If you have ever looked at the specifications of a computer, whether you were hoping to buy a new one, or just curious about the speed of your own laptop, you’ve almost certainly seen just how many numbers there are. Two of the most essential specifications, memory and storage, are often confused with each other, as it isn’t entirely obvious that they would be different. However, though both have to do with holding information, the information they hold, and they way they hold it, is very different.
Storage is what most people think of when they think about the information in a computer. All of your computer’s files, including programs and the operating system, are held in storage. If you’ve ever gotten into trouble with your computer “running out of space” that’s an issue with insufficient storage.
There are two major types of storage devices. The first and most classic type is the mechanical hard drive (HDD). Hard drives are relatively old technology; they use magnetized plates spinning at very high speeds to hold information. By now, hard drives have become very affordable, especially for high capacities. It is easy to find a 1 terabyte hard drive for around $50, and you can generally go as high as 4TB for under $200. Even larger drives do exist (up to 12TB in the standard 3.5 inch size) but you will pay quite a high premium for such an extreme capacity. The biggest downside of hard drives is their slow speed, since the plates need to physically move for the information to be read. Furthermore, their reliance on incredibly precise moving parts make them quite delicate- not ideal for laptops that need to be durable.
The second type of storage drive is the solid state drive (SSD). These drives use NAND flash memory (the same technology as in a USB key) to store information without any moving parts. This system solves many of the problems associated with hard drives: they are smaller (the standard is 2.5 inches), much faster, and very durable compared to hard drives, which has made made them more popular in modern laptops. However, all of these benefits come at a much higher price. Most of the SSDs found in laptops are only 256 or 512 gigabytes (1/4 and 1/2 of a terabyte respectively), and even these small sizes generally cost $100-200. For configurations holding a terabyte or more you could easily spend well over $500.
The amount of storage you need depends on how much data you want to keep on your computer. For most people, a 256GB SSD in a laptop will be fast and plenty big enough. But you will eventually run into problems if you download lots of big files like games, large photos, and videos. The most common setup for people with lots of data is an SSD and a hard drive. Putting your operating system and essential files on the SSD will speed up your computer significantly, but having the hard drive for cheap bulk storage is indispensable.
Memory, also called RAM (Random Access Memory) is much faster than even SSD drives: around 100 times the speed. However, the essential difference between memory and storage is that memory is volatile, meaning it loses all of its data instantly if it loses power. Computers use RAM to hold information as it is being used, the more you are doing at once, the more RAM your computer will need to keep up. The volatility of memory is why you can lose data if your computer turns off suddenly. For example, as you write a paper, Word will keep the document file in your computer’s memory. If you aren’t careful and the computer turns off suddenly, you will lose all that data and only be left with what you had when you last saved the paper. Saving is just telling word to copy the file from memory to storage, making it permanent.
You don’t need nearly as much memory as you need storage, and it can be quite expensive to upgrade. Most computers have at least 4GB of RAM, which is plenty for browsing the internet or using Word. Unlike with storage, running out of memory isn’t always an obvious problem. Your computer won’t suddenly stop, instead it will slow down quite badly as it transfers data between memory and storage. If you are worried, it is very easy to check how much memory your computer is using at any given time. Upgrading to 8 or 16GB of RAM is fairly common, but will probably cost $50-200. This will speed up almost any computer, but it is most useful for people who multitask quite a lot, video/photo editors, or gamers. Past that you can again get much higher capacities: 32 or 64GB isn’t uncommon for high resolution video editors or 3D designers, but it will cost hundreds of dollars. Even more extreme setups are theoretically possible with hundreds of gigabytes or even terabytes of RAM costing thousands of dollars. But these types of systems are only ever used as business computers or servers.
Artwork by Isaac Ogle