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Flash Memory vs RAM: What Do They Do?

Flash Memory vs RAM: A Deep Dive into Two Key Types of Computer Memory

Hi there! If you‘re like me, you may have heard the terms "flash memory" and "RAM" thrown around when people talk about computers and wonder – what‘s the difference between them? How does each type of memory work? And why do we even need two kinds anyway?

In this guide, I‘ll walk you through everything you need to know about flash memory and RAM in an easy, friendly way. I promise no technical jargon! My goal is to give you a truly thorough understanding of what makes each type of computer memory tick and why they play such vital roles in technology today. Let‘s dive in!

First, What Exactly Are Flash Memory and RAM?

Flash memory and RAM (short for random access memory) are both types of computer memory used to store data, but they play different roles.

Flash memory is a non-volatile memory, meaning it can store data permanently even when power is removed. It‘s used for storage in devices like USB flash drives, memory cards, and solid state drives.

RAM is a volatile memory that temporarily stores data used by running programs and processes but loses all data when the power goes off. The most common form of RAM is called DRAM and it‘s used as the main memory in computers.

So in a nutshell:

  • Flash stores data permanently for the long term.
  • RAM stores data temporarily for fast program access.

But why do we need both? Keep reading to understand the method behind the memory madness!

When Were Flash Memory and RAM Invented?

To appreciate why flash and RAM play such important roles in technology, it helps to understand the history behind them.

Flash memory was invented by Fujio Masuoka at Toshiba in 1980. It was based on earlier EEPROM (electrically erasable programmable read-only memory) technology, but with lower voltages allowing it to be erased in blocks. The name "flash" came from how sections of memory could be erased almost instantly, like a flash.

Intel released the first commercial NOR flash chip in 1988, and flash memory began gaining popularity in the 90s for storage in devices.

RAM has been around even longer. RAM got its start in the early days of computing in the 1940s and 50s with systems like Williams tubes and mercury delay lines.

But the major milestone came in 1967 when Robert Dennard at IBM invented the first DRAM (dynamic random access memory) chip while working on ways to miniaturize computers. This provided a simple, tiny memory cell that was cheap to mass produce.

DRAM replaced earlier types of RAM and paved the way for modern computing as we know it!

How Do Flash Memory and RAM Differ?

Now that we‘ve covered some history, let‘s compare flash and RAM side-by-side so you can really see how they differ:

Flash Memory

  • Non-volatile: Permanently stores data without power
  • Slower access times: Read/write speeds around 10-500MB/s
  • Lower cost per GB: As low as $0.40 per usable gigabyte
  • High storage density: Stores lots of data in small physical space
  • Shock resistant: Withstands vibration better than hard drives

RAM (specifically DRAM)

  • Volatile: Temporary data lost without constant power
  • Very fast speeds: Data can be accessed in nanoseconds
  • More expensive per GB: Roughly $4.30 per usable gigabyte
  • Higher power consumption: Must be constantly refreshed
  • Easy to manufacture: Simple DRAM cell design

With volatile RAM, data needs constant power to stick around. But it‘s lighting fast to access and cheap to produce in large quantities.

Non-volatile flash keeps data permanently stored without power. But it costs more for large capacities and is slower to read and write data.

As you can see, each excels in different areas! But why is that so important? Keep reading.

Why Do We Need Both Flash and RAM?

Flash and RAM each perform totally different jobs that complement one another in computing:

  • Flash provides durable, compact long term data storage. It allows permanent storage of data like documents, media, apps, and files on devices and removable media like USB drives.

  • RAM gives programs quick access to temporary data when needed. The volatile RAM holds data that is actively being used by running programs. Its high speeds allow efficient multitasking.

For example, in a smartphone:

  • Flash memory stores the operating system, apps, photos, videos, and other files.
  • RAM provides the memory needed by active apps to run smoothly and lets you switch between apps.

Without flash storage, you couldn‘t permanently store apps, media or other data. And without RAM, apps would crash constantly as they struggled to access data.

Flash and RAM work hand-in-hand using their unique abilities to make computing fast, reliable, and convenient!

How Exactly Does Flash Memory Store Data?

