Did you ever use scrap paper in an exam? If so, you just might relate to your computer!
A RAM Module being installed. Next to the RAM module you can see the heatsink and fan on top of the CPU (central processing unit). The CPU communicates often with the RAM, which is why they are near one another.
One of the most important specifications that is often sought after but not understood is RAM Memory (not technically called RAM Memory, since the acronym itself has the word memory in it). RAM, which stands for Random Access Memory, is a type of physical memory that is commonly found in modules inside desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and all kinds of electronic devices (even your DVR and DVD/Blu-Ray Player).
We all know that hard disk space is used to store data. Documents, pictures, music, videos, and any other data gets stored as bytes onto our hard drive. When we shut down our computer, our data stays there, ready to be retrieved on a restart.
However, RAM acts quite differently from a hard drive's memory. The primary difference between RAM and hard drive memory is that RAM is temporary. Information that gets written and retrieved from RAM is wiped out when you shut down your computer, in contrast to a hard drive's memory which stores the information in-between boots.
So what exactly do we need RAM for? Think about an exam you took. Did you use scrap paper in this exam? If you did, do you remember why you found the scrap paper so helpful? It probably was useful because you stored temporary calculations in it (in two, three, four step problems and beyond). To calculate your final answer, you probably looked more at your scrap paper than the actual exam sheet.
After the exam is over, you probably ended up with a messy sheet of scrap paper, but landed a score of 100 on your exam. Well, RAM works the same way as your sheet of scrap paper!
A brief diagram showing how RAM fits into the entire computer system.
See, when you start a program on your computer, your computer (specifically, your CPU or central processing unit as shown in the image above) gathers the files and information necessary to run that program. Some of this data is stored temporarily in the RAM module(s). When you work within the program (suppose you are using Microsoft Word), anything you are typing is actually being written onto your RAM--not your hard drive. It is actually when you save your document that the information is transferred from the RAM into the hard drive.
Why does the computer do this? The same reason why you used scrap paper in that exam. The computer needs a faster, more temporary solution for its own "calculations" before it can store the file or data that you need it to--this faster solution is RAM. Since RAM does not have any moving parts as compared to a hard disk drive, it is a much faster form of memory compared to a hard drive. And for a computer, it is this speed and temporary memory that is essential for giving the end-user a seamless experience when using a program.
And when you exit the program, the computer deletes the information from the RAM to free up space for other programs that may be executed--just like when you completed your exam and threw out your scrap paper, the computer does the same.
So the next time you're using a program (or 10 simultaneously in this day and age), remember, your computer is working hard to communicate, write, and retrieve data from RAM in order to give you a smoother experience (or maybe it just needs the sheet of scrap paper for that long-answer question we all hate, who knows!).