The adjacent image shows what happens when an input is connected to both a PMOS transistor (top of diagram) and an NMOS transistor (bottom of diagram). Vdd is some positive voltage connected to a power supply and Vss is ground. A is the input and Q is the output.

When the voltage of A is low (i.e. close to Vss), the NMOS transistor's channel is in a high resistance state, disconnecting Vss from Q. The PMOS transistor's channel is in a low resistance state, connecting Vdd to Q. Q, therefore, registers Vdd.

On the other hand, when the voltage of A is high (i.e. close to Vdd), the PMOS transistor is in a high resistance state, disconnecting Vdd from Q. The NMOS transistor is in a low resistance state, connecting Vss to Q. Now, Q registers Vss.

In short, the outputs of the PMOS and NMOS transistors are complementary such that when the input is low, the output is high, and when the input is high, the output is low. No matter what the input is, the output is never left floating (charge is never stored due to wire capacitance and lack of electrical drain/ground). Because of this behavior of input and output, the CMOS circuit's output is the inverse of the input.

The transistors' resistances are never exactly equal to zero or infinity, so Q will never exactly equal Vss or Vdd, but Q will always be closer to Vss than A was to Vdd (or vice versa if A were close to Vss). Without this amplification, there would be a very low limit to the number of logic gates that could be chained together in series, and CMOS logic with billions of transistors would be impossible.

An advantage of CMOS over NMOS logic is that both low-to-high and high-to-low output transitions are fast since the (PMOS) pull-up transistors have low resistance when switched on, unlike the load resistors in NMOS logic. In addition, the output signal swings the full voltage between the low and high rails. This strong, more nearly symmetric response also makes CMOS more resistant to noise.

See Logical effort for a method of calculating delay in a CMOS circuit.

Cross section of two transistors in a CMOS gate, in an N-well CMOS process

Static CMOS gates are very power efficient because they dissipate nearly zero power when idle. Earlier, the power consumption of CMOS devices was not the major concern while designing chips. Factors like speed and area dominated the design parameters. As the CMOS technology moved below sub-micron levels the power consumption per unit area of the chip has risen tremendously.

Broadly classifying, power dissipation in CMOS circuits occurs because of two components, static and dynamic:

SiO2 is a good insulator, but at very small thickness levels electrons can tunnel across the very thin insulation; the probability drops off exponentially with oxide thickness. Tunnelling current becomes very important for transistors below 130 nm technology with gate oxides of 20 Å or thinner.

Small reverse leakage currents are formed due to formation of reverse bias between diffusion regions and wells (for e.g., p-type diffusion vs. n-well), wells and substrate (for e.g., n-well vs. p-substrate). In modern process diode leakage is very small compared to sub threshold and tunnelling currents, so these may be neglected during power calculations.

This form of power consumption became significant in the 1990s as wires on chip became narrower and the long wires became more resistive. CMOS gates at the end of those resistive wires see slow input transitions. Careful design which avoids weakly driven long skinny wires reduces this effect, but crowbar power can be a substantial part of dynamic CMOS power.