Flash memory and RAM both relate to how our modern electronics store and use data. RAM, which stands for random access memory, is the standard memory that is found in most computers. 

But to be more specific, our computers usually make use of something called DRAM, or dynamic random access memory. We’ll get into the details later. The basics of RAM are that it stores information in 1s and 0s so long as it has an electric power source.

Many electronics need memory and storage in order to function the way we want them to. The concepts are fundamentally related to each other, but they aren’t the same thing.

Flash memory gives a computer non-volatile memory. This type of memory is often referred to as storage because it’s long-term memory that won’t disappear the second it’s no longer being powered with electricity.

Types of RAM, like DRAM, are on the opposite side of the spectrum. They’re known as volatile memory because they’re short-term and need a constant charge to store data.

If you read the specs of a computer and it says there is 8 GB of memory, it usually is referring to DRAM. In the same computer, there will probably be a spec for ‘storage’. This is likely an SSD, which relies on flash memory to store information.

Fundamentally, the difference between flash memory and RAM is that one of them is volatile memory (short-term) and the other is non-volatile memory (long-term storage). How the two memory types operate is a lot more complicated than that, though.

So, what do flash memory and RAM really do?

Flash Memory vs RAM: Side by Side Comparison

Flash Memory (Storage)RAM (DRAM)
InventorFujio MasuokaRobert H. Dennard
Invented In1984 1967
Memory TypeNon-volatile (long-term storage)Volatile (short-term memory)
SpeedAnywhere between 10-500 MB/s depending on the device20,000-40,000MB/s (20-40GB/s) on average
Price (est. in 2022)$0.40 per usable gigabyte$4.30 per usable gigabyte
Used in What Devices?Printers, cell phones, flash drives, SSDs, digital cameras, tablets, and moreLaptops, PC/desktops, graphics cards, and more
Requires Constant Charge?NoYes
Flash memory vs RAM
RAM is volatile memory that needs a constant electrical charge.

Flash Memory vs RAM: How Do Their Functions Differ?

From the table above, it’s easy to see that flash memory and RAM have distinct capabilities. They perform similarly, but with unique tasks and they also do them in different ways.

To understand the two properly, you’ll need to know how they operate.

Flash Memory

Flash memory works even without a power supply, which means it can be used in things like flash drives (also known as thumb drives or USB sticks). It does still use electricity, though. Flash memory holds charges in transistor gates, which it can then be read, written, or erased. The absence of a charge corresponds to a 0 in binary, whereas the existence of a charge corresponds to a 1.

This might be difficult to understand if you don’t have previous experience with computer and memory technology. The most important part is that flash memory doesn’t need a consistent source of electricity to store data, since it relies on these transistor gates.

Flash memory has a mix of good and bad traits which is why it’s used in some contexts and not others. Obviously, it’s only used as a storage solution because it’s not volatile. But because it has lower power consumption than DRAM and is significantly cheaper, it also lets digital cameras, flash drives, printers, and similar inventions have storage.

The biggest downside to flash memory is that it’s much slower at processing data– either reading or writing. The volatility of DRAM doesn’t matter when it’s so much faster at processing data during active computer use.

Although it isn’t always referred to by name, flash memory is used in most of the technology we access on a daily basis. It has had numerous improvements to speed, storage capacity, and other features since its invention back in 1984. It’s likely we’ll be using flash memory for a while yet!

RAM

Random access memory is a wordy way to say that you can use this type of memory to access data whenever you’d like, in any order that you’d like. Before RAM was invented, most types of memory needed to be read sequentially.

That means you would have to go through the entire sequence of data until you reached the part you actually wanted to access. This kind of memory is called cyclic access memory. Thankfully, RAM is now used in almost every computer worldwide.

DRAM consists of a bunch of storage cells. These storage cells have one capacitor and one transistor and can store a single bit of memory. Capacitors, by the nature of how they work, are constantly leaking charge and need that charge to retain data.

All of that means DRAM needs to be constantly ‘refreshed’ with a new charge– by constantly, we mean every handful of milliseconds. That’s precisely where the “dynamic” comes from in the name dynamic random access memory. With that kind of requirement, it becomes very clear why DRAM can’t be used for long-term storage.

Although DRAM is much more expensive than flash memory, it’s also cheaper compared to other types of RAM like SRAM. Static random access memory is less power intensive, is faster, and unfortunately costs significantly more than both flash memory and dynamic RAM.

DRAM ticks all the boxes for a good short-term memory option in our current tech environment. Even though it has high power consumption, it’s cheap, fast, scalable, and relatively simple to create.

In the future, we might be using better forms of volatile memory as the standard, like SRAM. But for now, DRAM is doing the job just fine. 

Flash memory vs RAM
A USB flash memory stick. You can store information on flash memory without needing constant electrical power.

Flash Memory vs RAM: 5 Must-Know Facts

  • Flash memory is non-volatile memory, which means it can store information without being constantly powered.
  • The two most common kinds of RAM, DRAM, and SRAM, are both volatile memory types that need constant power to hold information.
  • Flash drives are named after flash memory technology.
  • RAM stands for random access memory and was invented in 1967 as a better alternative to cyclic access memory.
  • Both flash memory and RAM store information in binary language to be coded and decoded by computers.

Flash Memory vs RAM: Where Are They Used?

Although flash memory and RAM clearly share many characteristics, their functionality is starkly different. And that means they have very unique use cases!

To begin with, flash memory is pretty exclusively used for storage. RAM, on the other hand, is usually pulling information from storage (often flash storage) to use temporarily in processes. They’re both leaders and often are the standard in their respective categories of storage and short-term memory.

Flash memory is often mentioned as the storage device for small technical devices, like phones, tablets, and digital computers. This is very true, and it’s because flash memory takes up much less space than older storage tech (like hard disks) that use moving components to hold data.

In actuality, both flash memory and RAM are used on many small inventions. Flash drives only need to store information, so they only make use of flash memory. But mini computers – AKA smartphones – will need short-term memory in the form of RAM in order to run apps and processes.

The need to run apps and processes is what defines whether or not a piece of tech will be using volatile memory like RAM. As such, almost every kind of computer uses RAM in some way or another.

Although technology is moving at a rapid pace, flash memory and RAM have taken us a long way. In the future, we’ll have our eyes out for newer memory technologies that could change our experience with tech.

Flash Memory vs RAM: What Do They Do? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Which is faster RAM or flash drive?

RAM is significantly faster than a flash drive since it can handle 20-40GB/s. Although it’s more expensive than flash memory, it can handle short-term memory demands significantly better than flash memory is capable.

What is flash memory used for?

Flash memory is used in a variety of devices, from SSD storage in full-size computers to the storage in printers, digital cameras, phones, MP3 players, USB sticks, and tablets. It’s used to store data and information in the long-term, so any device that it’s used in can access the data again at a later date.

Can flash memory be used as RAM?

You can use flash memory in the form of a USB stick/flash drive as RAM to improve your computer’s memory and performance. It can take a little setup, but it’s very possible.

Why is it called flash memory?

Flash memory is named after the fact that it can erase a semiconductor chip in a “flash”. Fujio Masuoka (the creator of flash memory) had a colleague named Shoji Ariizumi. Ariizumi is actually the one who named the device, because it reminded him of a camera flash.

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