What Are RAM and Hard Disk Storage?

Suzanne Bonnett
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When choosing new hardware, getting all the pieces to the puzzle right the first time is essential. That’s why it’s crucial to know how much RAM and storage space you need, what those components do, and all the considerations involved. But that’s why you’re here, right? Let’s get to it. 

What is RAM?

Simply defined, RAM stands for “Random Access Memory;” as such, it’s often just called “memory.” Whenever you’re looking at the hardware specs of a computer, tablet, smartphone, etc. you’ll often see RAM and Memory used interchangeably (it depends on the manufacturer). It’s important to note that sometimes the word “memory” can sometimes refer to other components, like flash memory or even storage devices. 

RAM is a type of short-term storage that is faster than traditional hard disk storage (including SSDs, or solid state storage, which is faster than HDDs), so it stores temporary files, apps, and data, allowing your device’s CPU to access them more quickly. Essentially, whatever data you’re currently accessing in the programs you use on your device is stored in RAM. That’s the first point of difference between “storage” and “memory.” 

RAM is considered “volatile” memory, but don’t worry — that isn’t as complex as it sounds. It simply means that any data stored on it will continue to be accessible to the CPU until the power source is interrupted or otherwise cut off. In other words, the data is stored and available to you while your computer is powered on and is wiped from this bit of memory when it gets turned off and rebooted (and yes, this is a friendly reminder to save that Microsoft Word document you’re working on before shutting your computer down).

RAM comes in a variety of speeds and capacities. RAM architecture differs by device and is determined by what other hardware a device needs and how it works (think about what a tablet needs and does compared to a barcode scanner or laptop, for example). RAM speed is measured in Megahertz (MHz), which is how many millions of cycles it runs per second. Simple budget-friendly devices list a modest RAM speed, such as DDR4-1600 (so, 1,600MHz), while powerful and expensive devices list higher speeds, like 4,200MHz. RAM capacity is typically measured in Gigabytes (GB), and we’ll address how much your devices need later.

What Are the Different Types of RAM?

It’s easy to write RAM off as a single-faceted piece of hardware. And while, generally speaking, it is fairly straightforward, it's worth knowing that there are multiple types of RAM. Each has its own pros and cons, naturally, which affect things like price, form factor, speed, and other aspects of overall performance. SRAM and DRAM are the two main types of RAM you’ll hear about, so let’s take a look at them first:

Static RAM (SRAM)

SRAM is a type of RAM that retains data as long as it has power. Because of this, static RAM needs a consistent power flow to work properly but does not require any refreshing (hence, static). This type of RAM is more expensive and can store less, but it’s much faster and uses less power overall.

Dynamic RAM (DRAM)

Dynamic RAM is a memory type requiring a regular refresh of power to function (the opposite of static). If DRAM doesn’t get that occasional power refresh, it will lose the data since its capacitors slowly discharge power. This RAM type is more affordable and stores more data; however, it's slower and consumes much more energy.

Beyond those, you’ll occasionally see other subsets of DRAM, but we don’t need to do a deep dive into those. The two most common at this level are SDRAM and DDR SDRAM.

(SDRAM) Synchronous Dynamic RAM

Synchronous Dynamic RAM is a type of DRAM that synchronizes with the system clock. The name is short for Single Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM (SDR SDRAM), which is important to note when we get to DDR RAM.

For one, it works in sync with the device’s clock signal to respond to data input, while DRAM works to the contrary, responding to data as soon as it’s input. SDRAM’s single data rate functionality allows the CPU to control and pace single reading and writing data task cycles comfortably. This, in turn, allows for simultaneous processing, which is faster than DRAM (and what makes it more popular).

(DDR) Double Data Rate RAM

Double Data Rate (DDR) is also known as Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic RAM (DDR SDRAM). That gets weird and confusing fast, doesn’t it? Well, don’t fret. All you really need to know here is that DDR SDRAM is pretty much the same as SDRAM, except that it works twice as fast. It can process two reading and writing task cycles in the time SDR SDRAM handles just one. You’ve likely also come across related acronyms like DDR5 SDRAM or its predecessors, DDR4 and DDR3. DDR5 is the newest iteration, with better versions of performance all around. DRAM, specifically DDR, is the most common in modern devices. 

RAM hardware

How Much RAM Do You Need?

This is one of the most important questions you’ll need to answer before buying devices for your business. RAM quantities affect the performance and price of any given device, so before investing in your enterprise gadgets, take a moment to determine your needs.

To do so, take a moment to think about whether you’ll only be running a single application on your device throughout the day or whether you’ll need to be multitasking between multiple programs. Will the program or programs you use be simple and lightweight, or ultra intensive and demanding on your RAM, processor, and other internal hardware? 

We also recommend checking whether or not a manufacturer offers any RAM configuration options for you to choose from. Many do, and this is often a much easier route than manually pricing or even modifying each device yourself. Configuring your devices beforehand is an easy and flexible way to ensure every team has the exact hardware specifications they’ll need, and it ensures that you stay on budget (especially if the manufacturer offers bulk deal sales).

