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Switched Tells You How to Take RAM by the Horns

Part of being a good user and consumer is understanding how technology works, why we use it the way we do, and what the barrage of acronyms and PR jargon means. We're here to help you make sense of it all and give you a better appreciation for how that pile of transistors, pixels, and antennas works together to deliver the conveniences of the modern world to your living room or office.

What Is RAM?

We're sure that you all know RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and that more of it is good. But do you really know what it is, how it works, and why exactly having more of it makes your computer seem to work faster?

The simplest way to describe RAM is as temporary storage. Any data your computer is currently crunching is loaded into RAM to be processed and read. This includes your operating system, programs being run, and files being accessed. You may be wondering, why, if all of this information is stored on your hard drive, does the computer need to load it into RAM? The issue is speed. Imagine you have a small file cabinet in your office and another, much larger file archive in a storage room. RAM is that small file cabinet, keeping important and immediately needed information on hand. If you had to go down to the storage room every time you needed to read something, you would do your job very slowly. Well, the same is the case with a computer.

So Why Is More Better?

Having more memory makes your PC faster, or, at least, seem faster. With more RAM, a computer can work on more information concurrently, giving a particular boost to multi-tasking performance. This is because if the RAM becomes full, your computer will transfer the oldest (but still active) data to a swap file (sometimes called virtual memory), which is temporarily stored on the hard drive. Reading and writing to this file will predictably make switching between tasks slower. Increasing your RAM will allow you to "swap" data between the hard drive and memory less often.

What Makes It Random?

"Random access" refers to the way in which data is retrieved. Information can be read directly from RAM, regardless of where it is physically located, and this is part of what makes RAM faster than other storage media. DVDs and hard disks, for instance, must physically seek out the location of data before reading it.

So Why Not Use RAM to Store Files Instead of Hard Disks?

There are disadvantages to RAM as a storage medium. For one, it is far more expensive than more archival formats like hard drives. While a 1-terabyte hard disk can be purchased for as little as $100, an equal amount of modern DDR2 (second generation double data rate) RAM would cost in excess of $25,000. Secondly (as if you needed a "secondly"), RAM is a "volatile" storage solution, meaning that when power is cut to it, all stored information is lost. Other media, like CDs, flash drives, and hard disks, continue to store information regardless, but RAM requires electricity to function.

Now armed with this knowledge, we hope you have a better understanding of what exactly RAM is, it's function, and why more is better, but only if you can actually make use of it all.

Tags: features, inanutshell, ram, random access memory, RandomAccessMemory, top

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