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The phrase "plug and play" commonly refers to different types of electronic hardware that can be plugged in and used, typically without any other intervening steps. Some plug and play computer hardware can be connected at any time, whether the computer is on or off. This type of hardware is then automatically discovered and installed, often without requiring any further actions from the user, such as installing software or downloading drivers. The same term is also used in many other industries to refer to components that are easily installed into a system, such as televisions that include special hardware that is capable of descrambling digital cable signals. In another context, all-in-one systems that contain game software and hardware in a single unit are sometimes called plug and play video games.
Plug and play is a concept that has a long history in the computing industry. The term initially referred to expansion cards and other peripherals that could be installed without any manual configuration. At that time expansion cards typically had dual in-line package (DIP) switches that needed to be set manually before a device could work properly. Beginning in the 1980s, some computer manufacturers started to use hardware that allowed components to be simply plugged in and used. These systems used a type of automatic configuration that was capable of determining memory addresses and other settings, which is a feature that most modern computers now share.
Many other computer peripherals are also referred to as having plug and play capability, which is sometimes used interchangeably with the term "hot plugging." These components can be plugged in at any time, even if the computer is already running. If the device is compatible, the operating system (OS) will recognize it and install it if a driver is available. The only interaction that the user is required to perform is to provide a driver if the OS cannot find one.
Other industries also use the term plug and play to describe equipment that has similar characteristics. Many cable companies offer compatibility with a common descrambling technology that can be found in certain televisions and devices such as digital video disc (DVD) players. Since these devices can be plugged into the system without any modifications, they are often said to be plug and play.
All-in-one video game devices are sometimes also referred to by this term. These devices typically use hardware and software from earlier video game generations, since the older technology can be relatively inexpensive to reproduce. The hardware and software is combined together in a single unit that also includes a controller, which can be plugged into a television and played without any additional equipment.