What is RAM?
Have you ever found yourself sitting at a computer that’s working at a snail’s pace while you decry its terrible system performance? Maybe you’ve opened more programs than you normally do and you’ve noticed the dreaded slowdown. In both cases, that’s a sign that your device doesn’t have enough RAM.
But what is RAM? You know you don’t have a male sheep running around inside your computer. So, RAM must be something different. In this article, we explain what RAM is and how using it can lead to improved performance. We also discuss the types of computer RAM and how they’re used.
- RAM, or Random Access Memory, is a type of volatile memory in computing that temporarily stores and provides swift access to data, facilitating instantaneous read and write operations essential for system speed and multitasking capabilities.
- Different from hard drive storage, RAM data exists only while powered on and is not intended for long-term data storage. Hence, it functions as a ‘working’ memory for running applications, often directly influencing a system’s performance.
- Several RAM types exist, such as DRAM and SRAM, with variations in speed, capacity, and cost. Upgrading RAM can enhance a system’s capabilities, but compatibility with the motherboard and the device’s maximum RAM support must be considered.
What is RAM? – In-depth
Your device’s random access memory (RAM) is crucial for determining its speed and overall performance. Think of RAM as your computer’s short-term memory. This hardware is used to store the data your device needs to run whatever applications you currently have opened. When those applications aren’t open, this data is usually stored on your hard disk until you use the program again.
RAM is essential because it provides a shortcut to key data for your processor. Without it, the processor has to search through your hard drive to find what it needs, which is a time-consuming task. Modern computers can’t operate without random access memory because they would become so slow that they’d be unusable.
The amount of RAM devices have varies. For example, a top-end gaming computer will usually have far more RAM than a standard laptop. Older smartphones also have less RAM than modern phones due to the technology available at the time.
Random access memory is volatile, which is where the random part of the name comes in. The data stored in RAM is only held for as long as your device is turned on. As soon as you shut down, the RAM is cleared until you turn the device on again. At that point, your device loads important data for your operating system into RAM, with the space left over used for whatever applications you run.
Explaining the Slowdown Issue
If you’ve ever experienced the type of device slowdown we covered in the intro, you know what happens when RAM fills up.
However, “fills up” is something of a misnomer when it comes to RAM. Unlike a hard drive, which offers permanent storage, RAM is a form of temporary storage. When it fills up, RAM pulls data from your hard drive, which it uses to overwrite the data currently stored in your computer’s temporary memory so your applications continue running.
The problem is that this process takes time leading to slowdown.
Let’s look at a practical example.
We’ll assume you have 8 gigabytes of RAM in your computer. Your operating system requires a large chunk of that storage space. You then open multiple programs, which when combined with your operating system require more than the 8 gigabytes of RAM you have to run simultaneously without issues.
This triggers the overwriting process.
Your device’s RAM starts pulling the data it needs from your hard drive to keep whatever application you’re using running as well as possible. At the same time, it’s overwriting data used to keep the other programs you’re using operational as well. This leads to a lot of slowdown and, in some cases, your device crashes.
You can often solve RAM issues by closing some of your applications. Alternatively, buying RAM is an option if you want the ability to use more programs than you can currently run at the same time.
The Key RAM Types
We can vaguely split the types of random access memory into two categories:
- Static random access memory
- Dynamic random access memory
However, there are various subtypes of dynamic RAM to keep in mind. Let’s explore each type of RAM in detail to discover what it has to offer, and the drawbacks it may have, when it comes to your computer system’s performance.
Type No. 1 – Static RAM
Static random access memory has existed since the 1990s and is still used in many devices today. It’s common in devices that don’t offer a lot of variation in how they operate, such as printers, digital cameras, and wireless routers.
Often abbreviated to SRAM, static RAM requires a constant flow of power to operate. Once that power is cut off, the RAM empties all the data it stores completely until the device is powered on again. This need for constant power also means that static RAM is never refreshed. It doesn’t need to be because it stores data for as long as the device is turned on.
This lack of refreshing has advantages and disadvantages.
On the plus side, the lack of refreshing means that SRAM consumes far less power than any form of dynamic RAM. Furthermore, static RAM provides faster access speeds than its dynamic counterparts.
Unfortunately, these faster speeds come at a cost. Because of its static nature, this type of RAM won’t overwrite or refresh data. As a result, it’s often not usable in cases where you may need access to multiple programs or when you’re switching between different applications. Static RAM also costs more to manufacture and has lower memory capacity than dynamic RAM.
That isn’t to say that static RAM doesn’t have a place in modern computers. It’s often used in your device’s CPU cache and its hard drive buffer. It’s also commonly used for digital-to-analog converts on video cards, making it a form of video random access memory.
Type No. 2 – Dynamic RAM
Also shortened to DRAM, dynamic random access memory was invented in the 1970s. The basic version of this type of RAM lasted until the mid-1990s before being replaced by the subtypes of dynamic RAM covered later in the article.
