Flash Memory

Many computer users have discovered the convenience of carrying a flash memory drive on a keychain. With this solid-state product, information moves quickly from one device to another. Other common examples of flash memory usage include digital camera cards and video game memory cards. The technology behind flash memory allows for easy offline data transfer and storage.

Three Facts about Flash Memory

  • While some devices lose data with a power connection, flash memory devices do not require an electrical charge to retain their information.
  • The “flash” label comes from the way these devices imprint information. Engineers said it reminded them of the flash on a camera.
  • There are two types of flash drives: NAND and NOR. The arrangement of memory cells on the device distinguishes the two.
Flash memory - USB stick
USB stick being repaired by repairman. USB sticks are one of the applications of flash memory. Image: iStock

Flash Memory: A Brief History

The floating gate transistor technology that is the basis for flash storage has been around since the late 1950s. However, it was not until 1980 that Fujio Masuoka, an engineer working for Toshiba, discovered a practical way to harness it for data storage. Over the next few years, he developed the NAND and NOR forms of flash memory that support countless devices today. Since its invention, flash storage has continued to improve both in performance and data capacity.

Flash Memory: How It Worked

Before the invention of flash memory, most data storage happened on magnetic devices like hard or floppy disks. These storage devices worked well with early PCs. However, as processing speeds increased, users discovered the speed limitations of magnetic media. The time it took to read and write data began to impact performance.

Flash memory uses solid-state electronic technology to improve data storage. Instead of writing information through magnetic flux, these devices employ an electric charge to write bytes as 1s and 0s. Each memory cell is a type of floating gate transistor that opens or closes depending on its value.

The two types of flash memory are NAND and NOR. They were developed by the same team at Toshiba over four years. Memory cards and thumb drives are examples of external devices that work with NAND technology. The memory cell arrangement in NOR technology lends itself to internal memory uses.

NAND Flash Memory

NAND flash technology involves transistors arranged in a series. To access a specific memory cell, the device first selects the relevant group which gives access to the cell. Using blocks of memory allows for faster reading and data transfer. NAND drives also remove data in blocks.

The serial transistor organization gives NAND memory a higher storage capacity. Today, consumers can easily find USB drives with 256GB of storage, with some companies offering 1TB models.

NAND Flash Memory
Flash drive with NAND component plugged into a computer during a data recovery attempt. Image: Shutterstock

NOR Flash Memory

NOR technology arrived a few years after NAND. NOR memory cells have individual connections to the circuit. This arrangement leads to more precise access to bits and faster reading times.

NOR flash memory works similarly to RAM. For this reason, engineers employ NOR memory to execute code for improved device performance.

NOR memory devices have a smaller data capacity due to the memory cell arrangement. However, they tend to be more stable and precise.

Flash Memory: Historical Significance

Before cloud-based computing, users had limited options for portable data storage. The simplicity and size of flash memory devices led to the downfall of floppy disks for the consumer market. Flash drives were less volatile and more portable.

The introduction of solid-state technology led to several design changes. Devices could be smaller when they did not have to include magnetic or optical drives. Because solid-state storage did not involve moving parts, new products were also quieter and less expensive to manufacture.

As the data capacity has increased, solid-state technology has become the standard tool for data storage. There are many examples of devices that employ flash technology for both improved data storage and performance such as tablets, smartphones, and video game consoles.

Flash Memory FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

When was flash memory invented?

Engineers at Toshiba developed the two types of flash memory over four years. NAND technology arrived in 1980 but did not enter the commercial market until 1987. Toshiba developed NOR flash technology in 1984, and it entered the commercial market in 1988.

What is flash memory?

Flash memory is a type of solid-state data storage that is less volatile than magnetic or optical drives. The technology uses an electric charge to open and close memory cells for fast data transfer, storage, and erasure.

Is flash memory the same as RAM?

NOR flash technology can operate in a way similar to RAM. However, most devices use flash memory for storage and RAM for calculations and processing.

Are flash memory and SSD the same?

SSDs frequently use flash storage technology to write data. However, an SSD is an application of flash memory and may incorporate other types of technology.

Who invented flash memory?

Credit for both types of flash technology belongs to Fujio Masuoka of the Toshiba Corporation.

How does flash memory work?

A flash storage drive uses transistors to open and close memory cells through an electric charge. In NAND technology, a series of transistors stores information in related blocks. NOR technology involves blocks of memory cells with individual access to the data source. Both NAND and NOR erase blocks of data for rewriting.

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