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Hard Disk Vs Memory (RAM)

Q: My system seems to run more slowly lately and someone told me I need more memory. What does that mean?

A. This is a very important but often confusing topic. There are two parts of your computer that are often confused - the memory (RAM) and the free space or storage (hard disk).

RAM stands for Random Access Memory. Memory is the temporary workspace that your computer uses. It's like a big temporary scratch pad that gives the PC room to "think". A typical system may have 8MB (Megabytes = Million Bytes) or 16MB or 32 or 64 or 128 or even 256 MB of memory. It is temporary because when you reboot or power off the machine, everything in memory is wiped out.

Free space is a property of the hard drive. The hard drive is a physical device in the computer that stores the operating system (like Windows), your programs (like Microsoft Word or Quicken) and your data (letter to the bank, etc.). On older machines it may be 540 MB or 1 or 2 GB (Gigabytes = Billion Bytes) in capacity.

Figure that each Byte can hold 1 character like the letter "a" so a 1GB drive could hold one billion characters. Newer computers may have hard drives that are 4, 8, 12, 20 or more GB in size. Data that is stored on the hard drive is not lost when the machine is turned off - it is there until you delete it.

Modern programs often require a lot of workspace (memory) to operate efficiently. Also, the more programs that you have open at the same time, the more memory will be used. So it is possible that you do not have enough memory (RAM) in your PC to do what you want it to do. RAM can be purchased and added to most computers though not al RAM modules work in all PCs.

Your slowdown problem is more likely to be caused by running out of space on your hard disk. When the computer runs out of space to work (memory) it will try to use some of the space on your hard disk as some extra space called virtual memory. This is much slower than actual RAM but at least it gets the job done.

The problem occurs when you have so much stored on your hard drive (games, programs, data, etc.) that there is not much room left on the drive that can be used as temporary workspace. When this happens, the system slows down considerably.

On a Windows machine you can click on My Computer and click on the hard drive icon - usually labeled as Drive C. (You may have more than one hard drive in the system or it may be broken down into smaller drives so you may also have other drive letters like D and E and so on.) Click on the Right mouse button when you are on the Drive C icon and choose Properties (left mouse button) from the pull down menu.

This will show you the Used Space and Free Space on your drive. If the Free Space is small (less than 20% of your total capacity) you may want to remove some unwanted items from your system to free up more space. Click on the Disk Cleanup button to see how much can be safely deleted.

To make more space available, go to the Start Button, click on Settings, then Control Panel and click on Add/Remove Programs. You will see a list of programs that you have installed. Scroll through the list and if there is a program that you no longer use or an older version of a program you use, click on it and choose Remove. After a warning, the program will be removed and you will have freed up some space. More space usually means more speed.

You may also want to defragment your hard drive (see the question about Defrag) to speed up your machine.

Answered by Tech Expert Dan Hanson

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