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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | System Memory | Memory Technology Types ]

Dynamic RAM (DRAM)

Dynamic RAM is a type of RAM that only holds its data if it is continuously accessed by special logic called a refresh circuit. Many hundreds of times each second, this circuitry reads the contents of each memory cell, whether the memory cell is being used at that time by the computer or not. Due to the way in which the cells are constructed, the reading action itself refreshes the contents of the memory. If this is not done regularly, then the DRAM will lose its contents, even if it continues to have power supplied to it. This refreshing action is why the memory is called dynamic.

All PCs use DRAM for their main system memory, instead of SRAM, even though DRAMs are slower than SRAMs and require the overhead of the refresh circuitry. It may seem weird to want to make the computer's memory out of something that can only hold a value for a fraction of a second. In fact, DRAMs are both more complicated and slower than SRAMs.

The reason that DRAMs are used is simple: they are much cheaper and take up much less space, typically 1/4 the silicon area of SRAMs or less. To build a 64 MB core memory from SRAMs would be very expensive. The overhead of the refresh circuit is tolerated in order to allow the use of large amounts of inexpensive, compact memory. The refresh circuitry itself is almost never a problem; many years of using DRAM has caused the design of these circuits to be all but perfected.

DRAMs are smaller and less expensive than SRAMs because SRAMs are made from four to six transistors (or more) per bit, DRAMs use only one, plus a capacitor. The capacitor, when energized, holds an electrical charge if the bit contains a "1" or no charge if it contains a "0". The transistor is used to read the contents of the capacitor. The problem with capacitors is that they only hold a charge for a short period of time, and then it fades away. These capacitors are tiny, so their charges fade particularly quickly. This is why the refresh circuitry is needed: to read the contents of every cell and refresh them with a fresh "charge" before the contents fade away and are lost. Refreshing is done by reading every "row" in the memory chip one row at a time; the process of reading the contents of each capacitor re-establishes the charge. For an explanation of how these "rows" are read, and thus how refresh is accomplished, refer to this section describing memory access.

DRAM is manufactured using a similar process to how processors are: a silicon substrate is etched with the patterns that make the transistors and capacitors (and support structures) that comprise each bit. DRAM costs much less than a processor because it is a series of simple, repeated structures, so there isn't the complexity of making a single chip with several million individually-located transistors. See here for details on how processors are manufactured; the principles for DRAM manufacture are similar.

There are many different kinds of specific DRAM technologies and speeds that they are available in. These have evolved over many years of using DRAM for system memory, and are discussed in more detail in other sections.

Next: Memory Speed, Access and Timing

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