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How Much RAM Do I Need?

The retail computer market is extremely competitive. To keep prices low, many new computers are equipped with inadequate amounts of RAM for anything other than the least-demanding possible uses of the computer.

Worse yet, the amount of RAM in an increasing number of computers (especially laptops, all-in-one computers, and many Apple computers) can't be upgraded after purchase. The RAM slots may not be accessible, or the RAM may actually be soldered to the motherboard.

Nothing slows down an otherwise-powerful computer quite as badly as inadequate memory does; and no other upgrade improves a computer's performance as easily and economically as giving it an adequate amount of RAM to work with. This page, therefore, will talk a bit about the importance of RAM both when choosing a new computer, and when upgrading an existing computer.

Let me explain it to you.

 

What is RAM, Anyway?

Two sticks of DDR-4 memory in a plastic package

RAM stands for "Random Access Memory." Unlike the computer's hard drive or solid state drive, RAM is volatile, meaning that the information in RAM disappears when the computer is powered down.

At the risk of oversimplifying, RAM is where the computer stores data related to what it is doing at any given moment. The RAM stores the data the computer is "thinking about" right now, as well as the data required by the operating system and any applications being used.

Individual pieces of RAM are technically called "modules," but computer geeks always refer to them as "sticks." So if you want to sound smart when buying RAM, say "sticks." If you say "modules," everyone who overhears will know you're a noob.

When a computer needs to store more information in RAM than the amount of physical RAM installed in the computer, it uses the computer's hard drive or SSD as "virtual memory." This caching dramatically slows down the computer, especially if the system drive is an HDD. (If the system drive is an SSD, the slowdown will be much less noticeable; but the caching will increase the wear on the drive.)

 

Upgrading Your Computer's RAM

The solution to inadequate RAM, of course, is to add more RAM. Before running out and buying some, however, check with your computer's manufacturer to determine what type and speed of RAM it uses, how much the motherboard can accommodate, and in what configuration. For example, if your computer's motherboard can handle 32 GB of RAM, but only has two slots, then you can install up to 32 GB, using two 16 GB sticks.

It's also critical to select the correct form factor of RAM and a speed that your computer is able to use. At the time of this writing, most newer computers still use DDR4 RAM in either DIMM form factor (for most desktops) or SO-DIMM form factor (for most laptops). DDR5 is coming soon, but DDR4 is what most new computers have today, on the day I am writing this page.

Also as of this writing, the fastest DDR4 RAM is DDR4-3200 (also called PC4-25600). You can use this RAM in any computer that uses DDR4. However, if the motherboard can't use it at 3200 MHz, then you're just wasting your money. The motherboard will clock it down to the highest speed it can use. So again, check with your computer's manufacturer to determine the maximum speed it can handle.

Finally, in my experience, I've had far fewer RAM-related problems when all the RAM sticks in a computer were identical. In theory, you should be able to mix brands, and even speeds (the computer will clock all the RAM to the slowest stick's speed). In practice, I've found that using identical sticks results in the least chance of having any RAM-related problems.

 

How Much RAM Should I Install in My Computer?

For this section, I'm assuming that your computer is running 64-bit Windows 10 because that's the current Windows version as of this writing. The following recommendations are mine alone, based on my own experience, and don't reflect the official requirements of any computer manufacturer or software publisher.

In my opinion and experience:

Again, check with your computer's manufacturer before ordering RAM. Your choices are limited to that which the computer can support.

 

Who Makes the Best RAM?

Skinny-armed computer geeks have been known to come to blows over that question, so I'm only going to give my own opinion. My favorite RAM is that made by G.Skill, Crucial, or Corsair, in no particular order. The computer I'm using now is equipped with 32 GB of G.Skill DDR4-3200.