Thanks for the memories (computer memory that is)

FI-Log-On-With-Larry-SchneiderDear Larry,
Can you please explain the difference between disk space and memory, something that still confuses me to this day?
F. C. 

Dear F. C.,

Don’t worry. You’re not the only one. This confounds many people and all too often someone will refer to one when they mean the other. So once again, I’ll rely on analogies to help elucidate the differences.

Consider your own short-term memory and long-term memory. Stored in your long-term memory are the people, places, and events that occurred in your early life. While you may think about some of these events from time to time, many of these memories are dormant and only awaken occasionally.

Now contrast this with your short-term memory, which is at the forefront of your mind where you process all your day-to-day tasks. Stored here are all the telephone numbers you frequently use, your memories about who you’re meeting for lunch tomorrow, playing tennis with on Tuesday, the list of items you have to pick up at the store on your way home, and that helpful reminder to not forget about your dentist appointment later in the week. It’s where all of your active mental processing happens.

In this vein, your short-term memory represents what we call memory in your computer and your long-term memory represents the computer’s hard disk drive where your documents, spreadsheets, and financial records are tucked away for safekeeping. In reality, your computer’s memory is only “on” when the computer is turned on while the information and data on your hard drive remains intact even when the PC is turned off.

Here’s another analogy I like to use to distinguish between hard drive space and memory. Your hard drive is like the filing cabinets in and around your desk while the computer’s memory is the free space on top of your desk where the work actually gets done. Say you want to work on your taxes. You look in your filing cabinets and pull out the manila file folders you need containing your tax information and transfer them to your desktop where you actually perform your work. When you’re finished, you put the altered tax folders back where they came from, moving them from your desk to your filing cabinet.

Just like a computer, we, too, can multitask, and sometimes we’ll have tax folders on one part of our desk, office work on another, possibly a desktop calendar off to the right, and a scratch pad sitting to the left. Eventually, if we try to work on too much, our desk will become overly cluttered, and we’ll have to file some stuff away to make more room.

Your computer works in much the same way. The more memory your computer has, the bigger the desk and the more “room” it has to process multiple programs like your Word document, your ongoing game of Solitaire that’s currently minimized, your antivirus software that never stops running behind the scenes, and so forth.

Ask your computer to do too much at the same time, however, and it will start to bog down as its desk gets filled up and it runs low on precious memory.

Eventually, your computer will have to move current data back to the hard drive just to make temporary space for something else you’re trying to do. When this happens, your PC is essentially extending your computer’s memory onto the hard drive, a desperate measure indeed as this will slow down your computer even more. That’s when it’s time to close some windows.

This is Larry Schneider, logging off.


Larry Schneider is the owner of Accent on Computers, a Greenwich-based consulting firm — now in its 15th year of business — catering to individuals, businesses and professional offices. PC and Mac services include computer setup, training, troubleshooting, virus resolution, networking, Internet, database, and programming. Call 203-625-7575, visit or send email to [email protected]

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