Last Updated on May 12, 2020 by Dave Farquhar
Let’s tackle a controversial computer hardware question. How much RAM do you need? There’s a difference between how much RAM you want and how much you need. You may very likely need less RAM than you think.
I want 128 gigabytes of RAM. But there isn’t a lot of point to it. Almost 20 years ago, I was buying 128 megabytes of RAM when most people had 32 or 64 megabytes. There was a benefit to being beyond the pale then. Not so much today. At least not that far out.
One thing to keep in mind: You really want to install your memory in matched pairs. In really high-end machines, you install it in matched triplets. Then you install the pairs or triplets in the color-matched memory slots. This allows your computer to access the memory modules in parallel, which is a bit faster.
Under some circumstances, if you mismatch your RAM when you add more, you can end up slowing your computer down. Yes, slowing it down.
Wait. I thought more memory made the computer faster?
Conventional wisdom says more memory makes a computer faster. And to an extent it does. For years, we built memory-starved computers and made up for it by making them swap pages of memory out to disk. Swapping is painfully slow. When I went hog wild in 1998 and bought four times as much memory as the typical power user, I ensured my computer would never swap out to disk.
Now, 20 years is a long time, and software has gotten more demanding in 20 years. But not 1,000 times more demanding. The key is to find how much memory you need to stop your computer from abusing the hard drive or SSD. But adding more RAM after you reach that point doesn’t make the computer any faster. At that point, your cheapest option to make your computer faster is to get an SSD. Then, depending on what you do, turn your attention to the CPU or video card. If you game or do a lot of video work, the video card is the best bet. If you do a lot of image editing or heavy math, the CPU is the best bet.
Building a fast computer is like building a baseball team. Most people can’t afford to max out all five aspects of their computer. Getting one Hall of Famer and four scrubs doesn’t give you a very good team though. A ho-hum computer that’s mediocre in all five aspects will probably surprise you. It won’t be great at anything, but it won’t be bad at anything either.
How much RAM do you need? More than 2 gigs
Let’s start low. Life with 2 gigs of RAM in 2020 is miserable, and life with that amount of memory has been miserable for a while now. I think Windows 10 will try to run on 1 gig. If you only keep a couple of web pages open at a time, and only do simple word processing and spreadsheets and aren’t creating complex documents, a 2-gig computer can handle the work. But it will boot up and load applications slowly.
I had a machine with 2 gigs of RAM until about 2011. The motherboard wouldn’t take any more than that. When the power supply died, I took that as the excuse to build a new machine. I was glad I did. That machine ran Windows 7. Windows 10 is supposed to be more memory efficient than Windows 7, but I don’t think it is anymore. That’s only a problem on really low-memory machines though.
4 gigs: The practical minimum
I think we’ve beat that topic to death. It’s pretty safe to say in 2020 that 4 gigs of RAM is the practical minimum for running Windows, and that’s been the case for a couple of years at least. With 4 gigs you can have a few web pages you have open at once and not run out of memory. You can have a couple of applications open and the computer won’t necessarily bog down, depending on how large and complex your documents are.
If you’re into gaming, most games require at least 4 gigs of RAM and recommend more than that. For some games you might be able to get by on 4 GB, but most titles are much more comfortable with more than that.
If you’re patient, you can get by with 4 GB of RAM, but you’ll be happier with more unless you use the computer very casually.
8 gigs: The sweet spot
Most games recommend at least 8 gigabytes of memory, and I’ve found that Windows is a lot happier with 8 gigabytes than it is with 4. I’m writing this on a machine with 8 gigs of memory. I have several dozen browser tabs open at the moment. I’m not exaggerating. I also have three spreadsheets open and earlier today I opened a fourth for a few minutes. I have one word processor document open, and three Explorer windows, Windows Media Player so I can listen to music, and a couple of notepad windows and a calculator window open.
Excessive? Yes. I make my machines multitask. The machine doesn’t flinch under this load.
The caveat with more than 4 gigs of RAM is that you have to be running 64-bit Windows. You probably are, but click the Windows button and type about your PC and run the program to make sure. The sixth line under device specifications tells you whether you are running a 32-bit or 64-bit OS.
The nice thing about this amount of memory is that it’s not terribly expensive. At this moment, 8 GB of RAM costs a little bout 40 bucks. That’s not contributing an excessive amount to the cost of the computer.
So if you’re not on a super-tight budget, does it make sense to spend more and get 16?
16 gigs: Sometimes justifiable
If you’re a power user, you might like having 16 gigs of memory. When I have to load a spreadsheet with 2 million rows of data in it, I can feel the difference between 8 and 16 gigs. At one job my nickname was Pivot Table because I had 8 gigs of RAM and it took 30 minutes to make a pivot table off those 2 million rows, and nearly 30 minutes to make any changes to them, so I hated pivot tables. I didn’t have time to wait 30 minutes for a pivot table change to take effect.
For everyday computing, I don’t notice much difference between 8 and 16 gigs. Since 16 GB of RAM costs around $80, it’s worth getting if your system can take 16 gigs. Some games perform better with 16 gigs. Others don’t care. But it’s safe to say that future games will take advantage of 16 gigs, so it makes sense to at least make sure your computer can take 16 gigs, even if you don’t buy the full amount right away.
32 gigs: Now we’re talking overkill
I have a system with 32 gigs of RAM. A few years ago, memory prices dipped, so I bought all the memory the board would take. So I have a system with 32 gigs of RAM, a nice SSD, a cheap CPU, and an even worse video card. It’s out of whack. Honestly, it doesn’t multitask any better than a 16-gig system would. I struggle to find work for all the memory, so a lot of it just sits idle.
Now, if you do a lot of photo or video editing, 32 gigs might be easy to justify. To be honest, I built this machine intending to do a lot of virtualization on it–splitting it up into several machines. I could run three or four servers on it comfortably.
But outside of those kinds of use cases, you don’t need 32 gigs of RAM. Not today, at least. If you do really intense work and need 32 gigs or more, you probably know it. Go for it. Step up to 64 or 128 gigs, even. But you’re probably not the type of person reading this.
A word about quality and pricing
I’ve written before about memory quality and pricing. Memory pricing can be very volatile, so it can pay to research prices and decide whether to buy now or wait a month. Also, brand names matter. Generic memory isn’t like generic ketchup. It can be much lower quality and make your system less stable.
I buy memory from Kingston and Crucial about 90% of the time and have been since about mid-1998. I’ve seen bad brand-name modules before but I’ve never personally had one fail on me. In the event one fails, both companies protect you with a generous warranty. Generic memory often comes with short warranties and I saw about one out of eight fail, which is a crazy high rate. That’s why I started paying extra. I have no regrets.