Adding Memory: A Silver Bullet for Your Computer?

Category: Memory

Does your computer seem slow or sluggish? The problem may be too little RAM memory. But “add more RAM” is not the solution to every case of poor performance, and buying more RAM memory than you need or can use is just a waste of money. Read on to learn the ins and outs of adding RAM memory and how much memory is the “sweet spot” for Windows and Apple computers...

Does Your Computer Need More Memory? How Much RAM is Right?

RAM is the memory in which a computer temporarily stores things it needs to access quickly for the task at hand. Don't confuse RAM memory with hard drive storage, which is where your computer stores programs, documents, photos and other files. When you turn off the computer, your RAM memory sits empty, but files stored on the hard drive remain.

Bottom line, RAM is temporary, working storage that disappears when you power down or restart your computer. I thought of an analogy that may help to illustrate this point. Think of RAM as what happens in your head during a dream. When you wake up, it's gone.

Your web browser and certain parts of the operating system that are working to show you this page should be in RAM right now. When you open a document in your word processor, both the program and the contents of the document are loaded from hard drive storage into RAM memory. When you save a file or close a program, those things are removed from RAM to allow other processes to run.

When you don't have enough RAM memory, that's when things tend to slow down. This may happen if you have several programs open at once, or if one of those programs needs to open a very large file. Rather than displaying an "out of memory" error and giving up, your operating system creates "virtual memory" by using a special file on the hard drive. Programs can't tell the difference between physical and virtual memory, but you may see it in decreased performance.

Adding RAM memory

When memory is in short supply, it's the job of the operating system to move data between physical RAM memory and virtual memory in a way that maximizes efficiency. But all of that data movement involves reading from and writing to a hard disk drive. That slows everything down, because hard drive access is MUCH slower than RAM memory access.

If the “disk activity” light on your PC is constantly flickering, you may need more RAM. I say “may” because a RAM shortage is not the only cause of excessive disk activity. The operating system does lots of behind the scenes tasks that involve accessing the hard drive. Damaged physical sectors on a disk, a corrupted file, or a mixed-up File Allocation Table are some other potential causes. You should run CHKDSK to find and fix such errors before buying more RAM. See my article on Windows Hard Drive Errors for instructions.

The best indicators of the need for more RAM memory are a lag when typing, if your computer noticeably slows down when you open multiple programs, or if there is a noticeable delay when switching between open programs. If you press the Windows key (sometimes called the Start key) on a Windows computer, and it doesn't respond immediately, that could be another indicator. In some cases, it could even result in random freezes or the "Blue Screen of Death."

Windows has a built-in Resource Monitor app that can track RAM use, quantify the effect that low RAM is having on your system, and help you determine what is chewing up that valuable resource. My article ILow Memory, Sluggish Computer (and brain)? goes into more detail on that.

On a Mac, you can check to see if your computer needs more RAM in Activity Monitor. In the Activity Monitor app, click Memory, and the Memory Pressure graph will show if your computer is using memory efficiently.

How Much and What Type?

How much more RAM to buy depends on several things, not just the price of RAM.

Whether you have a Windows or Apple computer, RAM usually comes in the form of black chips soldered onto a rectangular green circuit board with (typically) gold connnectors along one of its long edges; this is called a “stick” of RAM.

Your computer has a fixed number and type of slots into which RAM sticks can be plugged. These factors limit total RAM capacity and the increments in which you can add RAM. You’ll need to find the RAM specifications for your particular make and model. The manufacturer’s website or a visit to the Crucial Advisor tool can help you determine how much and what type of RAM your system can use.

The type of operating system you are running also matters when it comes to buying RAM. A 32-bit version of Windows can use a theoretical maximum of only 4GB of RAM. In practice, some RAM is needed by Windows, leaving about 3.1GB for user applications. So if you have the 32-bit version of any Windows edition, don’t bother going beyond 4GB of total RAM; the rest will go unused. To find out if your computer is running a 32-bit or 64-bit version of Windows, click the Start button, right-click Computer, and then click Properties. And yes, even Windows 10 has a 32-bit version. Windows 11 will always be 64-bit.

