What is RAM?

RAM, or Random Access Memory, is temporary storage for a computer to handle data.

When you read tech news about the latest gadget, or are shopping for a phone or laptop, you may notice the manufacturer talking about the machine’s RAM. So, what is RAM and how does it impact a device? Well, RAM is a critical component of any computing machine such as a desktop, laptop, smartphone, tablet, or backup drive.

You may be surprised to know that even your modern calculator has memory. In a nutshell, RAM is a temporary and quick storage space for a computer to handle data. The volume and speed of the memory in a machine can significantly impact its performance.

What does RAM mean?

RAM is short for random access memory. It’s called random access because the data can be quickly read and modified in any order. Compare this with older storage media like CD-RWs, where data is accessed in a fixed sequence that's slower. 

What does RAM do?

Your RAM is your computer’s short-term memory. For example, when you start your operating system — the applications you need like your audio or your antivirus software are copied into your computer’s memory for your processor to access readily. But when you turn off or restart your computer, the RAM clears. However, the original copy of the application remains in your storage drive.

The best way to explain RAM in layman’s terms is through a decades-old analogy. When you work at your office table and want to read some books, you take them from the shelf and place them on top of your desk, where you can work comfortably. Sure, you could work directly from your shelf, but the process would be less efficient. Once you're done, but put the books away. In this analogy, your bookshelf is your storage drive, while your desk is your RAM.

What uses RAM?

Nearly everything in your computer uses RAM. When you want to use a program, your computer copies data from the storage drive into the RAM to process it. This goes for any program, such as a word processor, web browser, or communication app. Some programs, like video games, require more memory than others. The more programs you run simultaneously, the more memory you’ll need.

You can check what programs are loaded in your computer’s memory on Windows with the following steps:

  1. Press the CTRL, ALT, and DEL keys together on your keyboard.
  2. Click Task Manager.
  3. Under the Processes tab, you can see all the programs loaded in your memory.
  4. Under the Performance tab, you can see how much memory your computer has and what percentage of RAM is in use.  

Can RAM get malware?

Usually, malware doesn’t infect RAM because RAM clears every time a computer reboots. But some malware like PoS malware can target point-of-sales payment terminals and card readers to breach payment data. This practice of scanning the RAM of digital devices to steal sensitive information is called RAM scraping.

Why do we need storage drives if RAM is so fast?

Your computer probably has a storage drive like a traditional hard disk drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD). With RAM being significantly faster, you may be wondering why you don’t store your data permanently on RAM. Here are a few good reasons:

  • RAM is more expensive than conventional storage options. Nowadays, you can get around ten times as much storage with an HDD compared to RAM for around the same price.
  • RAM is a volatile memory. In other words, it requires constant access to power. When your computer shuts down, data leaves the RAM. On the other hand, your HDD has a much higher data retention rate because it’s non-volatile storage.

Can my computer use any RAM?

RAM has been around for several decades, evolving over time. Today, the most popular type of computer memory is DDR-RAM (Double Data Rate Random Access Memory). Each new generation of DDR RAM introduces some improvements. For example, DDR5 consumes less power than DDR4, resulting in greater battery life for mobile devices. The newer memory is also twice as fast as DDR4.

The type of memory you purchase must be compatible with your motherboard. You’ll have to consult your motherboard’s manufacturer for the information. Like any new piece of technology, the latest RAM will not work with an older generation motherboard.

Should I upgrade my RAM?

Upgrading your RAM to the latest technology isn’t always worthwhile. For example, if you already have enough DDR4 RAM, it’s probably not cost-effective for you to buy a new a motherboard to upgrade to DDR5. You'll only notice a slight performance advantage for a significant investment. But it’s usually a good idea to go with the latest iteration of RAM if you’re building a new PC from scratch to boost its longevity.

How much RAM do I need?

Regardless of the type of RAM you use, you may notice performance issues if your computer’s memory is insufficient. Inadequate memory can also bottleneck an otherwise powerful computer. For example, even with the latest processor, video card, and solid-state drive, demanding games will run sluggishly on a system with little RAM.  

  • 4GB: Budget-level computers usually have 4GB of RAM and are only suitable for light applications such as browsing the Internet.
  • 8GB: Entry-level computers often come with 8GB or 12GB of RAM. Such computers can competently handle most basic applications such as word processors and light games.
  • 16GB: Computers with 16GB of RAM have enough memory for demanding games and basic multimedia work.
  • 32GB: You may need 32GB of ram if you're a professional engineer, editor, or use purpose-built workstations. However, 32GB is overkill for most applications. Even a demanding game like Cyberpunk 2077 recommends 32GB of RAM on Ultra settings with ray tracing enabled.

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