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Archive for October 30th, 2018

by Tom Nelson

Once a popular option in the early days of the Mac, RAM disks, which were used to speed up the performance of a Mac, have fallen by the wayside.

Conceptually, RAM disks are a simple idea: a chunk of RAM set aside that looks, to the Mac system, like just another storage drive. The system, as well as any installed apps, can write files to or read files from the RAM disk, just as if it really were another storage drive mounted on your Mac.

But unlike any storage drive, a RAM disk can operate at the speed of RAM, which is usually many times faster than most drive storage systems.

RAM Disk History
RAM disks existed before the Macintosh ever hit the market, but we’re going to predominantly explore how RAM disks were used with the Mac.

The Mac Plus, released in 1986, had quite a few new features, including the use of SIM (Single Inline Memory) modules that users could easily upgrade. The Mac Plus shipped with 1 MB of RAM, but users could increase the memory size to 4 MB. That was an amazing amount of RAM in 1986, and begged the question: What can I do with all this memory space?

At the same time, many users were asking how they could speed up their Macs. And while many users were happy to just max out the RAM, and enjoy the performance gain of having more memory, which let them run more applications concurrently, some users discovered the joys of using a RAM disk to speed up the system and apps. Other users discovered that a RAM disk could be used to create an amazingly fast storage system. Remember, back then, most Mac Plus users were getting by with a single 800 KB floppy drive, while those who felt like splurging could add an additional external floppy drive. If you really had cash to burn, you could hook up a 20MB SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) hard drive, which would likely set you back well over $1,200.

The first prominent use of a RAM disk was to copy the Mac’s slow ROM (Read Only Memory), which contained many of the system’s core components, along with the operating system, which was stored on a floppy drive, and move them both to a RAM disk where they could operate at the speed of RAM; many, many times faster than either the floppy disk or the ROM.

The performance increase was amazing, and was achieved for just the cost of a RAM disk utility app.

The second common use of a RAM disk back in the Mac Plus days was to create a tiered storage system. Floppy drives weren’t fast enough for professionals or avid amateurs to work with new rich media editing systems, such as audio editors, image editors, or page layout apps. SCSI drives could meet the needs of image editing and page layout, but audio editing was at best iffy, with most SCSI drives being too slow to provide the needed bandwidth for audio or other real-time editing.

RAM disks, on the other hand, were very fast, and could easily meet the needs of real-time editing with their ability to write or read files as quickly as the RAM could be accessed, without the mechanical latency inherent in SCSI or floppy disks.

RAM disks can be very fast. In my case, over 10x faster than my Mac’s startup drive. Screen shot © Coyote Moon, Inc.

The only disadvantage to RAM disks was that the data stored in them was lost every time you turned your Mac off, or the power went out. You had to remember to copy the content of the RAM disk to your main storage system or your work would be lost.

Read more on Rocket Yard, The MacSales.com Blog

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