity than SmartMedia cards. CompactFlash sizes range from 8 MB to as much as 100GB. The onboard controller can increase performance, particularly in devices that have slow processors. The case and controller chip add size, weight and complexity to the CompactFlash card when compared to the SmartMedia card.

Samsung Electronics shows off the world's first 30-nanometer 64-gigabit Flash memory device.

Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

Flash Memory Standards

Both SmartMedia and CompactFlash, as well as PCMCIA Type I and Type II memory cards, adhere to standards developed by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA). Because of these standards, it is easy to use CompactFlash and SmartMedia products in a variety of devices. You can also buy adapters that allow you to access these cards through a standard floppy drive, USB port or PCMCIA card slot (available in some laptop computers). For example, games for Sony's original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2 are backwards-compatible with the latest console, PlayStation 3, but there is no slot for the memory cards used by the older systems. Gamers who want to import their saved game data on the newest system have to buy an adapter. Sony's Memory Stick is available in a large array of products offered by Sony, and is now showing up in products from other manufacturers as well.

Although standards are flourishing, there are many flash-memory products that are completely proprietary in nature, such as the memory cards in some video game systems. But it is good to know that as electronic components become increasingly interchangeable and are able to communicate with each other (by way of technologies such as Bluetooth), standardized removable memory will allow you to keep your world close at hand.

In September 2006, Samsung announced the development of PRAM -- Phase-change Random Access Memory. This new type of memory combines the fast processing speed of RAM with the non-volatile features of flash memory, leading some to nickname it "Perfect RAM." PRAM is supposed to be 30 times faster than conventional flash memory and have 10 times the lifespan. Samsung plans to make the first PRAM chips commercially available in 2010, with a capacity of 512 MB [source: Numonyx]. They'll probably be used in cell phones and other mobile devices, and may even replace flash memory altogether.

For more information on flash memory, other forms of computer memory and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Gizmodo UK. "Pretec unveils 100GB CompactFlash card: Golly!" Sept. 26, 2008. (Oct. 6, 2008) http://uk.gizmodo.com/2008/09/24/pretec_unveils_100gb_compactfl.html
  • Numonyx. "Intel, STMicroelectronics deliver industry's first phase change memory prototypes." Feb. 6, 2008. (Oct. 10, 2008) http://www.numonyx.com/en-US/About/PressRoom/Releases/Pages/ IntelSTDeliverFirstPCMPrototypes.aspx
  • SuperMediaStore.com. "What is SmartMedia Flash card?" (Oct. 6, 2008) http://www.supermediastore.com/smartmediacard-smart-media-flash-card.html
  • Techtree.com. "Phase change to replace Flash?" Dec. 11, 2006. (Oct. 10, 2008) http://www.techtree.com/India/News/Phase_Change_Memory_to_Replace_Flash/ 551-77782-581.html