Random Access Memory (RAM)

Random access memory (RAM) is a high-speed component in devices that temporarily stores all information a device needs for the present and future. It’s a type of computer memory that can be randomly accessed, meaning any byte of memory can be accessed without touching the preceding bytes. RAM is found in servers, PCs, tablets, smartphones, backup drives, and other devices. In today’s technology, RAM takes the form of integrated circuit chips with metal-oxide-semiconductor (MOS) memory cells.

The speed and performance of a system is directly correlated with the amount of RAM installed.

RAM stores the information a computer is actively using, so it can be accessed quickly. It allows computers to perform everyday tasks such as loading applications, browsing the internet, editing a spreadsheet, and switching quickly among all these tasks.

Types of RAM

There are two main types of RAM that contrast in both performance and price range:

  • Static random access memory (SRAM): a memory chip that is faster and uses less power than DRAM
  • Dynamic random access memory (DRAM): a memory chip that can hold more data than an SRAM chip but requires more power.

The chart below from Enterprise Storage Forum details the difference of SRAM vs. DRAM in computers:

FeatureDRAMSRAM
CostCheaperMore expensive
PerformanceSlower: Off-chip memory with longer access timeOn-chip memory with minimal access time; can run at the speed of the host microprocessor
Use caseMain memoryLevel 1 and Level 2 microprocessor caches
DensityLess density per cell (1 transistor per chip) but can pack more cells into spaceDenser (6 transistors per chip) but can fit fewer cells into space
PowerGenerally higher: Capacitors leak power thanks to imperfect insulation, requiring regular power refreshes.Generally lower: No charge leakage since it changes direction of current through switches instead of leaking power through the capacitor. However, this depends on the application environment, and SRAM can consume as much or more power as DRAM.
Storage capacityLarger: Connects directly to CPU bus; volatile storage measured in GBsSmaller: Acts as cache; storage measured in MBs
VolatilityVolatile: Must have active power supply plus frequent charges while activeVolatile: Does not require additional charges while it is receiving power but eventually loses data without it
Physical placementMotherboardProcessors or between processor and main memory

RAM vs. Memory vs. Storage

In common usage, the term RAM is synonymous with main memory, where a computing system stores data it is actively using. Storage systems, such as hard drives, network storage devices, or cloud storage, are where a system saves data it will need to access later. Memory and storage are often confused with one another because both are measured in megabytes, gigabytes, and terabytes.

Computing systems can retrieve data from RAM quickly, but when a device powers down, all data that was in memory goes away. If an unexpected power outage or system crash occurs, unsaved documents or files are lost because the data was stored in system memory, which is volatile.

By contrast, storage is slower, but it can retain data when the device is powered down. So, for example, if a document has been saved to a hard drive prior to a power outage or system crash, the user will still be able to retrieve it when the system is back up and running. Storage is usually less expensive than RAM on a per-gigabyte basis. As a result, most PCs and smartphones have many times more gigabytes of storage than gigabytes of RAM. The growing use of solid-state drives has blurred the line between memory and storage.

RAM vs. ROM

Random access memory is different from read-only memory (ROM). ROM is memory to which programming has been permanently written. ROM cannot be altered, and its contents are retained even when the computer has no power. RAM is constantly overwritten when the device is in operation.

RAM FAQ

How much RAM do I need?

Your RAM needs depend on the types of applications you want to run on your computer and how much you’re willing to spend. For most users, 8GB of unified memory is the bare minimum needed to run the operating system and general-use applications like word processors and web browsers. 
The more memory you add, the more applications you can run simultaneously without degrading each application’s performance. Some applications like those for video editing or gaming require a large amount of memory, though this also comes with a hefty price tag.

Is it better to have more RAM or storage?

Storage and RAM work in tandem to make your computer run at peak performance. More storage allows you to download more applications and save more files locally, which are both important for productivity. On the other hand, more RAM allows you to run more applications at the same time and helps each application run more efficiently. Without an appropriate amount of RAM, you would waste a lot of time waiting for your applications to load.
It’s worth noting that the rise of cloud storage has somewhat decreased the need for a large amount of local storage. The ability to store files in the cloud creates more room to store applications on the device, but the same amount of RAM is still required to keep those apps running smoothly.

Does RAM make your computer faster?

Generally, larger RAM capacity and faster memory speed equate to faster computer performance. However, RAM works in conjunction with the computer’s storage capacity and CPU. This means slow computer performance isn’t always attributed to RAM. Therefore, adding more RAM to your computer might not make it faster if it has an outdated chipset or needs more storage.

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.

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