Now that you see why flash and RAM are both vital, you may be wondering exactly how flash memory works its magic to store data without power. Let‘s peek under the hood!

Flash memory consists of specialized MOSFETs (metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors) that have an extra "floating gate" between the control gate and substrate:

This floating gate is electrically isolated by an oxide layer which traps electrons. When electrons are present in the floating gate, they cause the threshold voltage that‘s needed to turn on the transistor to increase.

This threshold voltage shift is how the floating gate transistor stores data as 1s and 0s – the presence or absence of electrons represents binary data.

To write data, a high voltage is applied across the oxide to inject electrons into the floating gate through quantum tunneling. Reading the data simply senses whether the threshold voltage is high (electrons present) or low (no electrons).

Erasing resets the floating gate transistor back to a 0 state by applying a reverse voltage that ejects electrons from the floating gate.

This gives flash memory its non-volatile nature – the electrons stay trapped in the floating gate indefinitely without any power needed. Pretty ingenious!

And What About How RAM Works?

There are a few types of RAM, but we‘ll focus on the most common one found in computers – DRAM.

A DRAM memory cell is made up of just one transistor and one capacitor. This simple design allows DRAM to be packed very densely into memory chips.

The capacitor holds the bit of data as electrical charge, while the transistor acts as a switch controlling access to read and write the data.

With power applied, the charge state of the capacitor represents a 1 or 0 – a charged capacitor is a 1, discharged is a 0. But here‘s the catch – the charge slowly leaks off over time!

So DRAM needs to constantly run a refresh cycle that reads each bit and recharges the capacitors to retain the data. That‘s where the "dynamic" in DRAM comes from. This refresh needs to happen thousands of times per second.

It‘s this volatile nature of DRAM that makes it unsuitable for permanent file storage. But it‘s also what makes it fast – data can be accessed and overwritten very quickly. And the simple cell design allows massive amounts of memory to be made at low cost.

Now you can see why volatile RAM like DRAM is perfect for the temporary active memory computers need!

Where Are Flash Memory and RAM Used?

Now that you understand what flash memory and RAM do, let‘s look at some real-world examples of the devices they‘re used in.

Flash memory provides storage in:

  • USB flash drives
  • Memory cards (SD, CompactFlash, etc)
  • Solid state drives (SSDs)
  • MP3 players
  • Digital cameras
  • Smartphones
  • Tablets

It stores the operating systems, applications, files, photos, videos and other data on these devices.

RAM (specifically DRAM) is used for system memory in:

  • PCs and laptops
  • Smartphones and tablets
  • Game consoles
  • Networking hardware like routers
  • Graphics cards (known as VRAM)
  • Printers

DRAM gives these devices the active, readily accessible memory needed to smoothly run software and operating systems.

Hard drives have largely been replaced by speedy and durable flash based SSDs in many laptops, but DRAM remains irreplaceable as the fast temporary memory necessary for multitasking and quickly accessing data.

The roles of flash for permanent storage and RAM for active temporary memory complement each other perfectly!

How is Flash Memory Manufactured?

I think it‘s fascinating to understand how these key memory technologies are mass produced. Let‘s peek into a flash memory factory!

Making flash memory chips starts with growing large cylindrical ingots of ultra-pure silicon by methods like the Czochralski process.

The silicon ingots are sliced into thin wafers about 300-800 microns thick using specialized diamond saws. Hundreds of individual flash die will be made on each wafer.

The intricately small flash memory cell structures are then built up on the wafers using processes like:

  • Photolithography to pattern microscopic circuit layouts
  • Ion implantation to precisely dope regions with impurities
  • Chemical vapor deposition to lay down thin layers atom by atom
  • Etching to selectively remove materials
  • Planarization to flatten surfaces for further layers

This is repeated to form the transistors, capacitors, interconnects and other microscopic elements that make up the flash memory cells.

The finished wafer is tested before being cut into hundreds of individual flash memory die using another diamond saw. The good die are packaged into protective cases with contacts pins to create memory chips.

Advanced wafer-scale 3D NAND manufacturing can stack flash memory cells vertically for even higher densities. Producing flash memory is an engineering marvel requiring nanometer precision!

And How is RAM Manufactured?

