Q: What is the difference between memory and hard drive?

Tech Q & A
– Submitted by many
A: This is one of the most common points of confusion for computer users. The problem is that the term “memory” can technically be used correctly when referring to several different technologies. So many users do not know exactly what the term memory refers to. And other users think that hard drive capacity is the same thing as memory. Therefore, to help users avoid confusion, I will try to clarify what the different technologies refer to.

First, the most common use of the term memory refers to RAM (random access memory). RAM, technically “main RAM”, is your computer’s working space. The amount of RAM in your computer determines how efficiently your computer runs, especially when opening many programs or large files at one. Imagine working at a very small desk. All the things you need may not fit on the desk. You would need to take some things off the desk to put other things on it. This is much less efficient than if you had a larger desk with everything you needed easily within reach. Similarly, a computer without enough RAM has to go through a process of data swapping, which slows it down significantly.

Hard drive capacity, also referred to as hard drive “space” or storage, is not the same thing as RAM, therefore in common usage it is not correct to refer to hard drive capacity as “memory”. Your computer’s hard drive capacity determines how much data you can keep on your computer. Data stored on your hard drive is considered “non-volatile” since you can turn off your computer and the data stays on your hard drive. But of course, a hard drive problem can result in data loss, so as usual, please have a good backup plan.

So to sum up to this point, memory = RAM, storage, capacity, space = hard drive. However, there is a new point of potential confusion. In the last few years a technology called “flash memory” has become very commonplace. The confusing part is that flash memory is generally used for storage, not RAM. Therefore users hear the term “flash memory” and may get it confused with RAM (and unfortunately, the industry also sometimes refers to it as “flash RAM”). To make it even more confusing, the popularity of USB flash drives throws another technology into the mix. Many users think that sticking a USB flash drive into their computer gives them more “memory”. As explained above, this does not give them more main RAM, which is what they may really need. So I suggest that we stick to the practice of calling USB flash drives as “drives”, not memory, since they are used primarily for storage.

The bottom line is to double-check with a competent technology professional if you believe you need more “memory”. Oftentimes, users think they need more “memory” because a friend told them or because they are considering the purchase of software that requires a certain amount of RAM or hard drive space. While you can buy RAM or hard drives at office supply stores, I would not recommend using those places to get advice, as you can never be sure of the expertise of the sales people working the floor at any particular time. I have had many clients purchase the wrong technology because they weren’t sure what they really needed and the sales person didn’t have any real technology expertise to help them make the right decision. Consult your technology professional first and save time and money.

As usual, please submit any technology questions you may have and your decedents will forever praise your name!