ROM Chip Types

The four main types of ROM chips that have been used in PCs are as follows:

  • ROM. Read-only memory

  • PROM. Programmable ROM

  • EPROM. Erasable PROM

  • EEPROM. Electrically erasable PROM, also sometimes called a flash ROM

No matter which type of ROM your system uses, the data stored in a ROM chip is nonvolatile and remains indefinitely unless intentionally erased or overwritten (in those cases where that is possible).

ROM (True or Mask ROM)

Originally, most ROMs were manufactured with the binary data (0s and 1s) already "cast in" or integrated into the die. The die represents the actual silicon chip itself. These are called Mask ROMs because the data is formed into the mask from which the ROM die is photolithographically produced.

This type of manufacturing method is economical if you are making hundreds of thousands of ROMs with the same information. If you must change a single bit, however, you must remake the mask, which is an expensive proposition. Because of costs and inflexibility, nobody uses Mask ROMs anymore.

Mask ROMs are exactly analogous to prerecorded CD-ROMs. Some people think a CD-ROM is first manufactured as a blank and then the data is written to it by a laser, but that is not true.

A CD-ROM is literally a piece of plastic that is stamped in a press, and the data is directly molded in, not written. The only actual recording is done with the master disc from which the molds or stamps are made.


PROMs are a type of ROM that is blank when new and that must be programmed with whatever data you want. The PROM was invented in the late 1970s by Texas Instruments and has been available in sizes from 1KB (8Kb) to 2MB (16Mb) or more.

They can be identified by their part numbers, which usually are 27nnnn—where the 27 indicates the TI type PROM and the nnnn indicates the size of the chip in kilobits (not bytes). For example, most PCs that used PROMs came with 27512 or 271000 chips, which indicate 512Kb (64KB) or 1Mb (128KB).

Although we say these chips are blank when new, they are technically preloaded with binary 1s. In other words, a 1Mb ROM chip used in a PC would come with 1 million (actually 1,048,576) bit locations, each containing a binary 1. A blank PROM can then be programmed, which is the act of writing to it.

This usually requires a special machine called a device programmer, ROM programmer, or ROM burner, see figure 1 below.

Typical gang (multi-socket) device programmer (PROM burner).

Programming the ROM is sometimes referred to as burning it because that is technically an apt description of the process. Each binary 1 bit can be thought of as a fuse, which is intact. Most chips run on 5 volts, but when a PROM is programmed, a higher voltage (normally 12 volts) is placed at the various addresses within the chip.

This higher voltage actually blows or burns the fuses at the desired locations, thus turning any given 1 into a 0. Although you can turn a 1 into a 0, you should note that the process is irreversible; that is, you can't turn a 0 back into a 1.

The device programmer examines the program you want to write into the chip and then selectively changes only the 1s to 0s where necessary in the chip.

PROM chips are often referred to as OTP (one-time programmable) chips for this reason. They can be programmed once and never erased. Most PROMs are very inexpensive—about $3 for a typical PC motherboard PROM—so if you want to change the program in a PROM, you discard it and program a fresh one with the new data.

The act of programming a PROM takes anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the size of the chip and the algorithm used by the programming device. Figure 1 shows an illustration of a typical PROM programmer that has multiple sockets.

This is called a gang programmer and can program several chips at once, saving time if you have several chips to write with the same data. Less expensive programmers are available with only one socket, which is fine for most individual use.

I use and recommend a very inexpensive programmer from a company called Andromeda Research Labs (see the Vendor List on the DVD). Besides being economical, its unit has the advantage of connecting to a PC via the parallel port for fast and easy data transfer of files between the PC and programming unit.

The unit is also portable and comes built into a convenient carrying case. It is operated by a menu-driven program you install on the connected PC.

The program contains several features, including a function that enables you to read the data from a chip and save it in a file on your system, as well as write a chip from a data file, verify that a chip matches a file, and verify that a chip is blank before programming begins. A low-cost BIOS backup option makes backing up the flash BIOS chip in your system easy (if it is removable) as a safeguard against disaster.


