What’s the difference between storage and RAM?

By | January 27, 2017


The difference is big

One of the most misunderstood stat, that everyone quotes, is that of how much “memory” a device has.  Usually, people when talking about how much storage space they have they call it memory.  “Oh, I can’t save any more pictures since I am out of memory.”  While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with saying this, it is technically incorrect.  Let’s look at the differences.

What is Memory?

Memory in a device, which is referred to as RAM, which is Random Access Memory, nowadays it is expressed in Gigabytes (GB) of RAM.  For more understanding, a smartphone will usually have 2GB of RAM, a Chromebook 2GB or 4GB, a Windows or Mac Laptop will have 8GB, and a desktop will usually come with 8GB to 16GB.  While these numbers are guidelines for more recent devices, they mean the same thing.  The more memory a device has access too, the more operations it can handle at once.

RAM is the space in which the currently running application is kept while it is being used.  The operating systems, being Android, Chrome, Windows, MacOS, or Linux, all use the memory to make accessing the needed components of the application in a fast access area of the available space.  Many years ago, before SSD, Solid State Drives, became more wide spread, hard drives, and floppy disks were slow.  So it was a huge performance improvement to move the

So it was a huge performance improvement to move the commonly needed files to a medium that can be accessed by the OS faster made the computer run faster.  This memory is considered volatile, the files that get written to memory are only kept there as long as they are needed.  So it stands that the more space you have for these temporary files, the faster your computer will run and the more fluidly you can multitask.  Since all the running applications and OS overhead need access to the RAM at the same time.

Bottom line, the more RAM the better. While depending on the device, you will be limited to how much RAM you can add.  While phones are limited to what they ship from the factory with, laptops and desktops have a little more flexibility.  Cheaper Windows laptops and Chromebooks will usually have their RAM permanently mounted to the motherboard.  Higher end laptops and desktops can have their memory modules swapped out with bigger chips.

Besides adding an SSD to your computer, the single best way to improve performance is adding RAM, if you can.

So what is Storage then?

Storage is where everything is kept.  Your photos, your music, your documents, applications and everything the computer needs to run.  This is usually what people refer to when they talk about their device’s memory.  Oh, my memory is full, I can’t store anything else. Well, your storage is full.  Phones now usually have 16GB to 32GB, cheap Windows Laptops and Chromebooks have 16-64GB.  Higher end laptops and desktops push from 256GB-1TB.

The more storage you have the more room you have to keep your stuff locally.  Now, this is getting augmented by high speed internet which makes cloud storage that much easier to access. I will use the example of my Chromebook.  While I may only have 32GB of storage, which is not a lot by today’s laptop standards, I am able to seamlessly access 115GB of cloud storage at Google Drive.  While I do lose access to the cloud services when I am not connected to the internet, I very rarely, if ever don’t have WiFi.  When I know I will be without a connection, I move the files I want to the small hard drive on the Chromebook so I can keep working.

Real Life Example

Let’s look at cooking to illustrate the difference between Memory and Storage.  When you select a recipe you know which ingredients you will need for the dish.  So you go into your fridge and pull out the stuff you will need(storage).  Then you place those items on the counter to have ready access to add them to the dish(memory)  When you are done with the ingredient you move it back to the fridge for later use.  Clear enough?

Bottom Line

Now when you are shopping for a new device you can have a clearer view of what you are looking at when you see RAM and Storage.  You really want both numbers to be as large as possible.  More memory makes it faster, and more storage allows you to keep more stuff local.  You also have to balance the need for more storage, if you mostly work online and won’t keep a bunch of stuff on you, you can get away with less storage.  Keep the RAM high.

If you have other questions about this or want some tips on what to look for, leave me a message in the comments, or sign up for my email list.

  • Nick Foster

    Wow GREAT example about the fridge vs. the counter. That’s the best way I’ve ever heard this described

    • It kind of came to me while I was writing. Should add, the more stuff you want to cook, the easier it is with more counter space.