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What Is Volatile Memory?

By Gabriele Sturmer
Updated May 16, 2024
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Volatile memory is the temporary random access memory (RAM) in a computer. This type of memory holds the program and operating system files that a user has active, but it does not keep its contents when the user shuts off the computer. RAM is considerably faster than the permanent storage devices a computer has, so it works well for its purpose. The temporary nature of volatile memory is a disadvantage, however, because a user will lose any unsaved data if his or her computer loses power unexpectedly or if the computer crashes.

All computers and many other devices use volatile memory, because it is useful for quickly storing and accessing operating system and program files and holds the information in the memory as long as the computer has power. When a user opens a program and starts to type a document, the program and its data run in the computer's RAM until the user saves the file to the hard drive, CD or floppy disk for permanent storage. This describes non-volatile memory. This includes hard drives, flash memory and read-only memory. Volatile and non-volatile memory work together to play a critical part in a computer's data storage and transfers.

Volatile memory comes in various speeds and form factors that are used for both desktop and laptop computers. The larger memory sticks are used in desktop computers while more compact memory is reserved for laptop computers and for some all-in-one models. Double data rate (DDR) memory is relatively fast, is supported by most newer motherboards, and is available in form factors that fit both laptops and desktops. Some systems take advantage of dual-channel technology that noticeably improves the computer's speed and performance. In this type of configuration, a set of two sticks of the same kind of DDR memory is installed so both RAM sticks can work together effectively.

There are some downsides to temporary memory, but its benefits outweigh the negative aspects. A major concern is the data loss that can occur if there's a power outage, unexpected system reboot or power supply failure, but there are uninterruptible power supplies that can be used to lessen this threat. Another way to prevent data loss when one works on a document is to save the document as often as possible or to use a program that automatically saves changes to the hard drive.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By SkyWhisperer — On Oct 04, 2011

@miriam98 - I didn’t know that you could do that. I assume that he needed at least a little space on a floppy disk or something.

Anyway, that approach would hardly be practical nowadays, with prices for hard drives, memory and everything else plummeting. I do agree that RAM is faster, especially when you add in the caching.

Personally, I prefer non volatile flash memory to store a lot of my data. It’s fast, and not as susceptible to corruption and easy deletion as RAM is. Plus, flash drives have gotten much bigger in size, so I can use them to do an easy backup of my computer.

By miriam98 — On Oct 03, 2011

RAM is volatile, but it’s also fast, there is no doubt about it. I was using computers back in the late 1980s. I had a friend who was part of a Macintosh users group, and he was responsible for doing desktop publishing of the group’s newsletters and stuff like that.

Back then he didn’t have a hard drive. But he kept his computer on all the time and was able to load everything into RAM. This included all of his software, everything.

Of course that’s a risky proposition; if the computer shuts down, he loses everything. I asked him why he never bought a hard disk, but he just preferred constantly boosting his RAM size and keeping everything there.

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