RAM vs. HDD: What’s the Difference?

RAM and Hard drive

Most of you are likely aware of 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 a given time, the latter permanently stores your data so that you can access it later. But, of course, the rabbit hole goes much deeper than this.

So, if you’re unsure of the differences between the two, you might be a bit lost on what you need. Don’t fret because, by the end of this guide, you’ll 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 stored temporarily, and all processes are lost once you turn off your computer.

On the other hand, non-volatile memory retains information once it is saved to the drive. Once data is securely stored on the drive, the loss of power 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.

So, any form of temporary storage is volatile—this includes RAM, cache, registry memory, etc. Similarly, any form of permanent storage is non-volatile—hard drives, USBs, optical drives, and external drives are all examples of non-volatile memory.

Data: Temporary vs. Permanent Data Storage

Since volatile memory only temporarily stores data, RAM is more like short-term memory for your computer. So, why would your computer want to temporarily store information at all when it can do so permanently, you ask?

The simple answer is that RAM is significantly faster than a hard drive or solid-state drive (SSD). Whenever you open an app, access multiple files, or even launch a game, the program will create temporary processes that it needs to run correctly.

Permanent and temporary storage type

These processes are stored in RAM so that they can be accessed quickly. When you close the program in question, all the processes are closed too. So, RAM is used to temporarily store data that needs to be accessed quickly.

On the flip side, permanent data storage is also essential. You need a place to store all your apps, games, files, and folders, don’t you?

This is where hard drives come into play, as installing various programs can take up a lot of storage. RAM modules have a lower capacity than hard drives, so that’s why all of your programs and files are saved on a permanent storage drive.

How Do RAM and Storage Affect Your Computer’s Speed?

RAM and hard drives have their own purposes, but both can affect your computer’s speed. For example, if you have a lot of processes currently running, that will use up a lot of system memory.

It’s not uncommon to “run out of RAM” either. 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 RAM usage. Still, that’s only a short-term fix. If you have 8GB of RAM in your computer and constantly find yourself closing programs, then it’s time to upgrade to 16GB or higher.

Hard disk drive internal

The same is valid for non-volatile storage like HDD. If you have a lot of programs, games, pictures, and files saved on your drive, then there’s a chance you will eventually run out of storage. This also means you could run out of space for virtual memory. Computers sometimes use virtual memory present on the drives to store data.

When you use up all the available RAM, the computer uses a temporary expansion on your hard drive to run processes for certain programs. This is known as a paging file. If your computer can’t allocate enough space to this paging file, then you’ll experience a major reduction in performance.

So, in a sense, filling up your hard drive completely with data will also eventually slow down your system.

Upgrading RAM vs. Upgrading HDD

Generally, you can upgrade the RAM or hard drive in most desktop computers. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true for all laptops. Most new laptops these days have soldered-on memory, and some don’t even let you access the hard drive or SSD.

Fortunately, you can upgrade RAM in your Windows desktop by simply swapping your old kit for a new one. You could also just add another stick of RAM. For example, if you have a single stick of 8GB, you could add another 8GB stick of the same spec to have a total of 16GB of RAM in your system.

RAM sticks in computer

You could also add a new hard drive in most cases if you need more storage. While you’re on it, read up on the differences between SSDs and HDDs. 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 isn’t true for RAM. For compatibility reasons, you need to be aware of the right generation, speed, form factor, bandwidth, and more. Check out our simple guide to RAM to help with all that technical jargon.

In conclusion, when upgrading your RAM or hard drive you’ll need to be aware of your system limitations because you may not be able to do so for some computers. For example, you can’t upgrade the RAM or storage on an Apple silicon Mac.

However, if you can’t access the internal hard drive on your laptop, you can always buy an external hard drive.

Make the Right Choice When Upgrading Your Memory

Hopefully, this brief guide cleared some of your confusion on 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 new computer altogether.

Apart from just upgrading these two components, there’s a lot more you can do to make your PC faster. For example, you could upgrade to a new processor, switch to a different operating system, and make sure that your computer is cooled properly.

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