The actual size of zero page in bytes is determined by the microprocessor design and in older designs, is often equal to the largest value that can be referenced by the processor's indexing registers. For example, the aforementioned 6502's index registers' size is 8 bits and the page size is 256 bytes. Therefore, zero page extends from address 0 to address 255.
In early computers, including the PDP-8, the zero page had a special fast addressing mode, which facilitated its use for temporary storage of data and compensated for the relative shortage of CPU registers. The PDP-8 had only one register, so zero page addressing was essential.
Possibly unimaginable by computer users after the 1980s, computer RAM used to be faster than or as fast as the CPU during the 1970s. Thus it made sense to have few registers and use the main memory as an extended pool of extra registers. Since each memory location within the zero page of a 16-bit address bus computer may be addressed by a single byte, it was faster, in 8-bit data bus machines, to access such a location rather than a non-zero page location.
For example, the MOS Technology 6502 has only one general purpose register (the accumulator). As a result, it used the zero page extensively. Many instructions are coded differently for zero page and non-zero page addresses:
LDA $00 ; zero page
LDA $0000 ; non-zero page
The above two instructions both accomplish the same thing: they load the value of memory location $00 into the .A register (accumulator). However, the first instruction is only two bytes long and requires three clock cycles to complete. The second instruction is three bytes in length and requires four clock cycles to execute. Obviously, the difference in execution time could significantly improve performance in repetitive code.
Zero page addressing now has mostly historical significance, since the developments in integrated circuit technology have made adding more registers to a CPU less expensive, and have made CPU operations much faster than RAM accesses. Some computer architectures still reserve the beginning of address space for other purposes, though; for instance, the Intel x86 systems reserve the first 512 words of address space for the interrupt table if it runs in realmode.
In fact, quite contrary to the zero page's original preferential use, some modern operating systems such as Linux and Microsoft Windows actually make the zero page inaccessible to trap uses of NULL pointers. This is useful, as NULL pointers are the method used to represent the value of a reference that points to nothing. Since code operating on a reference will be written assuming it that the reference actually refers to some valid structure or value, catching the case where the reference points to nothing is of use since it is a sure sign of a bug.
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