Most of you probably know the basic differences between Random Access Memory (RAM) and a Hard Disk Drive (HDD). While the former keeps track of your programs, data, and processes in use at any given time, the latter permanently stores your data so you can access it later. But of course the rabbit hole goes much deeper than this.
So if you’re not sure about the differences between the two, you might be a bit lost on what you need. Don’t worry because by the end of this guide you will know exactly how RAM and HDD differ.
Memory type: volatile vs. non-volatile
For a deeper understanding, you need to know about volatile and non-volatile memory. Both types of memory can store data, but the process is different. Volatile memory constantly needs power (electricity) to send and receive information. Data is temporarily stored and all processes are lost once you turn off the computer.
On the other hand, non-volatile memory retains information once it is saved to the drive. Once the data is safely stored on the drive, power loss won’t affect what’s on it. Data is stored permanently and none of your programs or files are affected by turning off your computer.
Therefore, any form of temporary storage is volatile: this includes RAM, cache, register memory, etc. Similarly, any form of permanent storage is nonvolatile: hard drives, USBs, optical drives, and external drives are examples of nonvolatile. volatile memory.
Data: Temporary vs. Permanent Data Storage
Since volatile memory only stores data temporarily, RAM is more like short-term memory for your computer. So why would your computer want to store information temporarily when you can do it permanently?
The simple answer is that RAM is significantly faster than a hard drive or solid state drive (SSD). Every time you open an application, access various files, or even start a game, the program will create temporary processes that it needs to run properly.
These processes are stored in RAM so that they can be accessed quickly. When you close the program in question, all processes are also closed. Therefore, RAM is used to temporarily store data that needs to be accessed quickly.
On the other hand, permanent data storage is also essential. You need a place to store all your apps, games, files and folders, right?
This is where hard drives come into play, as installing various programs can take up a lot of storage space. RAM modules have a smaller capacity than hard drives, so all your programs and files are stored on a permanent storage drive.
How do RAM and storage affect the speed of your computer?
RAM and hard drives have their own purposes, but both can affect the speed of your computer. For example, if you have a lot of processes currently running, it will consume a lot of system memory.
It’s also not uncommon to “run out of RAM”. This happens when a particular program needs more RAM to run properly than your system currently has available.
Of course, you can always free up and reduce your RAM usage. Still, that’s only a short-term fix. If you have 8 GB of RAM in your computer and you constantly find yourself closing programs, then it’s time to upgrade to 16 GB or more.
The same is true for non-volatile storage like HDDs. If you have a lot of programs, games, pictures, and files saved on your drive, there’s a chance you could eventually run out of storage. This also means that you could run out of virtual memory space. Computers sometimes use the virtual memory present on drives to store data.
When you use up all the available RAM, the computer uses temporary expansion on your hard drive to run processes for certain programs. This is known as a page file. If your computer cannot allocate enough space to this paging file, you will experience a significant reduction in performance.
So in a sense, filling your hard drive completely with data will eventually slow down your system as well.
RAM upgrade vs. HDD upgrade
In general, you can upgrade the RAM or hard drive on most desktop computers. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true of all laptops. Most new laptops these days have soldered memory and some don’t even allow you to access the hard drive or SSD.
Fortunately, you can upgrade the RAM on your Windows desktop simply by swapping out your old kit for a new one. You could also just add another bar of RAM. For example, if you have a single 8 GB device, you can add another 8 GB device of the same specification to have a total of 16 GB of RAM in your system.
You can also add a new hard drive in most cases if you need more storage. While you’re at it, read up on the differences between SSD and HDD. SSDs use flash storage, while hard drives use a physical mechanism to read and write data. Although SSDs are faster, they can be more expensive.
While upgrading a storage drive is usually easy, the same is not true for RAM. For compatibility reasons, you need to consider the correct generation, speed, form factor, bandwidth, and more. Check out our simple guide to RAM to help you with all that technical jargon.
In conclusion, when upgrading your RAM or hard drive, you will need to consider your system limitations because you may not be able to do it for some computers. For example, you can’t upgrade the RAM or storage on a silicone Mac from Apple.
However, if you can’t access your laptop’s internal hard drive, you can always buy an external hard drive.
Make the right choice when upgrading your memory
Hopefully this short guide cleared up some of your confusion about the differences between RAM and hard drives. Being aware of these differences will come in handy when you want to upgrade your system memory or storage, or even when you want to buy a whole new computer.
Besides upgrading these two components, there’s a lot more you can do to make your PC faster. For example, you can upgrade to a new processor, switch to a different operating system, and make sure your computer is cooling properly.