Every personal computer is made up of several components that combine to run the applications that make the PC such a useful tool. There’s the central processing unit (CPU), the graphics processing unit (GPU), memory, storage, display, and various others that are all vital to getting things done with a PC.
In this piece, we’re going to cover random-access memory (RAM), which you can think of as the PC’s short-term memory. It’s where the operating system (OS) loads when the PC is turned on and booted up, and it’s where applications run and store their information during active processing.
Prices and availability of products discussed were accurate at time of publication, but are subject to change.
The basics of RAM
RAM is “volatile” memory, meaning that it only maintains information while it’s receiving power. Turn off the PC, on purpose or accidentally (as happens with a power failure), and all the contents of RAM are lost. That’s why there’s also long-term storage such as hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives SDDs) for saving information when the power is turned off.
The amount of RAM that you use in your PC is an important element in how well it will perform. All the information that your OS and applications need to use while actively processing needs to be available in RAM. While the information that the system isn’t actively using can be written to storage in “swap files” when there’s too much to store in RAM, the process of constantly switching information to and from storage is slower than working with it directly in RAM.
So with all of that said: how much RAM do you need? That is, how much RAM is necessary to keep your PC running smoothly and to minimize the use of swap files? RAM costs money, and it uses a small amount of power, which is a consideration for notebooks that need to run on batteries. Therefore, there’s a balance between spending more money and using more power by equipping more RAM than you need and not having enough RAM for efficient operation.
As usual with these kinds of configuration questions, the answer depends entirely on how you want to use your PC. We recommend that you consider your worst-case scenarios when deciding on the amount of RAM. Simply put, it’s probably better to occasionally have “too much” RAM than to not have enough RAM when you need it.
Desktops vs. notebooks
Most RAM today comes in the form of dual in-line memory modules (DIMMs) that hold memory chips adding up to a specific amount of RAM. In turn, most RAM today uses a double data rate (DDR) interface, and current popular standards are DDR3 and DDR4. We won’t dig into the details, but most RAM that you purchase for a desktop will be some speed of DDR4 RAM while the RAM that’s equipped in the typical notebook PC will be either DDR3 or DDR4 RAM.
What’s important to remember here is that the RAM in desktop PCs can easily be increased or decreased. Desktop motherboards (check out our guide on how to choose a motherboard here) have multiple RAM slots, typically between two and eight. And RAM DIMMs come in various sizes, from under one gigabyte (1GB) all the way up to 64GB versions, with motherboards accepting a range of RAM capacities. If you’re building your PC, then you can just use some of the available RAM slots, and leave some open for adding more RAM later. You can also swap RAM out as needed up to the limits of what the motherboard can accept.
Notebooks PCs are different animals. Some notebooks use DIMMs, while others have the RAM directly soldered onto the motherboard. Many notebooks today are tightly sealed and cannot be upgraded, meaning that the amount of RAM that you select when buying the notebook is what you’re stuck with for its lifespan. That complicates the decision about how much RAM to purchase – if you pick a notebook that doesn’t have enough RAM, then it’s never going to be able to provide the necessary performance.
In addition, you’ll want to make sure that your chosen PC can install the amount of RAM that you need. That means picking a desktop with enough RAM slots that support large enough DIMMs. And, most notebooks today max out at 16GB of RAM, meaning that your notebook options will be limited if you need to configure it with 32GB of RAM or more.
Integrated versus discrete graphics
Another consideration when configuring RAM is what kind of graphics hardware your PC will use. There are two main graphics solutions on the market: those that are built into a CPU, called integrated graphics, and those that are separate, called discrete GPUs.
Again, this all gets very complicated, but the important part is that some integrated graphics solutions, such as those on Intel’s latest Core processors, use some of your PC’s system RAM to hold the information needed to drive the display. Discrete GPUs, on the other hand, tend to have their own dedicated memory, and so they do not use much, if any, system RAM.
So if you’re buying a PC that depends on integrated graphics, then you’ll need to keep that in mind when determining the amount of RAM that you’ll need. The latest integrated GPUs can theoretically access up to half of the system RAM, although they likely won’t use nearly that much RAM very often. Just remember that if you buy a PC with integrated graphics, then you’ll have slightly less RAM available for your OS and applications.
