Thursday, May 31, 2012

What is RAM?

Random Access Memory (RAM) provides space for your computer to read and write data to be accessed by the CPU (central processing unit). When people refer to a computer's memory, they usually mean its RAM.
If you add more RAM to your computer, you reduce the number of times your CPU must read data from your hard disk. This usually allows your computer to work considerably faster, as RAM is many times faster than a hard disk.
RAM is volatile, so data stored in RAM stays there only as long as your computer is running. As soon as you turn the computer off, the data stored in RAM disappears.
When you turn your computer on again, your computer's boot firmware (called BIOS on a PC) uses instructions stored semi-permanently in ROM chips to read your operating system and related files from the disk and load them back into RAM.


Several types of RAM are used in modern computers. Before 2002, most computers used single data rate (SDR) RAM. Most computers made since then use either double data rate (DDR), DDR2, or DDR3 RAM. DDR2 is able to achieve faster transfer rates to prevent limitation of your CPU's performance, and DDR3 technology takes these advancements even further.
Note that these RAM technologies are not interchangeable. One type of RAM will not function if installed with another type, and physical differences in the RAM modules prevent them from even being inserted in the same computer.

How RAM Works

Random access memory (RAM) is the best known form of computer memory. RAM is considered "random access" because you can access any memory cell directly if you know the row and column that intersect at that cell.
The opposite of RAM is serial access memory (SAM). SAM stores data as a series of memory cells that can only be accessed sequentially (like a cassette tape). If the data is not in the current location, each memory cell is checked until the needed data is found. SAM works very well for memory buffers, where the data is normally stored in the order in which it will be used (a good example is the texture buffer memory on a video card). RAM data, on the other hand, can be accessed in any order.
Similar to a microprocessor, a memory chip is an integrated circuit (IC) made of millions of transistors and capacitors. In the most common form of computer memory, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), a transistor and a capacitor are paired to create a memory cell, which represents a single bit of data. The capacitor holds the bit of information -- a 0 or a 1 (see How Bits and Bytes Work for information on bits). The transistor acts as a switch that lets the control circuitry on the memory chip read the capacitor or change its state.
­A capacitor is like a small bucket­ that is able to store electrons. To store a 1 in the memory cell, the bucket is filled with electrons. To store a 0, it is emptied. The problem with the capacitor's bucket is that it has a leak. In a matter of a few milliseconds a full bucket becomes empty. Therefore, for dynamic memory to work, either the CPU or the memory controller has to come along and recharge all of the capacitors holding a 1 before they discharge. To do this, the mem­ory controller reads the memory and then writes it right back. This refresh operation happens automatically thousands of times per second.­

1 Megabit chip - one of the last models developed by VEB Carl Zeiss Jena in 1989
The capacitor in a dynamic RAM memory cell is like a leaky bucket. It needs to be refreshed periodically or it will discharge to 0. This refresh operation is where dynamic RAM gets its name. Dynamic RAM has to be dynamically refreshed all of the time or it forgets what it is holding. The downside of all of this refreshing is that it takes time and slows down the memory.
In this article, you'll learn all about what RAM is, what kind you should buy and how to install it. See the next page to learn more about dynamic RAM and memory cells.­