Flash memory is a type of constantly-powered nonvolatile memory that can be erased and reprogrammed in units of memory called blocks. It is a variation of electrically erasable programmable read-only memory (EEPROM) which, unlike flash memory, is erased and rewritten at the byte level, which is slower than flash memory updating.
Flash memory is often used to hold control code such as the basic input/output system (BIOS) in a personal computer. When BIOS needs to be changed (rewritten), the flash memory can be written to in block (rather than byte) sizes, making it easy to update. On the other hand, flash memory is not useful as random access memory (RAM) because RAM needs to be addressable at the byte (not the block) level.
Flash memory gets its name because the microchip is organized so that a section of memory cells are erased in a single action or "flash." The erasure is caused by Fowler-Nordheim tunneling in which electrons pierce through a thin dielectric material to remove an electronic charge from a floating gate associated with each memory cell. Intel offers a form of flash memory that holds two bits (rather than one) in each memory cell, thus doubling the capacity of memory without a corresponding increase in price.
Flash memory is used in digital cellular phones, digital cameras, LAN switches, PC Cards for notebook computers, digital set-up boxes, embedded controllers, and other devices.
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