Dynamic RAM differs from static RAM due to the need for periodic refreshes of power for it to work. DRAM memory modules contain capacitors to store data. As time goes on, these capacitors slowly discharge energy, resulting in the data stored on them being lost. Constant refreshing of the data from your device’s hard drive is required to keep the data stored on DRAM intact.
This need for refreshing is also where the term “dynamic” comes from. Dynamic RAM is in a constant state of change that causes it to lose data without refreshing. But much like static RAM, dynamic RAM also loses all of its stored data when you turn the power off on your device.
DRAM also evolved during the 1990s with the introduction of Burst EDO RAM (BEDO DRAM) and Extended Data Out Dynamic RAM (EDO DRAM). Both technologies offered significantly faster performance than the original DRAM. However, the development of even more advanced forms of dynamic memory meant they became obsolete fairly quickly.
The advantages of dynamic RAM are that it has higher RAM capacity than SRAM and costs far less to manufacture. However, the volatile nature of this type of memory requires more power for it to be used. Plus, the need for constant refreshing makes accessing data a slower process.
Even so, dynamic RAM saw widespread usage as part of a computer’s RAM set up in the 1980s and 1990s. It was often used as part of system memory and in video graphics cards. Its low cost also made it popular in video game consoles of the time, such as the SEGA Genesis, and found use in networking hardware.
Type No. 3 – Flash Memory
Introduced in 1984, flash memory is an interesting type of physical memory. It shares characteristics of random access memory and read-only memory, making it somewhat unique. It’s possible to write and overwrite the data in this type of memory quickly, as you can with RAM. But unlike most types of RAM, this is a non-volatile memory type.
This lack of volatility means that the data stored on flash memory stays even if you switch the power off.
As such, flash memory is closer in functionality to a solid state drive than it is to the other RAM types on this list. This means you can write to this type of memory quickly, though it’s a touch slower than writing to other types of RAM. The lack of moving parts and low power consumption of flash memory also makes it ideal for modern devices, such as smartphones and digital cameras, which need permanent memory stores.
This unique combination of RAM and ROM characteristics made flash memory the ideal medium for USB sticks, memory cards, and modern printers. It’s also commonly used in portable media players and many small toys and electronics equipment that require long-term storage.
Type No. 4 – Synchronous Dynamic RAM
The “synchronous” part of the name of this RAM type indicates how it differs from the older version of dynamic random access memory. Synchronous dynamic RAM (SDRAM) operates alongside your computer’s central processing unit’s (CPU’s) clock. As such, SDRAM doesn’t respond to any type of data input until it receives the clock signal.
All modern computer systems contain a clock, which is a microchip that regulates the speed and timing of every computer function. The clock contains a small crystal, which vibrates as electricity is supplied to it. Your computer’s speed is measured based on its clock speed. For example, a 2 GHz processor has a clock capable of two billion vibrations per second.
The faster the clock speed, the better the performance of SDRAM.
This synchronous operation allows your device’s CPU to process overlapping instructions at the same time. You’ll see this in action when you’re quickly switching between applications. With SDRAM, your computer can read the new instructions you input at the same time as it’s writing your previous instructions to memory.
This is called pipelining.
Though pipelining doesn’t speed up the time taken to execute instructions, it allows those instructions to be processed at the same time. As a result, CPU performance and transfer rates rise. This is what led to SDRAM eventually taking over from standard dynamic random access memory.
SDRAM technology is still used today, particularly in video game consoles and many forms of computer memory.
Type No. 5 – Single Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM
Introduced in 1993, at about the same time as SDRAM, single data rate synchronous dynamic RAM (SDR SDRAM) is essentially the same thing as SDRAM. It functions identically but still deserves its own section in the article for one reason:
The single data rate.
This tells you that SDR SDRAM only processes one read and one write instruction per clock cycle. That’s important to understand because later forms of SDRAM can process more than a single instruction per cycle, as we’ll discover soon.
Much like SDRAM, SDR SDRAM is used in video game consoles and computer memory. Think of SDR SDRAM as the first generation of SDRAM. If you see SDR on your RAM, this tells you that you’re working with an older version of SDRAM.
Type No. 6 – Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM
Double data rate synchronous dynamic RAM (DDR SDRAM) is the evolution of SDRAM. Created in 2000 and still used to this day, DDR SDRAM operates in the same way as SDR SDRAM with one major difference. It’s twice as fast.
DDR SDRAM can read and write two instructions at the same time, making it twice as fast as SDR SDRAM. It has other minor differences too, including its physical memory construction. DDR SDRAM has 184 pins and one notch on its connector, which differs from SDR SDRAM’s 168 pins and pair of notches.
DDR SDRAM also works at 2.5 volts rather than the 3.3 volts required for SDR SDRAM. As a result, you won’t get far if you try upgrading RAM by adding DDR SDRAM to an SDR SDRAM setup. They’re incompatible so you have to choose one or the other.
Beyond those differences, DDR SDRAM still works alongside your computer’s clock, which means faster clock speeds improve its performance. However, there are limitations to DDR SDRAM’s ability to work in time with your device’s clock, which led to more evolutions of the technology.
