How much RAM do you need?

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

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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

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 Windows and Chrome OS.
  • 8GB: Excellent for Windows and MacOS systems and most gaming settings. We recommend this for most people.
  • 16GB: Ideal for professional work and the most 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. 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

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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.

Choosing RAM for tablets

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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 on any other desktop or laptop. Generally, that means at least 4GB, with 8GB being ideal for most users.

Choosing RAM for laptops

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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. Of course, 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.

Choosing RAM for desktops

DDR3 RAM
ian woolcock/Shutterstock

RAM in desktops is cheap and plentiful, so it’s often easy to find computers with lots of memory at lower prices. Additionally, more RAM on desktops can often prove beneficial, as people tend to keep their desktop computers around longer than tablets or laptops.

8GB is a good place to start. While many users will be fine with less, the low price of memory means there’s minimal benefit to it. An upgrade to 16GB is recommended for enthusiasts, hardcore gamers, and the average workstation user. Serious workstation users may go further to 32GB. Anything beyond that is the realm of extreme speciality rigs equipped to handle huge data sets, staggeringly large video files, or niche programs designed for researchers, corporations, or government.

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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.

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