Modern computers tend to store all the data they need on their internal storage devices. These can be SSDs or HDDs. In some cases, external or removable media will be used, such as an external HDD, external SSD, USB thumb drive, or CD/DVD. Even video game consoles now prefer internal storage rather than optical disks.
This wasn’t always the case, though. In the early age of computers, the limited technology and the price of those technologies had a range of impacts on system design. Early on, there were two types of storage, ROM and RAM. RAM at the time was incredibly expensive, and ROM was significantly cheaper. Computer design also utilized one flat memory architecture with ROM devices mapped directly into addressable memory space.
Memory cartridges were a form of removable media. They contained ROM and plugged into a computer or games console slot. This way, custom software could be swapped in. One of the advantages of this design was that the ROM memory was now accessible by being directly addressable. This meant that data didn’t need to be copied into expensive RAM to be used.
Optical media such as the CD became an alternative when they were invented. While optical media offered larger capacities, they also weren’t directly addressable. This meant that data held on them needed to be loaded into RAM to be used. While RAM prices were high, this would have been an issue, but it came down over time, making this less of an issue.
CDs could also be produced in smaller batches, reducing economic risk to the makers when presenting new software on niche platforms. With the rising complexity of software and games increasing capacity requirements, the price of RAM dropping, and the possibility of smaller batches, CDs eventually became the preferred method to distribute software and games.
One advantage that CDs couldn’t beat was physical size. CDs apply a minimum size requirement on anything using them. Memory cartridges can be designed in basically any physical form factor, though the technology of the time will provide capacity limitations in certain volumes. This form factor advantage ensured that memory cartridges dominated the handheld gaming segment significantly after they had fallen out of use with computers and game consoles.
Memory cartridges have essentially entirely fallen out of use, even in the gaming segment. This change happened because of the low price of internal storage and memory and the ability to download software via the Internet. The only current holdout is the Nintendo Switch which still uses a memory cartridge. The form factor of this cartridge is now very similar to microSD cards, but they are not the same.
A memory cartridge shouldn’t be confused with a memory card. A cartridge contained Read Only Memory. This enabled it to store software or games but couldn’t be used to save games, for example. After memory cartridges fell out of use, memory cards became a thing. These follow the same physical principles, being an external memory source encased in plastic plugs into a slot. The difference was that these could be written to. This allowed save games to be stored and enabled save game transfers. Games of the time were generally too big to fit on these memory cards.
A memory cartridge is a removable hardware containing Read Only Memory. They were used to distribute software, especially video games, before optical media and the internet superseded them. They were relatively cheap, though they had to be made in large batches.
Memory cartridges were also directly addressable, giving fast loading times as data didn’t need to be copied into RAM, which was in short supply as it was very expensive at the time. Memory cartridges shouldn’t be confused with memory cards that don’t contain software but are user-writable, allowing safe games on game consoles without dedicated internal storage.