Does Your Computer Need More Memory?

Category: Memory

If your laptop or desktop computer seems sluggish, the problem may be too little RAM (Random Access Memory). But “add more RAM” is not the solution to every case of poor performance, and buying more RAM than you need or can use is just a waste of money. Read on to learn the ins and outs of RAM memory and how much RAM is the “sweet spot” is for most computers...

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.

Your web browser and certain parts of the operating system 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.

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.

Adding RAM memory

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, which slows everything down.

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 indicator of the need for more RAM memory is 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 Start key on a Windows computer, and it doesn't respond immediately, that could be another indicator.

How Much and What Type?

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

RAM for PCs 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 PC 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 of PC. 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.)

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 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

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 PC performance, and 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 Free PC Maintenance Tools and Keeping Software Updated Simply 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 "Does Your Computer Need More Memory?"

Posted by:

David Lagesse
17 May 2019

Windows 10 Home: 128 GB???
The best I have seen on the latest computers in stores, catalogs, and on-line is a measly 16 Gig!

Posted by:

Bab Krinno
17 May 2019

Have you seen the cost of 128GB of RAM ?
Let alone 512GB or even 2TB ?

Posted by:

17 May 2019

I laughed when I saw Windows 10 had a 32-bit version available.A diehard user is the only one who would have such a setup.They are probably still using floppy discs.It's time to get a 64-bit machine with the more up-to-date SATA cords,not one with those IDE ribbons.

Posted by:

17 May 2019

Before spending more than $50 on RAM I would make sure I had an SSD and not a standard hard disk in my computer. The difference when replacing a classic HDD with a SSD is amazing. Startup time, program changes and everything is so much faster. I have replaced a HDD with a SSD in several old laptops with an enormous improvement.

Posted by:

17 May 2019

I think @hifi5000 is just being nostalgic about the good ol' days; when we really had other fish to fry than worrying about such things as security, privacy, et al. But the true "diehards" users of yore were into SCSI cables >> not IDE.

Posted by:

17 May 2019

Little Johny, from the back of the class, raises his hand to ask a question: Specifically, whether adding a stand-alone graphics card (after disabling the GPU, that are now an integral part of all 21st Century CPUs) should get an honorable mention as another 'choking' point of most desktop PCs.

Posted by:

17 May 2019

In the clean-up \ maintenance method of speeding up computers, one must not forget DUST !!!

One of the most destructive forces at work in shortening the life of a system or slowing it down is overheating due to dust accumulation.

At least twice a year (or more frequently depending on location), one should get out the air blasters and de-dust all heat sinks, fans, and filters in the computer.

A clean computer is a happy computer and a faster computer.

Posted by:

17 May 2019

4 working laptops. 3 64-bit, 4 GB RAM. 1 32-bit, came with 0.5 GB RAM. I tried adding a little and confused it. It now, depending on what I'm using to check, tells me I have either 0.5, 1.0, or 1.5 GB RAM. But it still works! (Not fast, certain browsers are too much for it, but it works!)

Posted by:

Keith Paterson
17 May 2019

Must see if you have done one on fitting an SSD drive inan older desktop. They are certainly getting less expensive

Posted by:

18 May 2019

Well after reading tech news lately, it seems that PCs with old Intel processors (meaning not the very latest) will have to stay off the internet. To me it appears Intel is having outside labs or inividuals test their processors for exploits. That haven't been used yet. Which is good for security. So in the near future purchasing a non-Windoz, non-Intel processor Chromebook may be necessary. Or build a Raspberry Pi computer! I'll keep the old Windoz laptops for editing. And DVR work.

Posted by:

21 May 2019

The numbers in the list are the technical limits of ram for various operating systems. You won't find any custom made or oem systems with anything close to those numbers.

I buy the cheaper laptops with 500gb of ram and less memory. Upgrading to an SSD and adding memory is much cheaper than buying a system with more bling.

When you upgrade the drive you get to keep the drive that came with it...
For about $7 you can take out the HDD and put it into a portable drive case for backups..

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