How Much Memory Do I Need?

Category: Memory

Whether you are buying a new computer or upgrading an existing one, memory or RAM is an important consideration. Buy too little memory and your entire system will be slowed down, overworked, and some programs may not run at all. Buy too much memory and you're wasting money. To determine how much memory you need, let's look at the hardware and software you have (or plan to buy) and how you intend to use it...

Memory Upgrade

Upgrade Your Memory?

A computer that doesn't have enough RAM memory will run like a car with a bad cylinder. So how much memory do you need? Let's start with software. The applications that you use frequently have minimum and recommended memory requirements. Generally, the minimum gives barely tolerable performance.

Add up the recommended memory requirements of all the software that you are likely to use simultaneously. Here are a few popular applications and their minimum/recommended memory requirements:

Application Min. RAM Recommended
Adobe Photoshop CS 128MB 1GB-1.5GB
Half-Life® 2: Lost Coast 256MB 1.5-2GB
Microsoft Office 2010 256MB 512MB
Internet Explorer 8 64MB 256MB
Mozilla Firefox v3.6 64MB 246MB

The operating system you choose has its minimum and recommended memory requirements, too. Windows XP requires far less memory (512MB minimum) than Windows 7 (2GB minimum). Linux beats them both, depending on which distribution of Linux you choose. Mac OS X users need at least 2GB of memory. Add the recommended memory requirement of your operating system to the hardware and software totals.

The size of documents, images, and other data files that you work with is also a consideration. Many applications hold data files in memory while the data is being used; accessing and changing data are as fast as possible this way. If there is not enough memory to hold an entire data file then part of it will be stored on your hard drive until it is needed. Swapping data in and out of RAM takes significant time and is hard on the electromechanical parts of the online storage device. More main memory means less data swapping; faster, smoother data manipulation; and longer hardware life.

Other Memory Considerations

Another thing that consumes a fair amount of RAM memory is the driver software associated with each component of your system. A driver is a software program that enables the hardware device to "talk to" the operating system. The more hardware you use, the more driver software you will have loaded into memory. Printers, scanners, fax machines, network adapters, monitors, cameras, even keyboards, mice, game controllers, and other input devices all require drivers. The amount of memory that a driver needs varies from one manufacturer's device to another. To get a more accurate tally of the amount or RAM you need, check the specs of each device and add up their memory requirements.

Gathering all the memory requirements described above can be quite a chore. So for a quick rule of thumb, here are some recommendations of how much memory different types of computer users generally need:

If you are this type of user:You need this much memory
Casual user: Web browsing, email, listening to music 0.5 to 1.0 GB
Frequent user: the above plus word processing, photo viewing, simple games, video viewing 1.0 to 2.0 GB
Power user: the above plus photo editing, video editing, real-time multiplayer online games such as Halo, multitasking 2.0 to 4.0 GB
Professional User: high-performance gaming, large documents, high-definition video editing 4.0 to 8.0 GB

Here's an even quicker rule of thumb... for most users, 2GB of RAM will serve you well, and is required for the latest operating systems, such as Windows 7 and Mac OS X. But if you can spare an extra $50 or so, upgrading to 4GB is likely to make your computer run smoother and faster over the long haul. See my related article Memory Upgrade for some tips on finding and installing the right RAM in your computer.

Got something to say about memory upgrades? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "How Much Memory Do I Need?"

Posted by:

Tom Campbell
10 Aug 2010

Bob, How much does an integrated graphics card come in to play? Most laptops and consumer (i.e. non-gamer) desktops run their video off the motherboard, using the system's RAM for their texture and work areas. How much difference does this make in the calculation?

On a related issue (maybe for a new article) how does integrated graphics come in to play for users who need to use lots of memory - would this impact their decision about going with 32 Bit versus 64 Bit Windows?

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm glad you brought this up, Tom. It depends whether the graphics card uses "shared RAM" -- a tactic some vendors use to cut costs. This does in fact reduce the amount of RAM available to the operating system. One option is to install a "real" graphics card and disable the onboard graphics. Not sure how the 32/64 bit issues affects this, except that any add-on graphics card would need to be compatible with the 64-bit motherboard.

Posted by:

10 Aug 2010

While I find the detailed analysis spot-on, I offer the following simplification. Given what you have spent on the machine, max the memory or eventually regret it. You cannot have too much memory unless you are the most casual of users. YouTube, email attachments, whatever -- memory = performance. Performance = great experiences

Posted by:

Bob Shier
10 Aug 2010

To your advise I'd add merely one amendment. Once you have that figure of your maximum all time RAM usage, multiply it by two, and then you should be good . . . for a while. When I've done with out the multiplier I always seem to run out of memory.

