The term real-time clock is used to avoid confusion with ordinary hardware clocks which are only signals that govern digital electronics, and do not count time in human units. RTC should not be confused with real-time computing, which shares its three-letter acronym but does not directly relate to time of day.
Although keeping time can be done without an RTC, using one has benefits:
- Low power consumption (important when running from alternate power)
- Frees the main system for time-critical tasks
- Sometimes more accurate than other methods
A GPS receiver can shorten its startup time by comparing the current time, according to its RTC, with the time at which it last had a valid signal. If it has been less than a few hours, then the previous ephemeris is still usable.
RTCs often have an alternate source of power, so they can continue to keep time while the primary source of power is off or unavailable. This alternate source of power is normally a lithium battery in older systems, but some newer systems use a supercapacitor, because they are rechargeable and can be soldered. The alternate power source can also supply power to battery backed RAM.
Most RTCs use a crystal oscillator, but some use the power line frequency. In many cases, the oscillator's frequency is 32.768 kHz. This is the same frequency used in quartz clocks and watches, and for the same reasons, namely that the frequency is exactly 215 cycles per second, which is a convenient rate to use with simple binary counter circuits.
The RTC was introduced to PC compatibles by the IBM PC/AT in 1984, which used a Motorola MC146818 RTC. Later, Dallas Semiconductor made compatible RTCs, which were often used in older personal computers, and are easily found on motherboards because of their distinctive black battery cap and silkscreened logo.
Some CPUs (and oftentimes CPU motherboards) are made without real time clocks. The real time clock is omitted either out of the desire to save money (as in the Raspberry Pi system architecture) or because real time clocks may not be needed at all (as in the Arduino system architecture).
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- Media related to Real-time clocks at Wikimedia Commons