Let’s see what standard RAM quantities will get you:

  • 2GB: This is the lowest amount offered in today’s devices. While this small quantity is easy on the wallet, it won’t be able to handle heavy apps or multitasking, and might even lag under light loads. We won’t recommend this for devices like phones or tablets unless you only need ultra lightweight performance. And even if it doesn’t lag today, don’t expect a long life from a device with this little RAM.
  • 4GB: If you’re looking for the sweet spot between affordability and lightweight usage, start here. While 4GB still can’t easily handle demanding programs and heavy-duty multitasking, it can handle simple usage like one or two basic or midweight programs or even a few browser tabs. This is a modest but solid place to start for any device you know won’t need to go hard with performance. It’s worth noting that 4GB will leave very little room for growth as operating systems continue to get more advanced.  
  • 8GB: This quantity is a sure bet all around. With 8GB, you can effortlessly handle video calls, mid-weight programs, and modest multitasking without any lag. It’s common in modern smartphones, tablets, and mini PCs, and more than enough to ensure smooth sailing on less demanding gadgets like kiosks, POS devices, barcode scanners, and older tablets.
  • 16GB: To ensure your device can efficiently handle multitasking and heavy-duty applications, 16GB is a sure bet. It’s also a reliable point for anyone looking to futureproof most devices for more intensive programs that may become available later on. It’s still not what the highest-end devices will feature, but most business needs will do nicely with 16GB in most cases. While this is a fantastic quantity of RAM, things start to get notably pricier.
  • 32GB: With this amount (or anything beyond), demanding users of any device and task set can’t go wrong. This is great for graphics-intensive applications, solid multitasking, gaming, creative suite programs, and more.

Other RAM Considerations

There are a few other considerations that play into RAM amount. Here’s a quick overview of other things to look out for:

  • Device Type: If you’re dealing with tablets, smartphones, or other small form factor devices, less RAM (8GB or so) is probably enough. A larger form factor or piece of equipment used for multiple purposes, like a laptop computer, will almost certainly need 16GB or more out of the gate. 
  • Future proofing: More RAM = longer lifespan. Essentially, more RAM means your devices can handle more demanding tasks and operating system advancements for longer. If you don’t want to upgrade or buy new hardware yearly, go bigger to start. 
  • Operating system resource usage: Certain operating systems aren’t as RAM-efficient as others. Windows, for example, is notorious for high RAM usage. Mobile operating systems and those built on Linux (like Android) or UNIX (like iOS) are generally more memory efficient. 
  • Upgradability: Larger form factor devices like desktop computers oftentimes support RAM upgrades. Some laptops also support adding more RAM, but many do not (it’s very device specific). Smartphones, tablets, and other small form factors are virtually never upgradable. 

RAM vs. ROM: What’s the Difference? 

Believe it or not, it’s common for people to confuse memory and storage — more specifically, RAM, ROM, and storage. RAM and ROM are both types of memory and have acronyms that look similar, and they’re all used to store files in unique ways, so the confusion is understandable. Let’s clarify things before we move on.

As we noted earlier, RAM (or “Random Access Memory”) lets your device store temporary files while your computer is on and in use. ROM stands for “Read Only Memory” and is where your device’s BIOS and firmware are stored, which you typically can’t alter (there are some exceptions here, but they’re outside the scope of this piece). Hard disk storage is where all your files are stored, like programs, documents, and graphics, which you can open, modify, or delete whenever you want.

What is Storage?

While RAM is volatile memory, the storage space on a modern digital device like a computer, smartphone, or tablet is non-volatile. That means it’s a long-term storage solution for holding files, apps, pictures, videos, music, etc. You can think of storage like a closet — simply a place where you put stuff. 

Like RAM, hard disk storage is measured in GB, and a higher quantity is often more useful (though we’ll discuss this more later). The only thing to note for now is that the advertised space is often slightly more than what will be available. The hard drive needs a minimal amount of space for caching and file system processes, which are essentially the instructions that tell it how to work once it’s connected to a device. 

There are different types of storage, each with its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. Three main types to consider are HDD, SSD, and removable media. 

Hard Disk Drives (HDD) 

Hard disk drives are the older technology here, reminiscent of vinyl record players. HDDs use complicated mechanical internals to store and retrieve your files. Every HDD has a spinning platter, similar to a vinyl record, with magnetically-coated segments. Each segment (and the tracks within it) assigns a unique ID address to each file for easy organizing and locating. When you write data onto or read data from an HDD, an actuator arm (like the arm of a turntable) spins up via an internal motor and retrieves your data (aka plays a song). Platters spin at preset speeds (typically between 4,200–7,200 RPM), and there’s not much you can do if those speeds are too slow.

The technology is straightforward enough, but everyone knows that mechanical parts tend to break down over time. Likewise, if you accidentally kick or bump an HDD while it’s spinning, it can break or cause issues. This style of storage may be more affordable, but it’s fussy and, admittedly, a lot to keep up with. It’s also much larger compared to newer storage technologies, so it’s not practical in modern portable devices.

