What’s the Difference between RAM and ROM?

Q: It’s time for me to upgrade so I’m trying to configure a new PC, but am getting confused at the difference between RAM and storage. Aren’t SSD drives comprised of RAM memory too?

A: It used to be that there were two types of memory, RAM (random access memory) and ROM (read-only memory), with everything else known as storage. Floppy disks, mag tapes, hard drives, they were all physical devices with information stored and retrieved through magnets or lasers.

Dave Taylor
Dave Taylor

That’s ancient history, though, and memory has become so much larger that just about every storage device we use is also built upon memory chips, albeit in a slightly different form.

Remember VHS cassettes? Imagine wanting to just watch the last five minutes of a movie when the tape was fully rewound: You’d have to skip, and skip, and skip, until you found what you sought. Sequential access = slow and tedious.

Using memory chips allows for random access with no penalty for data storage location. As memory chips have increased in capacity, it’s become common to find hundreds of gigabytes or even terabytes of storage in a completely solid state, chip-based device. “SSD” stands for Solid-State Drive and if you cracked one open, you’d see a tiny circuit board with a few RAM chips thereon.

More importantly, RAM is the memory that programs use while they’re running. Watching a movie, searching an email folder, running spell-check in Word, they all require computer memory. Some tasks need a lot, like playing an immersive, graphically intensive computer game or rendering 4K video content.

Storage, on the other hand, is where all of your programs save things so that when you come back tomorrow, your files, photos, music, and videos haven’t vanished. You need both on a modern computer for the best experience. If you’re going to be running Windows 11, I suggest at least 16GB of RAM.

How much storage? That depends on what you’ll be saving on your computer. An archive with years of email is fairly small, but if you save every single video you watch on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, they can consume an astonishing amount of space in a fairly short time.

The operating system itself also requires disk space too, typically around 25GB. I would recommend no less than 128GB for PC storage and 512GB or more might save you a lot of heartache when the device would otherwise be starting to fill up.

Mac systems are the same, by the way. The best rule is the more you’re planning on pushing the capabilities of your system, the more RAM you should get. My Mac laptop
has 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD for storage!

Dave Taylor has been involved with the online world since the dawn of the Internet. He runs the popular AskDaveTaylor.com tech Q&A site and you can find his entertaining gadget reviews on YouTube . Chat with him on Twitter as @DaveTaylor.

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Sept. 19, 2022 MILWAUKEE — James B. Speta, Elizabeth Froehling Horner Professor of Law at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, will deliver Marquette University Law School’s annual Boden Lecture, “Can common-carrier principles make for a better internet?” on Thursday, Sept. 22, at 4:30 p.m. in the Lubar Center at […]
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