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Friday, February 15, 2008

What is RAM, What is a Hard Drive: A Plain English Explanation

When it comes to a computer, there are so many computer terms like RAM, megahertz, gigabytes, etc. that people can find confusing. Having a better understanding of some of these terms can help you feel more comfortable using your computer, and ultimately get more out of it.

A lot of people I talk to seem to be apologetic about their lack of knowledge. It's too bad people feel that way; they really shouldn't. What I tell them is that while they may not know as much as I do about computers, there's nothing wrong with that, and they probably know a lot of other things I don't know much about.

All you need is someone who takes the time to explain things to you in a way that makes sense.

One term many people confuse is memory or RAM, and hard drive storage space. RAM stands for Random Access Memory (don't worry, you don't need to remember that!).

It is a temporary working space the computer uses to get work done, which gets emptied when the computer is turned off.

Think of it like a work bench or table. You have a project you're working on and you do your project on the bench and when you're done, you clear it off.

The hard drive is the main place your computer uses to store information. It looks like a rectangular metal box which contains a non-removable disk (as opposed to something like a CD Drive where you can take the disk out).

It is the disk inside the drive which stores everything on your computer -- every picture, every music file, every email, and every Word document. Not only that, but Windows or Mac OS X, the operating system that makes the computer run.

To continue our analogy, think of it as a set of shelves where you store the tools or materials for your project -- when you want to work on something you choose the things you need from the shelves, put them on the bench and work on the project.

This is like when you run a program; the computer loads the program from the hard drive into memory (the temporary working space).

So the larger the shelves, the more you can store -- i.e. the more programs you can have installed, the more songs or pictures or videos you can save on your computer.

Most people with a computer made in the last few years have far larger hard drives than they'll ever use. Few people ever fill them up, unless they are keeping a lot of large files such as sound files or pictures, or especially video files.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that's true, video is worth at least a million words, and the files can be that much bigger!

If someone tells you you need more memory, or your computer gives you an error message about being low on memory, this usually means you don't have enough RAM. This can slow your computer down drastically.

Think of the bench idea again: if your bench is very small, you can't fit everything you need on it to get your work done, so you're constantly wasting time moving one piece of the project off the bench to make room for the next piece... if you can really work at all.

Both RAM and hard drive space are measured with the same terms: bytes, kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), with newer drives even being measured in terabytes (TB). Since both RAM and hard drives are measured in the same way, this may be one reason people confuse the two terms.

You don't need to understand exactly what those terms mean, but understand that each one is basically a thousand times larger than the one before. So a kilobyte is 1,000 times larger than a byte, a megabyte is 1,000 times larger than a kilobyte, a gigabyte is a thousand times later than that, and so on.

The reason you buy a computer one year that has a lot of RAM, and two or three years go by and suddenly someone tells you you don't have enough memory, is because each year the average size of programs, and the amount of memory they need, gets larger.

It's as if the tools you use on your workbench keep growing every year so you eventually have to get a larger bench.

If your computer seems to be running more slowly recently, or you've been having odd errors, it could be that you need to upgrade your memory. This isn't always the source of these problems, but RAM is very inexpensive these days and adding to what your computer has can add life to your Mac or PC.

Hopefully this clears up the meaning of these basic computer terms for you, and made a lot more sense than it used to! To learn more about RAM and memory, read this related article that explains how RAM affects the speed of a computer, and more.

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Worth Godwin has been giving people computer help professionally for over a decade and a half, and as a hobby for years before that. In the last few years he has focussed on his easy, plain English approach to help people learn computer basics.

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