Spinning Plates and Solid States: Understanding Hard Drives and Memory

eHow Tech Blog

It seems like everyone wants to super charge their computer with a bigger, faster hard drive and more memory.  When you enter a computer store, you might get dressed down by some geeky sales person who determines you’re just a megabyte away from extinction. This almost happened to a friend of mine; he said he was running out of memory and needed a new hard drive.  My reply was, “Houston, we have a problem.”  I intervened and offered to help.

A hard drive isn’t “memory” and RAM isn’t just a mountain goat with big horns.  If these terms make your head spin, you’re not alone.  Today, we’ll discuss the differences between hard disk drives, memory and solid state drives.

What’s a hard disk drive?

A hard disk drive is your computer’s permanent storage. Everything on your computer  — photos, music, documents, games, programs — live on your computer’s hard drive (HDD).  Unless the HDD breaks or you delete something from it, the information stays there — even when your computer is turned off. An HDD looks a bit like an old record player. The discs spin around, and an arm extends over the disc, just like the tonearm of a record player.  The tip of this arm drops on specific parts of the disc to either drop off or pick up information.Your HDD

What’s memory or random access memory?

Random access memory (RAM) is your computer’s temporary storage area, more accurately described as memory.  RAM is much smaller and has no moving parts, making it ideal for quick and efficient access to the files you’re currently using.  For example, when you are playing a song on your computer, that specific song is copied to RAM.  The rest of your music library remains on your HDD. Once you select another song to play, that song gets added to your RAM as well. When you turn off your music program, your computer notices that it doesn’t need quick access to the music anymore and erases them from RAM, which frees memory for the next program you want to use.

Memory and RAM

Think about these concepts like this: Let’s say you’re cooking a fancy omelette.  You have a bunch of ingredients on hand and decide it’s most efficient to first grab all the ingredients from the fridge and set them out on the counter for easy access as you cook. At the end of the cooking session, you return the unused ingredients to the fridge, toss the trash and make sure the counter is clear for the next cooking session.

In this example, the food in your fridge is like music on your computer’s HDD.  The counter is like your RAM.  The counter holds only a smaller portion of your food — the portion for which you need quick and easy access.  Just as the counter is cleared when you’re done cooking, the RAM clears when you were done listening to music.

What’s a solid state drive?

You know the saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Well guess what? It turns out that you can — if you’re a computer.

Solid state drives

Solid State Drives are big, like a HDD, and fast, like RAM.  They are silent, have no moving parts, and are extremely energy efficient.  There is a catch of course. SSDs are pricey, costing as much as three to six times the equivalent sized HDD.  That’s the price you pay when you have the need for speed.

Just like everything in tech, prices will eventually come down (and actually, they already have come down a lot). When they do, everyone can feel the exhilarating speed of a super-charged computer.  And maybe, just maybe, we can go fast enough to escape extinction.

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