Posted by:

Najat Cola
11 Aug 2010

Bob, Thank you for the information you have provided. I really need to learn more about this. I run Correl Draw and a few other programs and also need to multi-task so I understand that I now need to upgrade from 2GB to 4GB for optimal perfomrance.

The question I have is if this will help with another problem - alliviating viruses/trojans etc - My computer recently was currupted by a virus so Dell assited me in reinstalling the operating system - within a day I had ANOTHER virus (that was removed via Malwarebytes) They advised me that if i upgraded to 4GB it may help the problem - they were very pushy though in making the sale so i was a little skeptical.

For the reasons you stated in your article i'm going to upgrade but I wonder if it really does help with virus detection etc.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I can't think of any reason why having more memory would enhance anti-virus protection.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2010

You don't mention DDR DDR2 and DDR3 memory. Is it better to buy 2 giga of DDR2 or one giga of DDR3?

EDITOR'S NOTE: A gigabyte is a gigabyte, doesn't matter if it's DDR2 or DDR3. DDR3 is faster, but you should buy only what your motherboard can use.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2010

Good article. I have been a subscriber from the Tourbus days, and have learned a lot from your newletters. May I make a suggestion about your presentation of information?

One of the problems with computer information, I find, is that I understand of lot of the theory, but have little ability to apply it or to relate it to my situation. For instance, I have no idea how much memory my computer has, and I have even less idea how to find out.

My suggestion would that, whenever appropriate, such as this article on memory needs, information also be provided to help the novice reader in linking the info to his own situation. I.e. where do I look to find out how much memory my computer has?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Good question. Here's how to find out how much memory you have:

Posted by:

11 Aug 2010

Marty said it first. Max the memory your system will handle. you will not regret it.
I'm stuck with 2Gb with my system, but I've had no memory problems with XP-Pro.

Posted by:

AG Wright
26 Aug 2010

One thing that you don't mention is that some motherboards, particularly the proprietary ones, Dell, HP, Gateway... often have maximum amounts of RAM. For instance the Dell Dimension 3000 system I'm using now only supports 2 gigs. Two slots, one gig each.
Also a 32 bit OS only supports 3 gigs of RAM. That's it. To use more RAM you need a 64 bit OS.

Posted by:

27 Aug 2010

The most important thing you left out is, as AG Wright mentioned above, that there is no point installing 4GB of RAM or more on a 32bit OS.

64 bit OS are relatively unlimited in the amount of RAM you can install (limited only by the slot on your motherboard)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Microsoft states that Windows 2000 and XP (32-bit) can use 4GB.

Posted by:

04 Oct 2010

People this is almost 2011.. You need atleast 2gb of memory to get by, recommended is 4 -6gb for a normal user and 8 - 12gb for a power user. I have 24gb of DDR3 but I'm an extreme user.

Posted by:

06 Jan 2011

Yeah, seriously, no one is going to do a damn thing with 1GB of RAM, people. They shouldn't even sell a computer with that small an amount...but they do anyway. 2GB is if you are just checking your Yahoo email. 4GB is the least you should have if you are buying a computer in 2011. And hopefully it's not a mac. Just FYI

Posted by:

21 Mar 2011

I think that you should be ok with 1GB of RAM and from there on,i have an old COmpaq Presario with just 240MB of RAM and i used it as backup.It worked great for facebook email and etc. If you play a simple online game such as Pirates Online Runescape, Anything like that with at least 1.5 Gb of RAM you should be good.Now for alot of multitasking and games like WOW U need your 6 or 8 Gb of RAM. But me personally im happy with just 240Gb RAM even though i have a new Windows 7 with my comfortable 3GB RAM.

Posted by:

12 Aug 2011

The simplest and probably best way to find if you've got enough RAM, is to know if your programs are trying to eat more memory than you have or not. If you are, upgrade. If you aren't, don't upgrade. Just adding RAM won't "magically speed up" things unless you are maxing out the RAM.

Posted by:

Maurice Lampl
28 Aug 2012

I just bought new HP Omni All-In-One with 64-bit Win7 Starter in Spanish. I have Win7Enterprise 32-bit OS in English, so I installed that. My HP has 4G memory, but I'd have a streaming video running and an installed game going and the combined RAM became overloaded that my computer froze up. I wanted to try the ReadyBoost method, but noted that the 32-bit system can only take up to 4G limit and no more... Bummer!!! Advice? Sure 64-bit OS will do it, but I have a budget!!!

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