Memory matters: What RAM is and why it’s important

Random access memory (RAM) is temporary storage that computers, tablets, and smartphones use to run an operating system (OS) and applications. RAM is often referred to as memory.

People often use the term memory when talking about a device’s storage capacity. Although both are typically measured in gigabytes, memory and storage are actually separate things.

Memory vs. Storage

Unlike hard drives or other types of storage, RAM isn’t used to permanently store things. RAM is a volatile type of storage, meaning that whenever a device loses power, all the data stored in RAM is lost.

Mechanical hard drives or flash-based solid-state drives, on the other hand, can retain data even when they lose power, making them better mediums to store an OS, applications, and personal data.

Hard drives or solid state drives are good for keeping data long-term, but RAM is much faster. This is why RAM is used to load the OS and applications when a device is powered on.

800px-Memory_module_DDRAM_20-03-2006
In computers, RAM or memory is used to load the OS and applications (Image courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons).

How RAM works

When a computer or mobile device is turned on, the entire OS is loaded from storage into the system’s RAM. Any programs or apps that are ran after this are also loaded into memory.

The more RAM you have, the more programs you’ll be able to run simultaneously. In this way, a device with more RAM will be faster than a device with less RAM when it comes to running lots of programs at once.

To make the most of your available memory, close applications you aren’t using after you’re done with them. Also, try to limit the amount of programs or apps that run in the background, silently using your system’s memory.

How much RAM do I need?

For Windows computers, 4 GB of RAM is probably the minimum you want. Windows 10’s minimum system requirements call for 2 GB, and it’s a good idea to have some extra for any additional programs you want to run. If you want to future-proof your new computer, consider purchasing one with 8GB or more.

Chromebooks can get by with less RAM due to the fact that Chrome OS is fairly lightweight. Entry level models with 2 GB are viable options and won’t feel as slow as a 2 GB Windows computer.

For mobile devices like smartphones, some manufacturers don’t advertise the amount of RAM as prominently (or at all). They instead focus on the device’s storage capacity—which they confusingly refer to as “memory”.

In the case of many phones, you don’t have a choice in how much RAM the device comes with—a certain model has a specified amount. High-end devices like the Samsung Galaxy S7 have 4 GB of RAM, while devices like the Apple iPhone 6S have only 2 GB.

-Jesse

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