Definition Wednesday: What is RAM?

RAM (random access memory) is the place in a computer where the operating system, application programs, and data in current use are kept so that they can be quickly reached by the computer's processor. RAM is much faster to read from and write to than the other kinds of storage in a computer such as the hard drive or media. However, the data in RAM stays there only as long as your computer is running. When you turn the computer off, RAM loses its data. When you turn your computer on again, your operating system and other files are once again loaded into RAM, usually from your hard drive.

Comic Strip Joke: Dad said the computer needs more RAM because it's slow.  Maybe Grandpa needs more RAM.

RAM can be compared to a person's short-term memory and the hard drive to the long-term memory. The short-term memory focuses on work at hand, but can only keep so many facts in view at one time. If short-term memory fills up, your brain sometimes is able to refresh it from facts stored in long-term memory. A computer also works this way. If RAM fills up, the processor needs to continually go to the hard drive to overlay old data in RAM with new, slowing down the computer's operation. Unlike the hard drive which can become completely full of data so that it won't accept any more, RAM never runs out of memory. It keeps operating, but much more slowly than you may want it to.

Last Updated: August 23, 2016