Computer Basics – RAM

Let’s start with the basics.

Has anyone ever told you how a computer works?

Wait – don’t go. It’s a simple explanation.

Here we will discuss the most likely cause of slow computers and one solution to that problem. There are only three components pertinent to our discussion of the issue of speed.

Those three are:

  1. The CPU (Central Processing Unit)
  2. Memory a.k.a. RAM
  3. The hard drive.

When discussing memory, we will talk in terms of RAM (Random Access Memory). The CPU is hardware and it is controlled by software known as the OS (Operating System). The OS takes the instructions you provide and manipulates the data that is currently in RAM.

That was easy, right? The last three words in the above paragraph express the most important concept about what is happening inside your computer. “Currently in RAM” means the data is already in memory; if not, the OS has to find data on the hard drive and load it into memory. If you are thinking RAM equals speed, you are on the right track.

Understanding that one concept explains the most commonly heard complaint in tech support – “my computer is SO SLOW!” You know you’ve said it. I’ve said it. So, here is the most likely explanation for that problem. You don’t have enough RAM.

Example: Suppose you have a document open in Microsoft Word and you are running several other applications in the background. This should not be a problem; your computer can multi-task and manage all of that work at the same time. The truth is the OS does a phenomenal job of managing to keep all those balls in the air simultaneously.

Here is the rub: How many applications will fit into memory at the same time? If having many things running (or documents and applications open) at the same time has filled the available RAM, there is none left for that next document you plan to open.

So, without thinking about this dilemma, you double click that next document. What will your computer do? The OS now has to determine if that new document will fit into available RAM. Finding none available, the system has to unload something from RAM, which means is has to write that data to a temporary location on the hard drive. Then, it has to get the document from the hard drive and pull that data into free space in RAM. Finally, you are able to work with the new document.

Why did you have to wait so long to open one more document?

Perhaps an analogy is the best way to illustrate the concept.

You be the computer. Think of your mind’s ability to process information as the CPU and your memory as another part of your brain. We’ll use your phone number to represent the document we want to open. In this case, I’ll be the computer user. My double click of the mouse represents a request to you (my wonderful computer) for your phone number. If you remember your phone number (it is already in RAM), you would simply tell me the number. That’s about as fast as any computer could produce the result. The task is done. Mere seconds have elapsed.

If you don’t have that number in memory, more work is necessary. You have to find your address book, look up the number and (I went to get coffee while waiting for my computer to respond). Finally, you are able to provide your phone number to me. Many seconds, maybe minutes have elapsed – that is the speed difference between RAM and the hard disk.

This is the essence of what makes your computer SO SLOW. That was a long way to go to drive home one point: the need for speed is met by installing more RAM. This is a relatively inexpensive solution. Most memory upgrades cost around $30 to $150, depending on your needs.

It’s easy to find the amount of RAM currently in your computer. Open up your Control Panel and double-click System. The System Properties window displays information on speed and RAM, along with other information about your computer. Determining how much RAM to add is easy too – call me for details.


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