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Computer Memory

Find out about the different types of computer memory.

Computer memory is divided into small pieces called bytes. [© Jupiter Images, 2010]
© Jupiter Images, 2010
Computer memory is divided into small pieces called bytes.

Computer memory is a term used to describe the capacity of a computer to store information. To complete any process, whether it is playing a game, word processing, or viewing pages on the Internet, the computer must have a processor, the component that translates raw data into computer processes, and memory, a component for storing data.

There are different types of memory, classified by the method used to store information and how the computer accesses that information. Computer memory is divided into small pieces called bytes. Most computer memory devices hold millions of bytes, and the capacity of an information storage device is usually expressed in megabytes, which equals one million bytes, and gigabytes, which equals approximately one billion bytes.

There are many different types of memory storage devices, but all can be divided into two categories: temporary storage and permanent storage. For those looking to purchase a new computer or upgrade an old one, there are two essential memory components to measure a computer's overall memory: permanent storage in a hard drive, and temporary storage in the computer's random access memory (RAM).

Permanent Computer Memory

A computer's hard drive is the basic device used for permanent data storage. The hard drive consists of a spinning metal platter and a writing tool called the head. When the computer is active, the platter spins and the head can retrieve information from the hard drive and make that information available for processing, and can also write information onto the hard drive for long-term storage.

The capacity of a hard drive is expressed in terms of how many megabytes or gigabytes of information the drive will hold. While hard drive storage is sometimes referred to as permanent, information can be erased from the hard drive to free up more space.

When a file is saved or a program is installed on a computer, the computer writes information onto the hard drive. When the computer is deactivated, the hard drive retains its information, allowing the information to be retrieved at a later time.

Temporary Computer Memory

The one drawback to hard drive memory is that it is relatively slow to access because information retrieval depends on reading information from a physical device. To make computers faster, engineers have created several forms of temporary memory storage, which uses electrical signals to store information. The most important form of temporary storage is Random Access Memory (RAM), which derives its name from the fact that the memory can be accessed randomly, rather than in a specific sequence.

A computer's RAM consists of a set of chips inside the computer that temporarily store information retrieved from the hard drive. When a user accesses a program that has been installed on the computer's hard drive, the computer makes a copy of some of the information from the hard drive and places it in RAM. The information can then be accessed much more quickly than if the information needed to be retrieved from the hard drive directly, according to Rhode Island University.

Upgrading Computer Memory

The function of a computer depends both on the processing capacity of the computer's CPU and on the capacity for both permanent and temporary storage. Running any program, whether a game or a word processing program, requires a certain processing and memory capacity.

For instance, a word processing program may require 500 megahertz of processing capability, and may also require at least 200 megabytes of RAM and more than one gigabyte of hard drive space. Computer games with complex graphics may require higher computer capacities. Some games may require as many as four gigahertz of processing capacity, and may require more than 1,000 megabytes of RAM and as many as 10 gigabytes of hard drive space, according to Absolute Beginner's Guide to Computer Basics.

Replacing a computer's CPU is generally impractical and may simply require purchasing a new computer. However, both the hard drive and the RAM may be upgraded in many computers. The computer's primary circuit board may contain extra slots for installing new chips to upgrade the computer's RAM.

Upgrading a computer's RAM enables the computer to store more information in temporary electrical format, and therefore increases the speed at which a computer can perform certain functions. Before attempting to upgrade a computer's RAM, the user must know about the computer's RAM limit, which is the maximum memory capacity that can function with the computer's other components, according to PC Stats.

It is noted by PC Stats that there is a point of diminishing returns with adding memory. For instance, the user would see a better performance increase moving from 64MB of RAM to 128MB of RAM on a Windows 2000 system than they would see if they went from 512MB to 1GN of RAM on the same machine.

Upgrading a computer's hard drive is more complicated than installing new RAM. Hard drives are more expensive to purchase and some technical expertise is required to safely complete installation without damaging other computer components. Installing a new hard drive will also require reinstalling the computer's operating system, which is the basic set of programs that determine how the computer functions. Information stored on the computer's previous hard drive can, in some cases, be retrieved and transferred to the new hard drive.

How to Learn More about Memory

There are some interesting Web sites that provide additional information on computer memory and how it functions:


Guides on installing new hardware and software can be found on the following sites:

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