Transistor ratings and packages
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Like all electrical and electronic components, transistors are limited in the amounts of voltage and current they can handle without sustaining damage. Since transistors are a bit more complex than some of the other components you're used to seeing at this point, they tend to have more kinds of ratings. What follows is an itemized description of some typical transistor ratings.
Power dissipation: When a transistor conducts current between collector and emitter, it also drops voltage between those two points. At any given time, the power dissipated by a transistor is equal to the product (multiplication) of collector current and collector-emitter voltage. Just like resistors, transistors are rated in terms of how many watts they can safely dissipate without sustaining damage. High temperature is the mortal enemy of all semiconductor devices, and bipolar transistors tend to be more susceptible to thermal damage than most. Power ratings are always given in reference to the temperature of ambient (surrounding) air. When transistors are to be used in hotter-than-normal environments, their power ratings must be derated to avoid a shortened service life.
Reverse voltages: As with diodes, bipolar transistors are rated for maximum allowable reverse-bias voltage across their PN junctions. This includes voltage ratings for the base-emitter junction, base-collector junction, and also from collector to emitter. The rating for maximum collector-emitter voltage can be thought of in terms of the maximum voltage it can withstand while in full-cutoff mode (no base current). This rating is of particular importance when using a bipolar transistor as a switch.
Collector current: A maximum value for collector current will be given by the manufacturer in amps. Understand that this maximum figure assumes a saturated state (minimum collector-emitter voltage drop). If the transistor is not saturated, and in fact is dropping substantial voltage between collector and emitter, the maximum power dissipation rating will probably be exceeded before the maximum collector current rating will. Just something to keep in mind when designing a transistor circuit!Saturation voltages: Ideally, a saturated transistor acts as a closed switch contact between collector and emitter, dropping zero voltage at full collector current. In reality this is never true. Manufacturers will specify the maximum voltage drop of a transistor at saturation, both between the collector and emitter, and also between base and emitter (forward voltage drop of that PN junction). Collector-emitter voltage drop at saturation is generally expected to be 0.3 volts or less, but this figure is of course dependent on the specific type of transistor. Base-emitter forward voltage drop is very similar to that of an equivalent diode, which should come as no surprise.
Beta: The ratio of collector current to base current, β is the fundamental parameter characterizing the amplifying ability of a bipolar transistor. β is usually assumed to be a constant figure in circuit calculations, but unfortunately this is far from true in practice. As such, manufacturers provide a set of β (or "hfe") figures for a given transistor over a wide range of operating conditions, usually in the form of maximum/minimum/typical ratings. It may surprise you to see just how widely β can be expected to vary within normal operating limits. One popular small-signal transistor, the 2N3903, is advertised as having a β ranging from 15 to 150 depending on the amount of collector current. Generally, β is highest for medium collector currents, decreasing for very low and very high collector currents.
Alpha: the ratio of collector current to emitter current, α may be derived from β, being equal to β/(β+1).
Bipolar transistors come in a wide variety of physical packages. Package type is primarily dependent upon the power dissipation of the transistor, much like resistors: the greater the maximum power dissipation, the larger the device has to be to stay cool. There are several standardized package types for three-terminal semiconductor devices, any of which may be used to house a bipolar transistor. This is an important fact to consider: there are many other semiconductor devices other than bipolar transistors which have three connection points. It is impossible to positively identify a three-terminal semiconductor device without referencing the part number printed on it, and/or subjecting it to a set of electrical tests.