When it comes to the world of computing hardware, it can be hard to learn all the parts within a PC. Devices such as the monitor, mouse, and keyboard are all pretty self-explanatory as to what their purpose is. Even though some people are not technically minded, they still know the value of a hard drive or a processor. One of the weirder components of the computer is the RAM. People know that more of it causes the computer to ‘speed up’ – but that’s about where the information ends. So, what is RAM, what does it do, and why does more of it cause your computer to run faster?
First of all, let’s explore what RAM is. RAM stands for ‘Random Access Memory’, and the ‘random’ part of its name is what makes it so unique. If you imagine other methods of data storage, such as a tape, devices access the data by scanning a very specific part of the storage. For example, if you had a VHS tape full of family videos, and wanted to get to the part where a wedding takes place, you have to fast forward and rewind to the point where you find the wedding.
The ‘random’ part of Random Access Memory means that the computer can place data on the RAM on any ‘random’ spot that it likes – as long as there’s room. This means the computer doesn’t have to scan a specific part of a disc, or read a specific part of a tape, or move the hard disk arm to a specific place on the platter. It can stuff data onto the RAM anywhere it desires and take it out whenever it likes, meaning that it can load and read data much faster than any other device storage method.
RAM comes into play when we want to use software. When you ask the computer to load up software (say, a word processor), the computer begins to load the data involved with ‘building’ the word processor from the hard disk to the RAM. You know in software when you have loading screens? This is your computer getting all the data from the hard drive onto your RAM, so that you can access and use the software much faster than if you interacted directly with the hard drive. If the computer runs out of RAM space, it begins loading data back onto the hard drive to make room – which slows down your PCs ability to use and change between software. More RAM means you can load more without data having to go to the hard drive, which ends in a faster computer than before.
Fantastic – so why don’t we build hard drives out of RAM? Why do we bother with USB and CDs when we could just slap a stick of RAM with data in it into our computers? While RAM works faster than any other medium, it comes with a unique and crucial problem — it loses all of its data the moment it loses power. This is why, after a power outage, your computer has ‘forgotten’ everything you’ve done. This includes the software you had open at the time of the crash (which was saved in RAM) as well as any data you had entered into the software (which was also saved in RAM). This is why it’s important to save your work regularly; performing the save action tells the PC to take the data from the RAM to the hard drive, so that if your computer crashes, your data is safe on the hard drive, rather than on the RAM that gets wiped on every shutdown.
Now you’re all studied on what RAM does and it’s purpose, in future articles we’ll look at if you need more RAM, how to buy more RAM, and where it goes in your PC.