Hard drive

How Much RAM Memory Do I Really Need And What Kind?

April 30, 2009

in computer memory,computer performance

by David Hakala

When you buy a new computer the sales person will undoubtedly try to upsell you a RAM upgrade. It may seem that a whole gigabyte or two or RAM is plenty, but you could be in for surprises. Modern software is complex and uses lots of RAM. Software developers pitch their wares’ minimum RAM requirements to make them look lean and efficient, but in truth the software often needs much more RAM to run optimally. Having plenty of RAM means that software is not swapped out to disk as often, saving wear and tear on your hard drives. More RAM is usually a good investment. But how much RAM do you really need, and what kind of RAM should you buy?

Every operating system is tuned to an optimal amount of RAM. Use less RAM and things run slower with more disk wear. Add more RAM and it sits idle most of the time, wasted. Kingston Technology, a major vendor of RAM chips, provides a free calculator for estimating how much RAM your operating system alone needs.

In addition to the operating system’s requirements you must add in the RAM your application software requires. I repeat: software developers low-ball their minimum RAM requirements. Multiply the minimum requirement by 1.5 at least, 2.0 to be safe. Add up the RAM requirements of the applications you have open simultaneously most of the time. Add in the operating system’s optimal RAM.

Now we’re getting into some serious numbers. A heavily used Windows XP Pro computer may need between 1 and 2 GB of RAM to run optimally. A Vista computer with any less than 2 GB of RAM is painfully slow. But it is possible to have too much RAM.

A 32-bit operating system such as Windows XP or 32-bit Vista will not recognize more than 4 GB of RAM. The RAM might as well not be there.

There are many different types of RAM chips available. They operate at different speeds, have different numbers of connector pins that plug into the computer’s motherboard, and may come in different shapes for laptop and desktop machines. It is vital to get exactly the right kind of RAM chips for your specific computer. Fortunately, the folks at Kingston provide tools for pinpointing what kind of RAM chip you need, too.

David Hakala has perpetrated technology tutorials since 1988 in addition to committing tech journalism, documentation, Web sites, marketing collateral, and profitable prose in general. His complete rap sheet can be seen at http://www.linkedin.com/in/dhakala