What Is Computer RAM?

Computer RAM, or random-access memory, stores the data your central processor needs to open applications and files. It can handle a lot of work, but if it fills up, your computer will pause until more information can be stored on non-volatile system storage, such as a hard drive or solid-state disk.

Memory is like the top of your desk

Whether you type an email, save a document, or jump into a video game, the work behind it all is your computer’s RAM. RAM is used for immediate data storage and retrieval, processing information twenty to a hundred times faster than data on a hard disk.

When it comes to computing, more RAM makes things easier, faster and better, but it’s not the same thing as storage. Storage is non-volatile, meaning it retains its data even when the system is off, making it suited for long-term storage of files and applications.

As short-term memory, RAM uses transistors and capacitors to quickly turn bits of data on or off — turning a link in a web browser into the web page you see. When you close a program, the information moves from RAM to long-term storage on your hard drive or other storage device. This process is known as paging or swapping, and it’s slow. The more RAM you have, the less paging your computer needs to do.

It’s faster than storage

As a quick-access memory, RAM puts the data it stores right in front of your processor. Without it, your computer would slow down while it searched for the same information on its hard drive (long-term storage).

It isn’t easy to upgrade a laptop’s RAM because it’s soldered onto the motherboard, but you can add more to desktop computers using modular DIMM modules. These come in either soldered-on packages or in sockets that slot into the motherboard.

The amount of RAM you need depends on how you use your computer. For example, a web browser with many tabs open will easily fill up RAM. In such cases, the system may need to “bump” a program out of RAM and into swap memory on the hard disk. This takes more time and slows down your computer. But the more RAM you have, the more programs you can run at once and the faster your system will perform.

It’s more expensive than storage

Despite being used interchangeably by many people, RAM and storage are two different things that have different impacts on your computer. Both are important for your computer’s performance, but they serve very different functions within the system.

Storage is where all data resides at all times, saving it for the long term and remaining there even when your computer is powered down. This would be your hard drive or solid state drives, where all files, programs and games are saved.

Memory, on the other hand, is like your desk space — it only holds temporary items and gets cleared out periodically. This allows your processor to get the information it needs quickly and move on to other tasks. Without this, your processor would spend most of its time trying to find what it needs in the deepest parts of your hard drive, which is not ideal for optimal performance. This slowdown is referred to as paging or swapping.

It’s more expensive than a hard drive

When you type an essay, download a video game or save an image to your computer, it takes up storage space. This internal storage is called a hard drive or solid state drive, but when it comes to speed and functionality memory is the better choice.

The reason is that storing data on your hard drive or SSD takes longer than putting it in RAM. This is because your processor has to read the information from and write back to the storage device every time you change a program.

Adding more RAM to your system will allow it to run programs faster and without pauses or slowdowns. However, for most general users the 8GB that comes with their computer is more than enough. For people who need more power for high-end gaming and video editing, you should consider a healthy 16GB. RAM comes in the form of modules that are either soldered onto the motherboard or in removable DIMMs that slot into a motherboard.