Type No. 7 – DDR2 SDRAM
We know that DDR stands for double data rate, so we’ll stick to the acronym for the next few RAM types.
DDR2 SDRAM is an evolution of DDR SDRAM that retains the ability to process two read and write instructions for each clock cycle. Its main difference is that it’s designed to operate at much faster clock speeds. Standard DDR RAM memory modules can only reach a maximum of 200 MHz before topping out. That’s not suitable for modern computers, which can easily reach processing speeds of several gigahertz.
With DDR2, you get memory modules that top out with clock speeds of 533 MHz. That’s still not suitable for modern devices, though it demonstrates how evolutions in the technology ran in parallel to improvements to a computer’s motherboard and processing unit.
DDR2 also operates at a lower voltage than DDR and contains 240 pins. Unfortunately, this makes DDR2 SDRAM incompatible with DDR SDRAM. If you want to upgrade a computer’s memory and currently have DDR, you’ll need to completely change the memory cells to DDR2 to improve RAM performance. Of course, this assumes you’re working with an older computer.
Type No. 8 – DDR3 SDRAM
Just as DDR2 improved on DDR’s standard clock speeds, so too did DDR3 improve on DDR2. With DDR3, you get RAM that can handle speeds of up to 800 MHz, which makes it suitable for a faster computing device than DDR2.
Other changes focused on reliability, with DDR3 using advanced signal processing to improve performance and longevity. It also requires less power than DDR2, coming in at 1.5 volts. Backward compatibility is prevented because of these power requirements and signal processing, even though DDR3 retains the 240-pin setup present in DDR2.
Type No. 9 – DDR4 SDRAM
DDR4 RAM is another evolution that mostly builds on what DDR3 offered. Even more advanced signal processing improves reliability. DDR4 also offers more memory than DDR3, in addition to being able to handle a clock speed of up to 1.6 GHz. Power consumption is pulled down to 1.2-volts as well, making this one of the most energy-efficient RAM types.
Furthermore, DDR4 has a 288-pin configuration, which again prevents backward compatibility with other types of DDR SDRAM.
Type No. 10 – Graphics Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM
Try saying the name of that type of RAM five times really fast!
Graphics double data rate synchronous dynamic RAM (GDDR SDRAM) was created in 2003 with a specific purpose in mind. It’s a type of video RAM that is designed for video graphics rendering. As such, GDDR SDRAM usually works in tandem with your device’s graphics processing unit (GPU), which is on its graphics card.
GDDR SDRAM was designed with gaming computers in mind. These computers require much higher system specifications than standard devices, including high-end video cards. With GDDR SDRAM, you get a type of memory that’s capable of handling high graphical output at 720p, 1080p, and even 4K.
Much like DDR SDRAM, GDDR SDRAM has evolved since its introduction, with the most modern version being GDDR5. GDDR RAM also operates similarly to DDR RAM, with the main difference being the amount of data GDDR RAM can process. This high data processing comes at the cost of latency, which is the RAM’s speed.
You’ll find GDDR RAM in modern gaming computers and video game consoles. It’s also used in more advanced tablet computers and smartphones.
Some RAM Examples
Now that we know the main types of RAM and how memory speed differs between each, let’s dig a little deeper into how RAM is used.
Example No. 1 – Web Browsing
You use a web browser whenever you access websites on the internet. These browsers include Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge. A web browser is an application on your computer, which means RAM is called upon whenever you open a browser.
Now, let’s say that you have a browser open for the entire time that you’re using a laptop. That means the data the browser requires to operate needs to be stored in your laptop RAM. If you keep the browser open, it continually takes up space in your RAM, which can slow down the operation of other applications you might use.
Still, having that data in RAM allows you to operate multiple tabs and navigate between websites quickly. Without it, your computer would have to pull data from your hard drive, slowing down your browsing experience in the process.
Example No. 2 – Improving Frame Rates in Video Games
Your computer’s processor and its graphics card play the biggest roles when determining the types of video games you can play. An old graphics card running on a device with an old processor won’t have a chance of playing modern games. But beyond these two components, the amount of RAM you have also plays a role.
Video games require a certain amount of RAM to run. You’ll usually see the exact specifications listed with the game you want to play. Typically, games have a minimum specifications list and a recommended set of specs. It’s here that you see how much RAM affects your gaming experience.
If you want to play the game at its maximum setting, you need to have enough RAM to do so.
As such, buying memory can improve a video game’s performance, particularly in terms of its frame rate. If you currently don’t have enough RAM for the recommended settings, an upgrade improves performance. However, opting for a memory upgrade when you already have the recommended amount of RAM won’t do much.
For example, let’s say the game you want to play has a recommended RAM setting of 16 GB. If you have 8 GB of RAM, a memory upgrade to 16 GB will lead to a marked improvement in your game’s framerate, allowing it to run smoother. But if you already have 16 GB of RAM, upgrading to 32 GB isn’t going to make much of a difference for that particular game.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab