Star Trek starships are massive, incredibly advanced pieces of technology, with a lot of that technology being handwaved most of the time, but references to it cropping up in dialogue frequently throughout the lifetime of the frachise.

I know that Voyager at the very least made reference to some type of data gel packs being used as computational hardware of some kind, but what about the other starships that we see?

In brief, what type of computer systems/data storage/processing equipment are used by:

  • Enterprise (from Enterprise)
  • Enterprise B (from ToS and TaS)
  • Enterprise D (from TNG)
  • Voyager (From Voyager)
  • DS9 (From DS9)
  • Any other computational hardware that might be of interest

I realize that the last one is a Cardassian space station rather than a Federation one, and that a number of them are unlisted (or listed in the 'other' category), but primarily what I'm concerned with is - what makes the computer aboard Star Trek spaceships tick?

SPECIFIC NOTE: I'm referring here to the hardware aspect of these systems, rather than software.


In Enterprise (Enterprise NX-01) the actual hardware of the computer is unknown (presumably a near extrapolation of current systems); however, the Chief Engineer says that it is the most advanced computer of its time and is three decks tall.

By The Original Series most computers of the era use Duotronics, which succeeded the use of transistors and resistors.

In the era of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, all Starfleet vessels had primary computer systems based upon Isolinear technology. The station Deep Space Nine also used isolinear technology, with rods and co-processors, which implies the Cardassians used similar technology (also seen in VOY:Dreadnought).

Voyager also had bio-neural circuitry, which used organic components to supplement, and for some systems replace, the isolinear circuits.

Regarding computer interfaces, before The Next Generation nearly all computer interaction was done via mechanical switches and purpose-built readout displays and screens. In some instances voice commands could be used, typically when running library searches from special terminals.

By the time of The Next Generation, Starfleet vessels used LCARS (Library Computer Access and Retrieval System) for all interfaces, verbal and tactile, with mechanical switches being replaced by user configurable, touch sensitive control panels.

  • This is exactly the sort of info I was looking for actually. Thank you.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 2 '14 at 19:59
  • Isolinear chips are also the main storage media in the 24th century. E.g. they're the solid state storage on PADDs (the 24th century tablet/ebook reader), and they're also what Worf has his Klingon opera collection on. Less common are data crystals, such as the one used by Arissa (Odo's troubled love interest from the Orion Syndicate) that she reads with her dataport. Apr 2 '14 at 20:40
  • @Lèsemajesté "Isolinear" seems to more like the material name that all those items are made of. As if we called our current computer technology "Silicon". Silicon processors, circuits, sticks, etc, instead of CPUs, ICs and Flash.
    – Xantec
    Apr 2 '14 at 20:44
  • 1
    @Xantac: I don't know. I get the feeling that it's more like a type of circuitry technology, e.g. integrated circuitry/semiconductor technology. Integrated circuits can be used for memory storage, but they can also be used for processors. So once isolinear circuitry was developed, they were also used for memory storage, authorization rods, and chips/processors. Apr 2 '14 at 21:28
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    @Xantec Think of it like "flash drives", they can hold both code and data, and "flash" actually refers to how it's constructed. Such technical details regularly leak out if they sound neat ;)
    – Izkata
    Apr 2 '14 at 23:13

Federation computers in TNG seem to use some semiconductor/metal based substrate for computation. In the episode Evolution where nanobots are let loose by the boy wonder, they start to consume the computational core of the computer, and this rules out exotic substances or even organic ones. It is unclear how the Federation has subverted the end of Moore's law if this is the case however (which will happen to us within at most, decades).

It is possible that they utilize some quantum computational trick, which may actually be possible with mundane materials. Or it may be that running a starship such as theirs is possible with computers not so distant from our own capability level. It's difficult to speculate.

We do know that they are binary in nature, from several different episodes (the Bynars use binary, and no mention is made of the Enterprise using something profoundly different). They aren't using the 8 bit word (byte), or any obvious multiple of it. This itself isn't all that shocking, even in the United States in the last few decades we've had machines that used all sorts of word-lengths... DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) was doing so well into the 1970s.

It's difficult to say with certainty, but the TNG computers probably do not use the Von Neumann architecture (which is what our CPUs use currently, almost nothing else). They may use the Harvard architecture (used commercially by only a few microcontrollers I can think of) or some variation. I say this because they seem absolutely naive about many different computer security implications that are a real problem today, and I suspect this is because those sorts of hacking attacks just aren't possible with their machines. I do not believe these are solvable entirely in software, either, though that would be contentious from a compsci point of view.

Also, we can tell from their database terminology that it is almost certainly not based on RDBMS concepts that we have today. They have way too much encyclopedic information at their fingertips, and use terms like "data stores" and the like.

Storage-wise, they're almost certainly able to do a single-bit-per particle/atom, and maybe even higher densities. The Enterprise has capacities that one must imagine to be in the exabytes or higher, and without the warehouse-sized server rooms that would require today.

The "neural gel packs" and so forth in Voyager were the result of bad writing, someone was on a search for new technobabble that week and pulled something plausible-sounding out of a Popular Science article. It's implausible that they would be experimenting with that at that point in the time, it should have happened centuries earlier in Star Trek' timeline or not at all, and it's also implausible that they'd be facing some sort of Moore's-Law-esque looming obstacle after having taken more mundane techologies so far.

  • 1
    Federation computers seems to use some sort of "trinary syntax", possibly for encryption, it's hard to tell from the context in the episode (VOY:Hope and Fear).
    – Xantec
    Apr 2 '14 at 20:55
  • @Xantec Trinary? Really? Huh..and here I thought only Iji ever made use of that.
    – Zibbobz
    Apr 3 '14 at 13:12
  • @Xantec Might be an interesting read: "Three-valued logic" on Wikipedia
    – Izkata
    Apr 4 '14 at 4:03
  • @Izkata Yea, three-valued logic is interesting. I imagine it is quite useful with quantum systems.
    – Xantec
    Apr 4 '14 at 4:20

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