So, how much RAM do I need?
When you turn on your PC, your OS loads into RAM. That means that you need some minimum amount of memory just to get your PC up and running. Today’s most common operating systems are Windows 10, macOS, and Chrome OS. Of these, Chrome OS is the least demanding, but even it will benefit from having enough RAM.
Of course, nobody buys a PC just to run the operating system. At the very least, most people are going to use a web browser such as Chrome, Firefox, or Edge, along with an email client and some mix of productivity apps such as those that are a part of Microsoft’s Office suite.
Today, most PCs come with at least 4GB of RAM, leaving only the most basic budget systems available with just 2GB. Unless you’re using Chrome OS, and even then only if you’re only going to be working with a minimal set of browser tabs and Chrome OS or Android apps, we recommend against buying or configuring a PC with less than 4GB of RAM.
Chances are, you’re just not going to be happy with the performance.
If you’re running Windows 10 or macOS, or you’re a heavy Chrome OS user, then you’ll want at least 4GB of RAM. Unsurprisingly, you’ll find that to be the most common minimum RAM configuration with PCs available for purchase today.
Having at least 4GB of RAM will let users load up a reasonable number of browser tabs and leave enough RAM for using email, working with applications like Microsoft Word, and playing casual games. That makes 4GB a good minimum specification for most users.
Many of the most commonly used applications don’t use a ton of RAM on their own. However, it’s very common for users to run many of these applications at once. Many people also like to open multiple browser tabs at once, and they can access web sites that display a lot of graphics, run various web applications, and play video. Taken together, this all means that available RAM can quickly get used up.
The bottom line is that if you’re a heavy multi-tasker and you open a lot of tabs, then you’ll want more RAM. For most people, this means configuring a system with at least 8GB, and that’s why this amount is increasingly an option even for value-oriented PCs.
If you’re buying a notebook that doesn’t allow for upgrading RAM, then 8GB is a great baseline choice, while 16GB is likely to provide you with plenty of headroom for whatever you’ll need from your PC for as long as you’re likely to own it.
Some applications, such as Adobe’s creative apps, various computer-aided design (CAD) solutions, and very demanding games, can use a large amount of RAM all by themselves. If you’re a photographer using Adobe Photoshop or another advanced photo editing application, a videographer using Adobe Premiere or another video editor, or you’re using something like AutoCAD, then 8GB might not be enough RAM.
For those people, we recommend at least 16GB. The same goes for hardcore gamers, and even for demanding productivity users who know they’ll be using a huge number of applications at once. Starting with 16GB provides a cushion for most users and allows for working with very large spreadsheets and databases as well.
Check the recommended specifications
An important step as you’re making your RAM decision is to check with the software developer for the minimum and recommended specifications for your chosen software. In some cases, you might be surprised at how much RAM a given application requires, and you’ll want to remember that you’re likely to want to run more than just the one application at once.
For example, the game Destiny 2 lists a minimum of 6GB of RAM and recommends 8GB for best performance. Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC’s April 2018 release lists 8GB as the minimum RAM and recommends 16GB or more. Similarly, Autodesk AutoCAD 2019 lists 8GB as the minimum with 16GB or more recommended.
Of course if you plan to run more than one of these particularly demanding applications at the same time, then you’ll want to add up their requirements, just to be safe. If you need to alt-tab between AutoCAD and Premiere Pro CC, for example, then you might want to consider investing in 32GB of RAM – which includes buying a PC that’s capable of supporting that much.
While RAM can get expensive, you don’t want to configure your PC with less than you’ll need for efficient operation. This is particularly true if you’re buying a notebook PC where you can’t upgrade the RAM.
In general, we recommend at least 4GB of RAM and think that most users will do well with 8GB. Choose 16GB or more if you’re a power user, if you run today’s most demanding games and applications, or if you simply want to make sure you’re covered for any future needs.
Once you’ve figured out how much RAM is right for you, shop for it on Newegg.