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Linux is a great way to breathe new life into an old machine. Why? Because most Linux distributions have lower system requirements than Windows, the operating system found on most PCs sold in stores. Linux typically puts less strain on your computer’s CPU and doesn’t need as much hard drive space. But what about RAM?

It depends. Windows and Linux may not use RAM in exactly the same way, but they are ultimately doing the same thing. So to answer this question, let’s first breakdown what RAM is.

What Is RAM?

RAM (random access memory) is an area of your computer that allows files to be written and read at short notice. This data is physically separate from the files on your hard drive, and the chip is often faster for physical and mechanical reasons. Unlike your hard drive, RAM doesn’t store data when there’s no power. When you restart your PC, RAM becomes a blank state. Computers use RAM for temporary storage, a space to create data that needs to be accessed quickly and frequently.

Not all RAM is equal. There are two types: DRAM and SRAM. DRAM provides access times of roughly 60 nanoseconds. SRAM cuts that down to only 10. So 4 GB of SRAM will be faster than 4 GB of DRAM, but you will often still see DRAM in use because it’s significantly less expensive.

But which operating system needs more RAM?

System Requirements

Windows 10 requires 2 GB of RAM, but Microsoft recommends you have at least 4 GB. Let’s compare this to Ubuntu, the most well-known version of Linux for desktops and laptops. Canonical, Ubuntu’s developer, recommends 2 GB of RAM.

That number may not seem far apart, but that’s because Ubuntu ships with a desktop environment that’s heavy on animations and other features, not unlike Windows. If you don’t need those extra bells and whistles, you can run Linux on very old and underpowered machines Revive Your Old PC Raspberry Pi-Style With PIXEL Revive Your Old PC Raspberry Pi-Style With PIXEL If your computer can run Debian, it can run PIXEL. Not sure what PIXEL is? Here's what you need to know and how to get it running. Read More .

This means you can take a Windows desktop that needs more RAM and save yourself some money by swapping the operating system. Just like that, your machine may feel good as new again.

But comparing numbers is only part of the story. There’s more to understanding RAM than making sure you have enough necessary for your computer to run.

How RAM Works

It’s bad for your hard drive to run out of space. The same isn’t true of RAM. Empty RAM is, in a sense, wasted RAM.

A fast web browser can load a webpage in seconds. But no matter how good it is at loading bits over the web, it can do a better job if that information is already stored on your PC. Apps like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox can load sites faster by caching those you’ve visited in RAM. All the user should see is faster load times.

Word processors store your open document in RAM while you’re making edits. Video editors use RAM when you’re slicing together recordings. Then there are video games, which can gobble up RAM as your computer tries to manage all that’s happening on-screen. If you’re a gamer, you need more RAM than a casual PC user How Much RAM Do You Really Need? How Much RAM Do You Really Need? RAM is like short term memory. The more you multitask, the more you need. Find out how much your computer has, how to get the most out of it, or how to get more. Read More .

Your applications aren’t the only bits of code that uses RAM as a quick place to store temporary files. The operating system itself needs to access this part of your PC too. The more RAM your OS needs, the less space you have for programs. This is why Windows has higher system requirements — it has more components trying to use RAM at any given time. Just take a look at all that’s going on inside the Windows Start menu on a brand new machine. Then consider how there’s even more going on in the background that you can’t see.

When all of your RAM is used up, your computer will likely try to start storing these temporary files directly on you hard drive. Since this is slower than reading and writing to RAM, your machine will start to feel sluggish. That’s why your desktop suddenly springs back to life when you close a browser filled with tabs. Gigabytes of RAM open up to the rest of your apps all at once.

The Linux Advantage

Linux’s strength comes not from a magical ability to make your computer run the same apps using less memory. A web browser on Linux will guzzle GBs of RAM, just as it does on Windows.

To get more out of RAM on Windows, you have a few limited options 5 Ways to Clear Memory & Increase RAM on Your Windows Computer 5 Ways to Clear Memory & Increase RAM on Your Windows Computer RAM, the final frontier. You always seem to run out of it. We'll show you how you can free up internal memory and extend your RAM, both virtually and physically. Read More . You can reduce the number of programs, including background services, running at once — or you get more RAM. To do the latter on the cheap, you can use ReadyBoost to turn a USB drive into makeshift RAM Need A Memory Upgrade? Outsource RAM & Speed Up Your Computer With ReadyBoost Need A Memory Upgrade? Outsource RAM & Speed Up Your Computer With ReadyBoost If you're looking to give your computer a quick & free speed boost, try ReadyBoost. The Windows feature adds additional memory to your system. All you need is a compatible flash drive. Read More .

