Memory is a finite resource when it comes to both humans and computers—it’s one of the most common causes of computer issues. And if you’ve ever left the house without your keys, you know memory is one of the most common human problems, too.
If you’re unclear about the different types of memory in your computer, it makes pinpointing the cause of computer problems that much harder. You might hear folks use the terms memory and storage interchangeably, but there are some important differences. Understanding how both components work can help you understand what kind of computer you need, diagnose problems you’re having, and know when it’s time to consider upgrades.
The Difference Between RAM and Storage
Random access memory (RAM) and storage are both forms of computer memory, but they serve different functions.
What Is RAM?
RAM is volatile memory used by the computer’s processor to store and quickly access data that is actively being used or processed. Volatile memory maintains data only while the device is powered on. RAM takes the form of computer chips—integrated circuits—that are either soldered directly onto the main logic board of your computer or installed in memory modules that go in sockets on your computer’s logic board.
You can think of it like a desk—it’s where your computer gets work done. When you double-click on an app, open a document, or do much of anything, part of your “desk” is covered and can’t be used by anything else. As you open more files, it is like covering your desk with more and more items. Using a desk with a handful of files is easy, but a desk that is covered with a bunch of stuff gets difficult to use.
What Is Computer Storage?
On the other hand, storage is used for long-term data retention, like a hard disk drive (HDD) or solid state drive (SSD). Compared with RAM, this type of storage is non-volatile, which means it retains information even when a device is powered off. You can think of storage like a filing cabinet—a place next to your desk where you can retrieve information as needed.
RAM vs. Storage: How Do They Compare?
Speed and Performance
Two of the primary differences between RAM and storage are speed and performance. RAM is significantly faster than storage. Data stored in RAM can be written and accessed almost instantly, so it’s very fast—milliseconds fast. DDR4 RAM, one of the newer types of RAM technology, is capable of a peak transfer rate of 25.6GB/s! RAM has a very fast path to the computer’s central processing unit (CPU), the brain of the computer that does most of the work.
Storage, as it’s slower in comparison, is responsible for holding the operating system (OS), applications, and user data for the long term—it should still be fast, but it doesn’t need to be as fast as RAM.
That said, computer storage is getting faster thanks to the popularity of SSDs. SSDs are much faster than hard drives since they use integrated circuits instead of mechanical platters that have to be read sequentially, like HDDs. SSDs use a special type of memory circuitry called non-volatile RAM (NVRAM) to store data, so those shorter term memory access points stay in place even when the computer is turned off.
Even though SSDs are faster than HDDs, they’re still slower than RAM. There are two reasons for that difference in speed. First, the memory chips in SSDs are slower than those in RAM. Second, there is a bottleneck created by the interface that connects the storage device to the computer. RAM, in comparison, has a much faster interface.
Capacity and Size
RAM is typically smaller in capacity compared to storage. It is measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB), whereas storage capacities can reach multiple terabytes or even petabytes. The smaller size of RAM is intentional, as it is designed to store only the data currently in use, ensuring quick access for the processor.
Volatility and Persistence
Another key difference is the volatility of RAM and the persistence of storage. RAM is volatile, meaning it loses its data when the power is turned off or the system is rebooted. This makes it ideal for quick data access and manipulation, but unsuitable for long-term storage. Storage is non-volatile or persistent, meaning it retains data even when the power is off, making it suitable for holding files, applications, and the operating system over extended periods.
How Much RAM Do I Have?
Understanding how much RAM you have might be one of your first steps for diagnosing computer performance issues.
Use the following steps to confirm how much RAM your computer has installed. We’ll start with an Apple computer. Click on the Apple menu and then click About This Mac. In the screenshot below, we can see that the computer has 16GB of RAM.
With a Windows 11 computer, use the following steps to see how much RAM you have installed. Open the Control Panel by clicking the Windows button and typing “control panel,” then click System and Security, and then click System. Look for the line “Installed RAM.” In the screenshot below, you can see that the computer has 32GB of RAM installed.
How Much Computer Storage Do I Have?
To view how much free storage space you have available on a Mac computer, use these steps. Click on the Apple menu, then System Settings, select General, and then open Storage. In the screenshot below, we’ve circled where your available storage is displayed.
With a Windows 11 computer, it is also easy to view how much available storage space you have. Click the Windows button and type in “file explorer.” When File Explorer opens, click on This PC from the list of options in the left-hand pane. In the screenshot below, we’ve circled where your available storage is displayed (in this case, 200GB).