Similar meticulous manufacturing processes are used to produce DRAM chips, like photolithography, doping, layering, etc. But let‘s look at what goes into making the simple DRAM memory cell.

First the transistor is formed on the silicon wafer using ion implantation to dope the source, drain and channel regions.

Next the capacitor is constructed on top of the transistor using alternating thin layers of metals and dielectrics. This forms the storage capacitor that will hold the bit of data as electrical charge.

Additional photolithography, etching and doping steps connect the transistor and capacitor to peripheral logic circuits on the DRAM chip.

After testing, the DRAM wafer is cut into individual die and packaged into protective integrated circuit cases with pins. DRAM‘s simplicity allows incredible memory densities!

It‘s amazing that these tiny Flash and DRAM chips cram in millions of microscopic memory cells that form the basis of storage in all our devices!

What Are the Pros and Cons of Flash Memory?

Flash memory has both advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages of Flash Memory:

  • Non-volatile – retains data for years without power
  • Small physical size for high storage density
  • Lightweight and durable with no moving parts
  • Low power consumption compared to hard drives
  • Fast read performance compared to hard drives
  • Improving write speeds and durability as technology advances

Disadvantages of Flash Memory:

  • More expensive per gigabyte than hard drives
  • Slower write/erase speeds compared to DRAM and SRAM
  • Wearout after a limited number of program/erase cycles
  • Susceptible to data corruption from radiation
  • 3D NAND is challenging to manufacture at high densities

Overall, flash hits the sweet spot between cost, speed, density, and reliability for mass storage applications!

How About Pros and Cons of RAM?

RAM likewise has a mix of advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages of RAM (specifically DRAM):

  • Very high speed data access – 10s of nanoseconds
  • Volatile nature ideal for temporary access memory
  • Simple DRAM cell allows high densities at low cost
  • Easy to manufacture at high densities using silicon wafer processes

Disadvantages of RAM:

  • Volatile – data is lost when power is removed
  • Constantly consumes power due to required refresh cycles
  • Susceptibility to data corruption from radiation
  • More expensive per GB than hard drives or flash memory
  • Complex SRAM cell design has very high cost

For temporary access memory, RAM‘s compact design, speed, density and affordability are unbeatable!

What Does the Future Hold for Flash and RAM?

There is constant research to push the limits of both flash memory and RAM technologies even further.

For flash memory, key areas being worked on include:

  • Increasing storage density through 3D NAND stacking cells vertically
  • Improving read/write speeds and reducing latency closer to DRAM
  • Increasing endurance by boosting the number of P/E cycles
  • Shrinking cell size below 15 nanometers using exotic nanomaterials
  • Reducing power consumption so flash can begin to replace DRAM in some devices

For RAM, active research is ongoing into:

  • New DRAM architectures to allow greater memory densities
  • Faster SRAM technologies to reduce cache memory latency
  • Non-volatile RAM that combines the best of DRAM and flash
  • Lower power DRAM that requires less frequent refreshing

Exciting emerging memories like Phase Change Memory and Spin Transfer Torque RAM aim to combine the best of both worlds!

I think flash and RAM will continue improving while serving their unique roles for the foreseeable future. But new technologies could shake things up down the road!

The Key Points on Flash Memory and RAM

That was a lot of in-depth information! Let‘s recap the key facts:

  • Flash memory provides non-volatile, compact, affordable storage of data and files on devices.

  • RAM supplies the high-speed temporary memory computers require to access data quickly and multitask.

  • Flash uses floating gate transistors to store data as electrical charges that remain even without power.

  • RAM (like DRAM) relies on simple electrical capacitors to hold data as charge, but the volatile charge fades without power.

  • Complementary strengths allow flash and RAM to work together – flash for permanent storage and RAM for fast access.

  • Precision manufacturing processes allow mass production of flash and RAM chips with incredible densities.

  • Ongoing research aims to push capacities, speeds, and reliability higher for both vital memory technologies.

So in summary, flash memory and RAM serve distinct, complementary roles in electronics by utilizing their unique strengths! I hope this guide helped explain the method behind the memory madness in a straightforward way. Let me know if you have any other questions!