[SILVER BULLET] Add Memory to Speed Up Your Computer?

Category: Memory

Is your laptop or desktop computer 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 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 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.

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 Is Low Memory Bogging Down Your Computer? 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.)

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
  • Mac OS Catalina 10.15: 256 GB
  • Mac OS X 10.9 or later: 128GB
  • Mac OS X 10.8 or earler 96GB

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 [FREE] Tools to Tune and Optimize Your Hard Drive and Keep Your Software Up To Date (or else…) 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 "[SILVER BULLET] Add Memory to Speed Up Your Computer?"

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
20 Aug 2021

If your computer is a few years old, it is often possible to find on Ebay at a reasonable price a faster CPU that is pin-compatible with the one you have, or one of the same speed, but with more cores: hex-core to replace quad-core for instance.

To ensure compatibility, make sure the two CPUs use the same "socket"

Posted by:

21 Aug 2021

Few expensive lessons I learned from this memory puzzle: The big issue is the fact that normal replacement will require matched-set(s) of RAM memory 'sticks'. Regardless if doubling up on the current (same brand/timing) RAM modules or replacing with a new matched-set that will additionally allow them to operate in a dual-channel mode to give shuffled memory data even more room to 'breath'. Finding a similar (brand/timing) as the old RAM will be difficult and costly. Replacing the current stick(s) with matched-set(s) is also costly. Over decades, it seems like I end up with a bunch of old sticks that have already been replaced. Insanity?
I recommend putting the RAM replacement costs in a piggybank and plan your next computing purchase; but only if not facing an 'if' but a 'when' situation.

Posted by:

21 Aug 2021

I believe you have got RAM and hard disk capacity mixed up in your article. You can't really be suggesting that a Windows 10 Pro computer should have 2TB of RAM?? That would be some computer!! Please check the table and correct. Thanks for an interesting article.

Posted by:

Peter Oh
21 Aug 2021

"Open a Windows File Explorer window, right-click on the drive you want to check and select Properties. Next, select the Tools tab and click on Check to launch CHKDSK with standard parameters".
This yields no useful info whatever except to advise I have no "faults" despite my PCs sluggish performance, and Yes I do havea SSD installed.

Posted by:

21 Aug 2021

Most of my computers have been salvaged and rebuilt in my shop, but on the few occasions when I have bought a computer from a store I immediately purchase more memory and load up the system. I just figure the price into the cost of a new machine.

When refurbishing for myself or others, I always increase (or max out) the RAM, and put in an SSD or 7200 RPM platter drive. Many computers came from a box store with slow drives and minimum RAM, and the users never got around to improvements.

More RAM (up to the limits of the OS, as noted here) speeds everything up noticeably and reduces wear and tear on the hard / SSD drive.

Don't forget that Windows Task Manager has a Performance tab that can monitor the CPU, disk, and RAM usage in real time.

Posted by:

Brian B
21 Aug 2021

@Mike, the table just lists the amount of memory each version of windows is able to address. The limit of 2TB for Windows 10 Pro x64 is correct. If you think that's good, a Windows 10 Enterprise x64 can address 6TB.

Posted by:

Andre G
22 Aug 2021

It also depends what you do with your computer.
For instance:
I recently noticed that the new Windows 10 "Your Phone" application allowing you to connect to your mobile phone and use/see it's screen on your PC monitor, read and write your SMS's, notifcations and even calls, cute but a real memory hog.
In use to add a feature called Ramdisk to my PC's (it creates a virtual disk in RAM) and I move all my temporary folders (TEMP folders and web browser caches) to it as to reduce the use and wear of my SSD disks + improve speed.

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