How much RAM do you need?

Having enough RAM is important, but stick to these guidelines to save some money

how to install ram pc buildout 2016 720x480 02
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Random Access Memory, usually shortened to “RAM” or simply “memory,” is one of the most important parts of any computer. New PCs and similar devices range from around the 4GB mark to 16GB — or more. But how much RAM do you actually need?

The amount of memory you require will depend on two factors: What you want to do and how much you’re willing to spend. Although memory is an important consideration when buying smartphones too, this guide will focus on more powerful systems running desktop operating systems such as Windows, MacOS, or Chrome OS.

How much do you need? Some guidelines

In a nutshell, here are some simple guidelines that apply to most PC devices.

  • 2GB: Only really found in budget tablet designs. Fine for them, but you’ll want more in a laptop or desktop.
  • 4GB: Entry level memory that comes with even budget notebooks. Fine for basic Windows and Chrome OS usage.
  • 8GB: Excellent for Windows and MacOS systems and most games. We recommend this for most people.
  • 16GB: Ideal for professional work and more demanding games.
  • 32GB and beyond: Enthusiasts and purpose-built workstations only.

Remember, buying more RAM than you need doesn’t net you any performance benefit. It’s effectively wasted money. Buy what you need, and spend what’s left of your budget on more important components such as the CPU or graphics card.

An introduction to RAM

Memory capacity is often confused with the long-term storage offered by a solid-state or mechanical hard drive. Sometimes even manufacturers or retailers will mix up the terms.

A desk is a useful analogy to consider the difference between memory and storage. Think of RAM as the top of the desk. The bigger it is, the more papers you can spread out and read at once. Hard drives are more like the drawers underneath the desk, capable of storing papers you’re not using.

The more RAM your system has, the more programs it can handle simultaneously. RAM isn’t the only determining factor — after all, you can technically open dozens of programs at once even with a very small amount of RAM. The problem is that doing so will severely slow your system down.

Think of the desk again. If your desk is too small, it becomes cluttered, and your work will slow as you try to find whatever paper you need at any particular moment. You’ll be forced to frequently dig into the drawers to store what won’t fit on top of the desk and retrieve papers you need.

While it’s true that a computer with more RAM feels noticeably faster, it’s only up to a point. Having a big desk doesn’t help you if you’re just working with a few pieces of paper. The goal is to have enough RAM — or desk space — for all the applications you use in your life on that particular device.

Standard RAM shouldn’t be confused with graphics memory, either, a statistic associated with computer graphic cards (these are our favorites). High-end 3D games rely on video RAM (VRAM), often expressed as “GDDR5” or similar, whereas standard memory will simply be referred to as memory, RAM, or in some cases DDR3/DDR4. This may sound confusing, but thankfully most manufacturers are very good at identifying VRAM clearly so consumers know what’s what.

RAM-heavy applications

Intel NUC Core i5 NUCi5RYK mini PC review RAM screw driver
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The biggest RAM-hogs on most home computers are the operating system itself, and the web browser, though some applications and games can use more than everything else combined. There’s not much you can do to make Windows or MacOS use less memory, but more RAM in your computer means that you can open more browser tabs in Chrome, Firefox, Edge etc. In addition, some websites use more RAM than others. A simple text news story is relatively light on memory, while something like Gmail or Netflix uses quite a bit.

Programs tend to use more RAM as they increase in complexity. A chat program or a game like Minesweeper will use almost no RAM, while a gigantic Excel spreadsheet, a huge Photoshop project, or a graphic-intensive game may use gigabytes by themselves. Professional programs and engineering software are created to tackle very difficult projects and tend to consume the most RAM of all programs.

How much RAM for tablets?

news on tablet

Tablets are not expected to deal with heavy-duty software tasks, so their RAM needs tend to be pretty low — similar to a lot of smartphones. However, as multi-tab browsers and more complex software continue to make the transition, tablet needs are becoming more and more similar to laptop needs. Current spec options typically range from 2GB to 16GB of RAM, with other considerations like battery life and processor speed often being of greater consideration.

With something like the iPad, which touts 2GB of RAM, its design is more focused on its vibrant display and long battery life. With a device like the Microsoft Surface Book 2, you get a default 16GB because it’s more laptop than tablet — even if its fancy hinge lets you convert it into a light and portable tablet mode. This gives us a guideline for choosing tablet RAM — what are you using your tablet for?

2GB is OK for lightweight users, but 4GB would be a better fit in most cases. However, if you also use your tablet as your primary PC, you should equip it with the RAM you’d need for any other desktop or laptop. Generally, that means at least 4GB, with 8GB being ideal for most users.

How much RAM for laptops?

Dell-XPS-13-Gold-2016-front-angle

Most laptops come with 8GB of RAM, with entry-level offerings sporting 4GB and top-tier machines packing 16GB — even up to 32GB for the most powerful gaming notebooks. As previously mentioned, tablet and laptop needs are converging, but most users feel comfortable running more complex programs on laptops, which means RAM has a more important role here.

For something like a Chromebook, which operates primarily in the cloud and has very little storage space, you won’t need much in the way of RAM. We recommend opting for 4GB of RAM when buying a Chromebook, especially since you can now use the Google Play Store to download Android apps directly on your machine.

For Windows and MacBooks, however, you should think about bumping that number up to a standard 8GB. Most of the best laptops come with 8GB for good reason. If you are doing a lot of graphic design work or are planning on dabbling in some higher-end gaming, you may want to consider increasing that to 16GB.

