In various types of electronic equipment, a cartridge can refer to one method of adding different functionality or content; for example, a video game played on a video game console; or a method by which consumables may be replenished, such as an ink cartridge for a printer. The term cartridge tends to be applied loosely to a large range of techniques which conform to this general description.
In general the term tends to mean any detachable sub-unit that is held within its own container. The term cassette has a similar meaning. A video game cartridge may also be referred to as a cart or game pak.
The 4-track cartridge and 8-track cartridge are analog music storage formats popular from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Here, a cartridge contains audio tape, thus providing different content using the same player. The plastic outer shell permits ease of handling of the fragile tape, making it far more convenient and robust than having loose or exposed tape.
See main article: ROM cartridge.
A cartridge may be one method of running different software programs within a general purpose computer. This system was popularised by early home computers such as the Atari 400/800 and Commodore 64, where a special bus port was provided for the insertion of cartridges containing software in ROM. In most cases the designs were fairly crude, with the entire address and data buses exposed by the port; the cartridge was memory mapped directly into the system's address space. This type of system was pioneered on earlier home TV game systems, and until recently remained a popular approach with modern games consoles. The advantage of cartridges over other approaches such as loading software from other media is that the software is instantly available, with no loading time, and it is held in a very robust and hence damage-resistant form. However this damage resistance depended on design. While being easier to protect than a CD, which is easily scratched, or a tape, which is easily pulled apart, the chips inside the cartridge could be damaged with enough shock, especially if the case did not keep the chips stable. The exposed contacts could also stop working because of an accumulation of a foreign substance, damage or simple wear.
Notable computers using cartridges in addition to magnetic media were the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, the Atari 8-bit family (400/800/XL/XE), the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (where they were called Solid State Command Modules and weren't directly mapped to the system bus) and the IBM PCjr (where the cartridge was mapped into BIOS space).
From the late 1970s to mid-1990s, the majority of home video game systems were cartridge-based. When CD technology came to be used widely for data storage, most hardware companies moved from cartridges to CD-based game systems, since CD-ROMs were much cheaper to produce and could hold more content. Nintendo remained the lone hold-out, and did not create an optical-media based system until several years later, instead opting to make their next generation system, the Nintendo 64, cartridge-based. This move was questioned by many industry insiders, who argued that cartridge-based games could never be as long or complex as CD based games, such as those found on competitor systems like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn, and that the relatively high manufacturing costs of cartridges compared to optical media would make cartridge based systems uncompetitive on price. The economic consequences Nintendo suffered as a result of this gamble are often regarded as marking the end of cartridge-based home gaming systems. However, despite the smaller storage capacity, Nintendo 64 cartridges enabled faster load times and stronger copy-protection features compared to its competitors.
By 2001, improved loading times for disc-based games led Nintendo to release its next gaming system, the GameCube, with a proprietary mini DVD-based format that had greater copy-protection than the standard DVD.Games cartridge capacities are often misquoted. Although the '90s practice of citing memory capacity in 'megs'—deliberately not drawing the distinction between megabits and megabytes—has now disappeared, games software cartridges are still often described as '512 megabit' instead of the more meaningful '64 megabyte', for example.
One early form of automatic washing machine manufactured by Hoover used cartridges to programme different wash cycles. This system, called the Keymatic, used plastic cartridges with key-like slots and ridges around the edges. The cartridge was inserted into a slot on the machine and a mechanical reader operated the machine accordingly. The system did not really take off, since it offered no real advantage over the more conventional programme dial, and the cartridges were prone to getting lost. In hindsight it can be seen as a marketing gimmick rather than offering any really useful functionality.
One of the common issues with cartridge based systems was when foreign objects would get between the cartridge and the slot. This was usually something small such as dust or a piece of material.
As a result, the easiest solution was often to simply blow into the slot/cartridge. This often solved simple blockage issues. However, this method can also damage a cartridge in the long run, due to the fact that the moisture in a person's breath can corrode the connectors. A better solution for this problem is to use a solution of isopropyl alcohol to clean the contacts without the risk of corrosion.