This blog post is article two in an educational series designed to give our readers an opportunity to learn more about how computers function without getting burdened with highly technical details. Last month, we discussed the CPU. Today, we will be exploring random access memory, or RAM.

From cell phones to servers, random access memory (RAM) serves a very important function in the operation of most modern computer systems. Most directly, the function of RAM is to provide the computer system with a data storage space that can be quickly accessed to both add data to or read data from. In last month’s article, we had an analogy for cache in a CPU being the paper on which the CPU could perform mathematical operations. RAM serves a very similar function for the CPU, but is a bit slower to access than cache, though RAM comes in much higher quantities. Any time you load up a Microsoft Word document, modify a picture in Photoshop, or edit music in Audacity, your computer loads the information contained in the text file, image, or audio sample into RAM for it to be modified quickly by these programs.

RAM is considered an integrated circuit that is often referred to as “volatile memory.” Unlike your hard drive, USB stick, or SD cards, which do not require an active power source to store memory (aka “non-volatile memory”), RAM requires the live presence of electricity to store bits of information. Like the aforementioned USB stick or a solid state drive, RAM does not have moving mechanical components that physically access information like a hard drive does, which contributes to its higher access and write speeds when compared to other storage options. On the subject of RAM speeds, there are two numbers associated with how fast RAM is. First, there is the clock speed, which, like the CPU, helps describe the raw speed of a given RAM unit. For example, a RAM DIMM (dual in-line memory module, a common form factor for desktop RAM units), clocked at 2133 mHz is clocked faster than a DIMM clocked at 1600 mHz. The other important number related to RAM speed is its “timings,” which are a set of numbers that relate to the latency, or down-time, of a RAM DIMM. So tighter (smaller) timings and higher clocks result in faster memory. We will discuss the relative importance of RAM speed shortly. Another important aspect of RAM’s physical configuration is its form factor. For laptops and desktops there are a handful of standard RAM generations, the most recent of which being DDR4 SDRAM, which stands for “double data rate fourth generation synchronous dynamic random access memory” (as you will come to find in this series, abbreviations for computer components are very helpful!). Older standards include DDR3 and DDR2.

As many consumers are already aware, RAM capacity is also an important factor in computer systems. When people refer to “upgrading RAM,” they typically mean adding more DIMMS to their system to increase their overall RAM capacity. For example, someone with an old laptop with only 2GBs of RAM might experience a performance benefit from having our GeekABC technicians add an extra 2GBs of RAM, increasing the total capacity to 4GBs provided there is space for more DIMMS.

So up to this point, we have discussed many numbers and names used to describe RAM, but what does it all mean for your overall computing experience in the real world? Generally speaking, the everyday consumer only needs to be concerned with having “enough” RAM to accomplish their daily tasks without hitting a bottle-neck in this part of the computer. In terms of what is considered “enough,” the following might be considered rules of thumb. For people who use their computers for browsing the internet and using office-oriented applications like Microsoft Word and Excel, two to four gigabytes (GBs) or RAM is generally appropriate. For gamers, somewhere between 8-16 GBs or RAM is a popular choice. For content creators, 16-32 GBs is helpful for dealing with complex rendering scenes. In server applications, configurations even as high as 128GBs is not unheard of!

Because of how tightly integrated RAM is to the computer’s functions, errors in RAM cause significant issues in the computer. Blue screens, crashes, and booting issues often stem from failed RAM DIMMS, which can thankfully be replaced. In professional scenarios, where errors in RAM caused by noise can lead to system-wide data management issues, Error Correcting Code Memory is a popular choice because it can detect these corrupted bits of information and fix them without affecting the system overall.

To summarize, RAM is a quickly accessible storage space that the computer can use to store information that is currently being modified by the processor. It is described by capacity, clock speed, timings, and form factor, and it is found in almost all modern computing systems because it plays such a fundamental role in the data processing functions of these machines. Problems with RAM cause major issues with computers, with blue screens and system crashes being common symptoms of failing RAM DIMMS.

If you are interested in upgrading your RAM, or if you suspect that it may be failing to function properly, feel free to bring your computer to one of Geek ABC’s drop off locations, give us a call, or email us at customercare@geekabc.net! Our technicians are more than happy to address whatever issues your computer might be facing. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out our other blog posts! We hope to see you back for next month’s installment in “How Does My Computer Work?”.

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