You’d only need to go past that if you perform extremely exacting tasks, like editing huge video or photo files — the kind of thing you’d normally do on a desktop. Most people don’t use a laptop for such tasks, but if you do, buying enough RAM is crucial. It’s more difficult to upgrade RAM in a laptop (or, in some recent models, impossible) compared to a desktop, so buying what you need at the start is paramount.

How much RAM for desktops?

DDR3 RAM
ian woolcock/Shutterstock

RAM in desktops is plentiful, but not as cheap as it used to be. Large and fast DDR4 kits can cost hundreds of dollars, so buying what you need while leaving space for upgrades later is your best bet. People tend to keep their desktop computers around longer than tablets or laptops, so planning for the future is worthwhile.

8GB is a good place to start. While many users will be fine with less, the price difference between 4GB and 8GB isn’t drastic enough that it’s worth opting for less. An upgrade to 16GB is recommended for enthusiasts, hardcore gamers, and the average workstation user. Serious workstation users may go further to 32GB, but be prepared for high cost if you want speed or fancy features like RGB lighting. Anything beyond that is the realm of extreme specialty rigs equipped to handle huge datasets, staggeringly large video files, or niche programs designed for researchers, corporations, or government.

gskill trident z rgb series ddr4 memory introduced g skill

While RAM isn’t all that expensive, remember it’s the easiest component to upgrade in a desktop PC. Buying a generous amount is wise, but don’t go crazy. There’s not much reason for a gamer to exceed 16GB for now, and no reason to exceed 8GB if all you want to do is watch Netflix. If your system does eventually become restricted by RAM, you can just add more. This is a good idea even if you don’t feel comfortable upgrading yourself, as the charge for installing RAM at your local PC store should hover around $40 to $60.

Deals

From Chromebooks to MacBooks, here are the best laptop deals for February 2019

Whether you need a new laptop for school or work or you're just doing some post-holiday shopping, we've got you covered: These are the best laptop deals going right now, from discounted MacBooks to on-the-go gaming PCs.
Computing

In 2019, laptops are better than ever. Here are the best of the best

The best laptop should be one that checks all the boxes: Great battery life, beautiful design, and top-notch performance. The laptops we've chosen for our best laptops you can buy do all that — and throw in some extra features while…
Deals

From Samsung to HP, here are the best cheap Chromebook deals right now

Whether you want a compact laptop to enjoy some entertainment on the go, or you need a no-nonsense machine for school or work, we've smoked out the best cheap Chromebook deals -- from full-sized laptops to 2-in-1 convertibles -- that won't…
Computing

This gaming PC rig costs less than most smartphones. Here's what we put inside

Building a great gaming PC doesn't take as much time or money as you might think. We've put together a list of great gaming components to build a budget gaming PC for under $500.
Computing

Enjoy Windows on a Chromebook with these great tips and tricks

If you want to push the functionality of your new Chromebook to another level, and Linux isn't really your deal, you can try installing Windows on a Chromebook. Here's how to do so in case you're looking to nab some Windows-only software.
Computing

Switch your WMA files for MP3s with our quick conversion tips

The WMA codec may be great when it comes to multi-channel surround sound, but unfortunately, it falters in terms of compatibility. Check out our guide on how to convert WMA files to MP3 via web-based or desktop methods.
Computing

Looking for a new laptop? These 5 notebooks are on sale through Presidents’ Day

If you're ready to ditch your aging notebook, you can score some fantastic Presidents' Day savings right now on Microsoft's Surface Pro 6, Dell's XPS 13, HP's Spectre x360, Lenovo's Yoga C930, and Dell's G5 15 Gaming laptops.
Virtual Reality

Getting into VR is spendy. Which headset is truly worth your hard-earned cash?

Virtual reality has finally gone mainstream, but how do you find the best VR headset for you? Check out a few of our favorites, whether you want the best of the best or a budget alternative for your mobile device.
Computing

These Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts will take your skills to a new level

Windows 10 has many new features, and they come flanked with useful new keyboard shortcuts. Check out some of the new Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts to improve your user experience and save more time!
Computing

What is Wi-Fi 6? Here's a look at the next evolution of the wireless standard

We're exploring the new naming convention for wireless standards, how it affects the devices you buy, and what the upcoming Wi-Fi generation is changing for the better.
Computing

Windows is getting a face-lift in 2020, but you can get a sneak peek right now

Microsoft is increasing the lead time for an upcoming major update to Windows 10, giving Windows Insiders the ability to test it right now, even though it's not set for release until 2020.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-powered website creates freakishly lifelike faces of people who don’t exist

No, this isn't a picture of a missing person. It's a face generated by a new artificial intelligence on the website ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. Here's how the impressive A.I. works.
Deals

The best Presidents’ Day sales 2019: Amazon, Walmart, Dell, and more

Presidents' Day sales are a great chance to score electronics, clothing, home and office stuff, and other goodies at a discount. We’ve smoked out a large handful of the best of these Presidents' Day deals, from tech to bedding, to help…
Deals

Keep your MacBook safe and dry with an Under Armour backpack for under $50

Under Armour is having a huge sale this weekend to help you on your quest for a better backpack. The UA Outlet Exclusive sale is going on now through Monday, February 18th, offering great discounts on stormproof backpacks.