A logic gate performs a logical operation on one or more logic inputs and produces a single logic output. The logic normally performed is Boolean logic and is most commonly found in digital circuits. Logic gates are primarily implemented electronically using diodes or transistors, but can also be constructed using electromagnetic relays, fluidics, optics, molecules, or even mechanical elements.

In electronic logic, a logic level is represented by a voltage or current, (which depends on the type of electronic logic in use). Each logic gate requires power so that it can source and sink currents to achieve the correct output voltage. In logic circuit diagrams the power is not shown, but in a full electronic schematic, power connections are required.

The simplest form of electronic logic is diode logic. This allows AND and OR gates to be built, but not inverters, and so is an incomplete form of logic. Further, without some kind of amplification it is not possible to have such basic logic operations cascaded as required for more complex logic functions. To build a functionally complete logic system, relays, valves (vacuum tubes), or transistors can be used. The simplest family of logic gates using bipolar transistors is called resistor-transistor logic, or RTL. Unlike diode logic gates, RTL gates can be cascaded indefinitely to produce more complex logic functions. These gates were used in early integrated circuits. For higher speed, the resistors used in RTL were replaced by diodes, leading to diode-transistor logic, or DTL. It was then discovered that one transistor could do the job of two diodes in the space of one diode even better, by more quickly switching off the following stage, so transistor-transistor logic, or TTL, was created. In virtually every type of contemporary chip implementation of digital systems, the bipolar transistors have been replaced by complementary field-effect transistors (MOSFETs) to reduce size and power consumption still further, thereby resulting in complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) logic.

For small-scale logic, designers now use pre fabricated logic gates from families of devices such as the TTL 7400 series by Texas Instruments and the CMOS 4000 series by RCA, and their more recent descendants. Increasingly, these fixed-function logic gates are being replaced by programmable logic devices, which allow designers to pack a large number of mixed logic gates into a single integrated circuit. The field-programmable nature of programmable logic devices such as FPGAs has removed the ‘hard’ property of hardware; it is now possible to change the logic design of a hardware system by reprogramming some of its components, thus allowing the features or function of a hardware implementation of a logic system to be changed.

Electronic logic gates differ significantly from their relay-and-switch equivalents. They are much faster, consume much less power, and are much smaller (all by a factor of a million or more in most cases). Also, there is a fundamental structural difference. The switch circuit creates a continuous metallic path for current to flow (in either direction) between its input and its output. The semiconductor logic gate, on the other hand, acts as a high-gain voltage amplifier, which sinks a tiny current at its input and produces a low-impedance voltage at its output. It is not possible for current to flow between the output and the input of a semiconductor logic gate.

Another important advantage of standardized integrated circuit logic families, such as the 7400 and 4000 families, is that they are cascadable. This means that the output of one gate can be wired to the inputs of one or several other gates, and so on. Systems of arbitrary complexity can be built without great concern of the designer for the internal workings of the gates, provided the limitations of each integrated circuit are considered.

The output of one gate can only drive a finite number of inputs to other gates, a number called the ‘fan-out limit’. Also, there is always a delay, called the ‘propagation delay’, from a change in input of a gate to the corresponding change in its output. When gates are cascaded, the total propagation delay is approximately the sum of the individual delays, an effect which can become a problem in high-speed circuits. Additional delay can be caused when a large number of inputs are connected to an output, due to the distributed capacitance of all the inputs and wiring and the finite amount of current that each output can provide.

NAND, NOR logic gates are the basic building block of logic gates, in that all other types of Boolean logic gates (i.e., AND, OR, NOT, XOR, XNOR) can be created from a suitable network of just NAND or just NOR gate(s). They can be built from relays or transistors, or any other technology that can create an inverter and a two-input AND or OR gate. Hence the NAND, NOR gates are called the universal gates.