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Hard drives? Solid State? What to know about storage and memory

By , Product Manager: Consumer & Gaming at Acer Africa.
02 Feb 2024
Bennie Budler, Product Manager: Consumer & Gaming at Acer Africa.
Bennie Budler, Product Manager: Consumer & Gaming at Acer Africa.

How much storage does your device have? Understanding the basics of storage helps keep your phone or laptop in good running order. It will also help you select your next phone or computer, making sure you don't get stuck with an underperformer.

"Many people don't think about storage other than looking for a big number, and that can hugely impact whether they get something that will last them and suit their budget," says Bennie Budler, Product Manager: Consumer & Gaming at Acer Africa. "Storage is an important consideration when buying devices such as PCs and phones. You might not be able to upgrade the amount of storage, and you'd be stuck with that storage until you buy a new device. You might pay a premium for extra storage that you don't need. Storage can also impact the speed and performance of your device."

Storage and its companion, memory, can be confusing. To help make sense of these topics, the experts at Acer provide answers to common questions:

What is computer storage?

Computers, including phones and tablets, store their information (the operating system, photos, videos, contact lists, chat messages, etc.) in units called bytes. From there, it scales up: a kilobyte is 1,000 bytes, a megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes, a gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes, and a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes.

What is computer memory?

Your device memory (called RAM) also uses the same bytes scale. The difference is that storage keeps files while memory uses them temporarily. Think of storage as a kitchen pantry and memory as the kitchen counter. When you access a file, it's copied from storage to memory. Once done, the file is erased from the memory and saved in storage. You don't need as much memory as storage. For example, a flagship smartphone can have 512 gigabytes of storage, but only 6 gigabytes of memory.

What is phone capacity?

Phones and tablets often refer to 'capacity', just a different word for storage. All phones have memory as well (usually 4 to 8 gigabytes), though they rarely list this specification. If your phone has 64 gigabytes of capacity, that's storage.

Are there different types of storage?

Computers use three types of storage. Phones, tablets, and high-end laptops and desktops use solid state aka. flash storage (thumb drives and memory cards also use flash storage). Most laptops and desktops also use standard hard drives with magnetic storage: these are slower than flash drives, but also cheaper and offer more space. Lastly, there is optical storage, such as CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. You'd only use these if you have an optical disc drive like a DVD tray.

How do memory and storage affect performance?

A device with too little empty storage or memory can slow down and even crash. Your device continually copies data between storage and memory, allowing the rest of the electronics to use that data. When space runs low, it takes longer to find and copy data, creating bottlenecks. Imagine finding what you need in a garage full of boxes. The more open space there is, the easier it is to find things.

What makes some storage faster than others?

Think of storage as a notebook: the speed depends on how fast you can write things down. Flash storage is very fast: it writes things down by changing electrical currents and altering the state of electrons. Magnetic storage changes magnetic fields by moving a 'read-and-write head' to spots on the storage. This technique is slower than flash storage but still very fast, and allows for much more storage. Optical storage uses lasers to locate and extract information—its speed depends on the laser's position and strength.

What storage details should I check when buying a device?

The primary question you want to answer is how much storage you use. You'll want more storage if you take many photos and videos, download shows and movies from streaming platforms, install lots of apps and games, or store numerous documents on your device. If you keep things clean and organised or store data on cloud services, you don't need a lot of device storage. As for memory, you typically want a minimum of 4 gigabytes of memory on a phone (8 gigabytes is best) or 8 gigabytes for a laptop or desktop (16 gigabytes is best).

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