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What is Computer Memory?

By Joseph W.
Updated May 16, 2024
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Computer memory can refer to many types of memory within a computer, but, typically, it refers to random access memory (RAM). It is physically found on computer chips that are inserted onto the computer’s motherboard. RAM is electronic, rather than mechanical; that is, it does not have moving parts and therefore data access to it is very fast. Modern computers often have somewhere between 256 MB (megabytes) and 2 GB (gigabytes) of RAM, although there are, of course, computers with more or less RAM. RAM is also volatile, meaning that it gets lost when the computer is switched off.

The expensive nature of RAM spurred the creation of another type of computer memory called virtual memory. With virtual memory, a slow down in performance is observed only when you try to operate a program whose files are in the virtual memory. In essence, this slow down is only observed when shifting between programs. In this way, virtual memory often provides a cheaper alternative to RAM.

A third type of computer memory is cache. There are two types of cache. Primary cache, or level 1 cache, is built right into the central processing unit (CPU) and ensures instant availability of data that the CPU frequently needs. Secondary cache, or level 2 cache, is usually built on a memory chip, is located very close to the CPU, and has a direct connection to the CPU through a dedicated circuit. Secondary cache is bigger in capacity than primary cache. Cache basically speeds up the rate at which data moves from the main memory to the CPU.

The registers form a fourth type of computer memory. These are units within the CPU that contain specific types of data, especially for the Arithmetic and Logic Unit (ALU). A final group of computer memory is called flash. This is a solid-state, rewritable type of memory. Examples of flash memory include BIOS and memory cards. Just like the RAM, they are electronic and not mechanical. They are also non-volatile, and are therefore suitable for digital cameras, mobile phones and other miniaturized computers.

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Discussion Comments
By parmnparsley — On Jul 27, 2010

@ StraightLine- I once made the mistake of buying a Gateway laptop that did not have the capacity to expand the RAM. The processor, hard drive space, and extra features were great for the price I paid…maybe a little too great for the $900 I paid. In about a year and a half I needed to upgrade my memory so my PC could handle some of the more powerful software applications I was using.

I took it to the Microsoft store only to find out it already had its maximum 1 GB of RAM installed. Why a company would build a PC that powerful, but only limit it to 1GB of RAM beats me. I now know why it was on clearance.

Soon after, I gave the Gateway up and bought a nice VAIO. Now I have 4 GB of RAM that is expandable to 8 GB and a blazing fast processor. I only spent about $300 more, but it has been well worth it. I should be able to keep this computer for twice as long.

By StraightLine — On Jul 21, 2010

A note to all laptop owners: most manufacturers do not equip their computers with the particular model’s maximum RAM capacity. Quite often, in fact, the stock RAM quantities are significantly lower than the model’s maximum potential RAM.

Fortunately, it is easy and not very costly to upgrade RAM. Any computer technology story worth its salt will carry a number of RAM upgrade options for a variety of different computer models and makers.

I quadrupled my Macbook’s RAM for less than $40. By upgrading your computer’s RAM, it will be able to handle more operations at once and at a higher processing speed. There is no reason not to upgrade RAM if you are someone who uses a computer a lot.

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