A 64-bit version can address much more RAM; the exact amount depends on which edition of 64-bit Windows you have. If you exceed the maximum supported memory limits below, you’ll be wasting money:

  • Windows 7 Home Basic: 8GB
  • Windows 7 Home Premium: 16GB
  • Windows 7 Pro / Ultimate / Enterprise: 192GB
  • Windows 8: 128 GB
  • Windows 8 Pro / Enterprise: 512 GB
  • Windows 10 Home: 128 GB
  • Windows 10 Pro / Enterprise: 2TB
  • Windows 11 Home: 128 GB
  • Windows 11 Pro / Enterprise: 2TB
  • Mac OS: 96-256 GB (depends on device)

In general, 8GB of RAM is enough for most home computer users. You might get away with 4GB of RAM if you limit yourself to one open program at a time, and you generally have just one or two open tabs in your Web browser. Beyond those modest limits, you'll probably experience lagging performance. Online gamers, video editors, programmers, and people who work with large databases or spreadsheets may need more.

Is More RAM the Answer?

Adding more RAM is just one way to improve performance, and it's a fairly easy task, but it may be only modestly effective. One other thing that can really speed up older computers is to replace your hard drive with a solid-state (SSD) drive. When I bought my current desktop computer, the first thing I did was order an SSD drive to replace the standard magnetic hard drive that shipped with it. I opted for a 250GB Samsung SSD drive. It came with software called Samsung Data Migration, which made it super-easy to transfer everything from my existing hard drive, and make the new SSD my primary C: drive. The result was pretty dramatic. Startup time was reduced by more than half, programs open quicker, and everything just works faster.

A faster CPU will yield greater performance improvements, but that's a more expensive upgrade, and may not be possible. And sometimes, it's not your computer that causes sluggish performance. A slow Internet connection or a busy website can cause frustrating delays.

Regular disk maintenance, as well as keeping application software up to date will also improve performance, and is free. See my articles Here's How to Optimize Your Hard Drive and Here's Why You Must Keep Your Software Updated (and how to do it for free) for tips on how to do those tasks.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Adding Memory: A Silver Bullet for Your Computer?"

Posted by:

18 Sep 2023

no mention of the fact that the motherboard has a maximum value of ram which can be installed and cannot be exceeded - I have had several pc's / laptops which would have benefitted from more ram but it would not run with it

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
18 Sep 2023

In my experience using Windows 11, I'd recommend 16GB RAM if the device can support it. Some older PCs may support a limited amount of RAM so check the devices specifications on the manufacturers website or in the user's manual (if you have it) before spending any money. If your device is old enough that it cannot support 16GB RAM, you may be better served by getting a newer computer.

Note 1: I make these statements based on my own experience, so your results may not match mine.

Note 2: If you know the make and model name of your computer, you can search the Internet for the amount of RAM your computer can support, or (even better IMHO) it's specifications. I'm writing this on my Lenovo Legion 5 (model number 15IMH05) gaming laptop PC, so for this device, I'd search for "Lenovo Legion 5 15IMH05 RAM support" for the amount of memory it can support, or for specifications, "Lenovo Legion 5 15IMH05 specifications" for it's specifications. Of course, you should replace the information for my laptop PC with whatever you use.

The bottom line is that no matter what you decide to do, before you spend any money on hardware do your research. Start by doing everything Bob tells you to do before spending any money on hardware then, if you decide you need to upgrade your computer either with more memory or an SSD drive (for computers with older conventional magnetic drives), or both, get the specifications for your computer so you know what you have now and whether you can improve it with more memory or a newer SSD drive. Once you know what you have, search some more to find out about how much more RAM and/or an SSD drive will cost then compare that with the cost of a newer computer that comes with those features already build in. Black Friday's coming soon. You may well get a newer, faster, more capable computer for not too much more than more RAM and/or an SSD drive may cost.

Those decisions are up to you, but take the time to do your due diligence (research) before you spend money so you don't spend it wastefully.



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