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Read-only memory

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Read-only memory or ROM is used as a storage medium in computers. Because it cannot (easily) be written to, its main uses lie in the distribution of software that is very closely related to a certain hardware, and not likely to need upgrading. For example a graphics card may implement some basic functionality through software contained on a ROM.

There is a trend to put less and less software into static ROMs, and more on disk storage, making changes easier. Home computers in the 1980s came with their complete operating system in ROM. There was no alternative the drives were generally optional. Upgrading to a newer version meant using either a soldering iron or a set of DIP sockets and replacing the old ROM chip with a new one. By the 2000s operating system are not generally on ROM anymore. They may still rely on some software in ROMs, but even that is more likely to reside on a Flash-ROM (see below). Mobile phones and personal digital assistants are likely to have software in ROM (or at least flash memory). Video game consoles use ROM based software include the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, the N64, and the Game Boy. Such ROMs are sealed into plastic cases suitable for handling and repeated insertion, known as cartridges or "carts" (or "Game Pak" if you are Nintendo). By extension ROM may also refer to a data file that contains an image of the software normally distributed in a ROM, such as a copy of a video game cartridge (often a violation of copyright or sui generis mask work rights unless your jurisdiction has a fair use protection).

One reason why some data still sits in ROMs is speed -- disks are an order of magnitude slower. Even more important, though, is that you cannot read software that is needed to drive a disk from the disk itself -- see bootstrap. Hence the BIOS or a bootloader for a computer is often on ROM.

Classic ROM chips are written to during production and cannot change content afterwards.

  • PROMs (Programmable Read-Only Memory) can be written to (programmed) via a special device, a PROM programmer. The writing often takes the form of destroying internal links with the result that a PROM can only be programmed once.
  • EPROMs (Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory) can be erased by exposure to ultraviolet light then rewritten via an EPROM programmer. Repeated exposure to ultraviolet light will eventually destroy the EPROM but it generally takes many exposures before the EPROM becomes unusable.
  • Flash memory or EEPROMs (Electrically Erasable Read-Only Memory) can be electrically erased then written to (flashed) without taking them out of the computer. Flashing is much slower than writing to RAM (Random Access Memory) (or reading from any ROM).

RAM can be read faster than most ROMs, therefore ROM content that is used often is sometimes copied to RAM (shadowed).



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