How RAM and Storage Affect Your Computer’s Performance
For most general-purpose uses of computers—email, writing documents, surfing the web, or watching Netflix—the RAM that comes with our computer is enough. If you own your computer for a long enough time, you might need to add a bit more to keep up with memory demands from newer apps and OSes. Specifically, more RAM makes it possible for you to use more apps, documents, and larger files at the same time.
People that work with very large files like large databases, videos, and images can benefit significantly from having more RAM. If you regularly use large files, it is worth checking to see if your computer’s RAM is upgradeable.
Adding More RAM to Your Computer
In some situations, adding more RAM is worth the expense. For example, editing videos and high-resolution images takes a lot of memory. In addition, high-end audio recording and editing as well as some scientific work require significant RAM.
However, not all computers allow you to upgrade RAM. For example, the Chromebook typically has a fixed amount of RAM, and you cannot install more. So, when you’re buying a new computer—particularly if you plan on using that computer for more than five years, make sure to 1) understand how much RAM your computer has, and, 2) if you can upgrade the computer’s RAM.
When your computer’s RAM is filled up, your computer has to get creative to keep working. Specifically, your computer starts to temporarily use your hard drive or SSD as “virtual memory.” If you have relatively fast storage like an SSD, virtual memory will be fast. On the other hand, using a traditional hard drive will be fairly slow.
Besides RAM, the most serious bottleneck to improving performance in your computer can be your storage. Even with plenty of RAM installed, computers need to read and write information from the storage system (i.e., the HDD or the SSD).
Hard drives come in different speeds and sizes. For laptops and desktops, the most common RPM rates are between 5400–7200RPM. In some cases, you might even decide to use a 10,000RPM drive. Faster drives cost more, are louder, have greater cooling needs, and use more power, but they may be a good option.
New disk technologies enable hard drives to be bigger and faster. These technologies include filling the drive with helium instead of air to reduce disk platter friction and using heat or microwaves to improve disk density, such as with heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) drives and microwave-assisted magnetic recording (MAMR) drives.
Today, SSDs are becoming increasingly popular for computer storage. This type of computer storage is popular because it is faster, cooler, and takes up less space than traditional hard drives. They’re also less susceptible to magnetic fields and physical jolts, which makes them great for laptops.
For more about the difference between HDDs and SSDs, check out our post, “Hard Disk Drive (HDD) vs. Solid-state Drive (SSD): What’s the Diff?”
Adding More Computer Storage
As a user’s disk storage needs increase, typically they will look to larger drives to store more data. The first step might be to replace an existing drive with a larger, faster drive. Or you might decide to install a second drive. One approach is to use different drives for different purposes. For example, use an SSD for the operating system, and then store your business videos on a larger SSD.
If more storage space is needed, you can also use an external drive, most often using USB or Thunderbolt to connect to the computer. This can be a single drive or multiple drives and might use a data storage virtualization technology such as RAID to protect the data.
If you have really large amounts of data, or simply wish to make it easy to share data with others in your location or elsewhere, you might consider network-attached storage (NAS). A NAS device can hold multiple drives, typically uses a data virtualization technology like RAID, and is accessible to anyone on your local network and—if you wish—on the internet, as well. NAS devices can offer a great deal of storage and other services that typically have been offered only by dedicated network servers in the past.
Back Up Early and Often
As a cloud storage company, we’d be remiss not to mention that you should back up your computer. No matter how you configure your computer’s storage, remember that technology can fail (we know a thing or two about that). You always want a backup so you can restore everything easily. The best backup strategy shouldn’t be dependent on any single device, either. Your backup strategy should always include three copies of your data on two different mediums with one off-site.
FAQs About Differences Between RAM and Storage
Internal storage is a method of data storage that writes data to a disk, holding onto that data until it’s erased. Think of it as your computer’s brain. RAM is a method of communicating data between your device’s CPU and its internal storage. Think of it as your brain’s short-term memory and ability to multi-task. The data the RAM receives is volatile, so it will only last until it’s no longer needed, usually when you turn off the power or reset the computer.
If you’re looking for better PC performance, you can upgrade either RAM or storage for a boost in performance. More RAM will make it easier for your computer to perform multiple tasks at once, while upgrading your storage will improve battery life, make it faster to open applications and files, and give you more space for photos and applications. This is especially true if you’re switching your storage from a hard disk drive (HDD) to a solid state drive (SSD).
More RAM does not provide you with more free space. If your computer is giving you notifications that you’re getting close to running out of storage or you’ve already started having to delete files to make room for new ones, you should upgrade the internal storage, not the RAM.
Memory and storage are also not the same thing, even though the words are often used interchangeably. Memory is another term for RAM.