Solid State Drives (SSD)

Our good old friend, the solid state drive, is far easier to work with, so it is pretty much exclusively used in newer technology. With SSDs, there are no moving parts, and you can kick your SSD over as much as you want without worry (but, you know, don’t). They’re also more durable, as you likely guessed, too. And while this superior technology does make SSDs a bit pricier than HDDs, they’ll statistically last longer, making them a wise investment if you can support the upfront cost.

This storage type works by using NAND flash memory, which is faster, smaller, and more energy efficient than the mechanical workings of HDDs. Within SSDs, you’ll find floating gate transistors, which store your data by noting whether there’s a charge. These floating gates are organized into grids, which are, in turn, organized into blocks. Grid rows are called pages. A controller within the SSD is programmed to keep track of where all data is stored and to retrieve it for you when asked.

Removable Media Drives 

Removable media are things like thumb drives and SD cards. Most of them technically use SSD technology, but what makes them different is that they’re not permanently attached to the interior of a device. They can be attached/detached at will and taken with you. This feature has nice benefits, from portability and multi-device flexibility to better security and a lower price. 

We’ll also note that cloud-based data storage fits here, too. This option allows you to store files on a third-party’s hard drive and access them via the internet. You’ll likely pay a monthly fee instead of buying a piece of hardware outright, but also run the risk of dealing with downed servers, high prices, and random security threats. But since cloud storage isn’t hardware, we won’t spend any more time on it.

Person holding a traditional hard disk drive and a solid state drive
Left: Traditional hard disk drive; Right: Solid state drive

How Much Storage Do You Need?

As with RAM, determining how much storage space you want before purchasing your business devices is also a great idea. Storage types and quantities will also greatly affect price and performance, so figuring out how much you’ll need ahead of time is worthwhile. Consider whether you’ll only need to store a few simple apps or graphics or need a ton of extra space for a larger variety of data, like programs, pictures, videos, documents, and other files.

Most manufacturers also offer at least a couple of storage configuration options, which we recommend looking into before making a purchase. Let’s briefly see what typical storage quantities will get you:

  • 16–32GB: This is the minimum you’ll see in today’s budget devices, and it’s plenty sufficient for those with lightweight uses, like kiosks and barcode scanners. Older devices of any variety might also offer such a small quantity, and it’s fine if you don’t want to do much with it.
  • 64GB: This is pretty much the lowest amount you’ll want to mess with in any case, although we still recommend more if you can swing it. It’s enough to store a few programs and a variety of important files, but if your business needs a huge selection of heavy-duty programs and file storage, we’d suggest going for at least a little more. But still, 64GB is a modest and affordable quantity that’ll work in most scenarios.
  • 128GB: At this point, you’ll have plenty of storage for files and apps, regardless of whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other device. This is the minimum you’ll see on most modern devices and the amount that will be the most comfortable all around.
  • 256–512GB: This is a terrific amount of space, as it gives you plenty for your current batch of programs and files while leaving room for future file downloads and programs. Do note, however, that storage of any type does start to get pricey at this point.
  • 1TB+: This is one Terabyte, or about double the previous amount - 512GB. At this point (and beyond), you’ll have more than enough storage space for whatever tasks you want to work on. This is enough to store multiple large programs, extensive database information, and other important data with room to grow. This is almost certainly overkill for the majority of company-owned and managed device use cases. 

We should also note that availability of both RAM and storage will vary by device type, brand, price range, and age. As we stated earlier, everything comes down to your business’ device needs. Do you only need a couple of single-use devices like barcode scanners, kiosks, or POS devices? Don’t go wild on either RAM or storage. Want a fleet of smartphones, tablets, mini PCs, and other more heavy duty devices? You’ll want to bulk up on both.

Can You Expand RAM and Storage?

As your business grows, you might eventually wonder, “Hey, my devices could use some more RAM — is upgrading possible?” Unfortunately, for the most part, it isn’t possible. On mobile devices, swapping out or adding RAM or internal storage is not viable. You can’t add more RAM to a tablet or smartphone, and as for storage, your only option here is to swap in a larger SD card if the device has a slot available (although most modern devices do not). The primary exception is PC form factors unless the RAM is soldered to the motherboard, in which case it’s nearly impossible. 

Hardware is Confusing. Esper Can Help. 

Whether you’re upgrading, buying new, or replacing specific pieces, choosing the right hardware for your device fleet can be challenging. But we have the technical experience informed by thousands of use cases across a range of industries to help. If you want to make a hardware upgrade and need some guidance, get in touch. 

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Suzanne Bonnett
Suzanne Bonnett

Suzanne is a Freelance Writer for Esper, and brings over 8 years of tech knowledge to the company. She has experience writing and editing hardware and software explainers, hands-on product reviews, buying guides, and the latest technology news articles covering all kinds of tech, from smartphones and apps to gaming and smart home gear.

Suzanne Bonnett
Learn about Esper mobile device management software for Android and iOS
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