One variation of the PROM that has been very popular is the EPROM. An EPROM is a PROM that is erasable. An EPROM chip can be easily recognized by the clear quartz crystal window set in the chip package directly over the die.

An EPROM showing the quartz window for ultraviolet erasing

You can actually see the die through the window! EPROMs have the same 27xxxx part-numbering scheme as the standard PROM, and they are functionally and physically identical except for the clear quartz window above the die.

The purpose of the window is to allow ultraviolet light to reach the chip die because the EPROM is erased by exposure to intense UV light. The window is quartz crystal because regular glass blocks UV light. You can't get a suntan through a glass window!

The UV light erases the chip by causing a chemical reaction, which essentially melts the fuses back together. Thus, any binary 0s in the chip become 1s, and the chip is restored to a new condition with binary 1s in all locations.

To work, the UV exposure must be at a specific wavelength (2,537 angstroms), at a fairly high intensity (12,000 uw/cm2), in close proximity (2cm–3cm, or about 1''), and last for between 5 and 15 minutes duration. An EPROM eraser is a device that contains a UV light source (usually a sunlamp-type bulb) above a sealed compartment drawer in which you place the chip or chips.

A professional-type EPROM eraser that can handle up to 50 chips at a time. I use a much smaller and less expensive one called the DataRase by Walling Co. This device erases up to four chips at a time and is both economical and portable.

The current version is called DataRase II; the DataRase II and similar products are sold by many vendors of EPROM programming equipment. The quartz crystal window on an EPROM typically is covered by tape, which prevents accidental exposure to UV light.

UV light is present in sunlight, of course, and even in standard room lighting, so that over time a chip exposed to the light can begin to degrade. For this reason, after a chip is programmed, you should put a sticker over the window to protect it.


A newer type of ROM is the EEPROM, which stands for electrically erasable PROM. These chips are also called flash ROMs and are characterized by their capability to be erased and reprogrammed directly in the circuit board they are installed in, with no special equipment required.

By using an EEPROM, or flash ROM, you can erase and reprogram the motherboard ROM in a PC without removing the chip from the system or even opening up the system chassis.

With a flash ROM or EEPROM, you don't need a UV eraser or device programmer to program or erase chips. Not only do virtually all PC motherboards built since 1994 use flash ROMs or EEPROMs, but most automobiles built since then use them as well. For example, my 1994 Chevy Impala SS has a PCM with an integral flash ROM.

The EEPROM or flash ROM can be identified by a 28xxxx or 29xxxx part number, as well as by the absence of a window on the chip. Having an EEPROM or a flash ROM in your PC motherboard means you now can easily upgrade the motherboard ROM without having to swap chips.

In most cases, you download the updated ROM from the motherboard manufacturer's Web site and then run a special program it provides to update the ROM. I recommend that you periodically check with your motherboard manufacturer to see whether an updated BIOS is available for your system.

An updated BIOS might contain bug fixes or enable new features not originally found in your system. You might find fixes for IDE hard drive support over 8.4GB or new drivers to support booting from LS-120 (120MB floppy) drives or USB drives.

These days, many objects with embedded computers controlling them are using flash ROMs. Pretty soon you'll be taking your toaster in for flash ROM upgrades as well! Other devices might have flash ROMs as well; for example, I have updated the flash ROMs in my 3Com ISDN terminal adapter as well as in my Kodak digital camera.

Both these items had minor quirks that were fixed by updating their internal ROM code, which was as easy as downloading a file from their respective Web sites and running the update program included in the file.

Flash ROMs are also frequently used to add new capabilities to peripherals or to update peripherals, such as modems or rewriteable DVD or CD drives, to the latest standards; for example, updating a modem from X2 or K56Flex to V.90 or V.92 or adding support for the latest types of media to a rewriteable drive.