How Much RAM Does Your PC Need? Probably Less Than You Think

How Much RAM Does Your PC Need? Probably Less Than You Think

Random Access Memory, usually shortened to “RAM” or simply “memory,” is one of the most important parts of any computer. But how much do you need? Current new PCs and similar devices range from around the two gigabyte mark to 16GB or more.

How much memory you really require will depend on two factors — how much you want to do, and how much you’re willing to spend. This article will focus on computers running a desktop operating systems like Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, or Chrome OS.

An introduction to RAM

Memory capacity is often confused with the long-term storage offered by a solid state or mechanical hard drive. Sometimes even manufacturers or retailers will mix up these terms. A desk is a useful analogy to consider the difference between memory and storage. Think of RAM as the top of the desk. The bigger it is, the more papers you can spread out and read at once. Hard drives are more like the drawers underneath the desk, capable of storing papers you’re not using.

The more RAM your system has, the more programs it can handle simultaneously. RAM isn’t the only determining factor, and you can technically open dozens of programs at once even with a very small amount of RAM, but doing so will slow your system down. Think of the desk again. If you have far too many papers on it, it becomes cluttered, and your work will slow as you try to find whatever paper you need at a particular moment. You’ll be forced to frequently dig into the drawers to store what won’t fit on top of the desk and retrieve papers you need.

Related: Want to upgrade your RAM? Do it now while prices are low

A computer with more RAM might feel like it’s performing faster, especially when you use many programs at once, but more memory doesn’t actually increase its processing speed. Only a faster CPU can do that. More RAM won’t increase the amount of files or programs your computer can hold, either. That’s what the desk drawers — the hard drive or solid state drive – are for.

Standard RAM shouldn’t be confused with video memory, a statistic associated with computer video cards. High-end 3D games rely on video RAM, usually expressed as “GDDR3” or similar, whereas standard memory will simply be referred to as memory, RAM or DDR3/4.

RAM-heavy applications

The biggest RAM-hogs on most home computers are the operating system itself and the web browser. There’s not much you can do to make Windows or OS X use less memory, but more RAM in your computer means that you can have more browser tabs open in Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, et cetera. In addition, some websites will use more RAM than others. A simple text news story is relatively light on memory, while something like Gmail or Netflix uses quite a lot.

Intel NUC Core i5 NUCi5RYK mini PC review RAM screw driver

(Bill Roberson/Digital Trends)

Other programs tend to use more RAM as they increase in complexity. A chat program or a game like Minesweeper will use almost no RAM, while a gigantic Excel spreadsheet or a huge Photoshop project might use more than a gigabyte all by itself. Modern 3D games also use quite a lot of RAM — often three or four gigabytes, and some use a bit more than that.

That means your need for RAM is entirely dependent on the programs you use. Let’s say you have two Windows computers, one with two gigabytes of RAM, and one with sixteen, that are otherwise identical. If you have no programs open they’ll operate similarily. Load a big Excel spreadsheet, though, and only the latter will still seem responsive.

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