You can do these things in Linux, but that’s just the beginning. For starters, you could try switching from the relatively resource-intensive default Ubuntu desktop to an alternative that’s much lighter on resources The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE Vs Xfce Vs MATE The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE Vs Xfce Vs MATE On a fresh Linux installation, there's not much you can do to speed things up, other than look at your choice of desktop environment. Here we look at three options: LXDE, Xfce, and MATE. Read More . There are hundreds of other distributions to choose from, and quite a few target older machines that came with much less RAM 5 Lightweight Linux Distros Ideal for an Intel Atom Processor PC 5 Lightweight Linux Distros Ideal for an Intel Atom Processor PC Don't let your Atom-powered netbook or low-specced laptop gather dust in a closet -- install a lightweight Linux distro and start enjoying mobile computing once again! Read More .

In contrast, Windows lets you disable a few animations and adjust the theme, but you’re ultimately stuck with the Windows graphical user interface, and it isn’t all that lightweight.

Even if you forego installing a new distro or a different desktop environment, you can still reduce the strain on your hardware by selecting one of the many lightweight apps available for Linux 12 Lightest Linux Software and Programs to Speed Up an Old PC 12 Lightest Linux Software and Programs to Speed Up an Old PC Switching to Linux is a great way to breathe life into an aging machine, but it's also a lot of work! Need to lighten the load on your Linux-powered machine? Try these apps! Read More . This is something you can also do on Windows using some of the same apps, but running light apps in a heavy desktop environment will only get you so far.

So Which Uses Less?

If you have a machine with only 512 MB of RAM, you’re going to want to run Linux. There are plenty of distros and desktop environments that will make your computer feel like a semi-new machine Revive Your Old PC With Lightweight Linux LXLE Revive Your Old PC With Lightweight Linux LXLE Got an old PC or netbook that you're reluctant to part with? A lightweight Linux distro can breathe new life into your hardware and the new LXLE distro is perfect for this. Read More . But there are certain RAM-intensive tasks that will feel slow regardless, and sadly, browsing the web is one of them.

There are many Linux distros out that use less RAM than Windows 10, but there are others that aren’t all that less needy. With so many to choose from, that decision really determines how much RAM you’re using up. You can’t make the assumption that just because you’re running a Linux desktop, you’re using less RAM. Though, there’s a pretty good chance that you are.

How much RAM is in your computer? Are you running Windows or Linux? What’s your experience like? Chime in below and let us know!

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  1. G-Unit
    February 19, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    I don't really care how much RAM my Xubuntu box uses, how efficiently it does that is way more important and here, Linux wins.

  2. Eddie G.
    January 25, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    I have been using the lightest of distros for a while....but have my steady heavyweights as well. I have ArchBang...and Bunsen Labs Linux running on two extremely old desktops, both have 1GB of RAM each and they run smooth as ever with the OpenBox desktop. I also have Fedora with the Gnome desktop running on a ThinkPad with 8GB of RAM, that I'm about to jack up to 16GB. I also have a laptop running Ubuntu 16.04 and it work just fine. Finally I have a Dell Latitude laptop running openSuSE with the XFCE desktop and an iMac (that someone GAVE me...NOT that I bought!...LoL!) that I have installed Linux Mint on with the Cinnamon desktop. All my machines run pretty well....as long as they're not running Windows....LoL!

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      January 31, 2017 at 2:37 am

      That's quite the collection you have there.

      • Eddie G.
        February 5, 2017 at 6:07 am

        Yeah, I'm one of those people who will take what you might think is an "old" laptop off your hands and will re-image it with one of the lightweight distros and then deploy it as something useful.....maybe a dev-box?...or a machine for testing out other distros on?...you never know what type of device you might need to add to your collection.

  3. jimvandamme
    January 24, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    3.6 GB on a 6 year old PC, using 1.7 GB with a bunch of FireFox tabs open. I'm using Ubuntu MATE, which I find to be more refined than most other distros except openSuSE. I have a weird NVidia graphics (eMachines) that does funny things on Mint Cinnamon, which is my favorite on other PCs.

    For low spec machines, I install Lubuntu 32 bit, Puppy, Bodhi, or a Debian variant. Using a lightweight browser like Midori makes a big difference.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      January 24, 2017 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks for the detailed look at your setup. This is helpful info.

  4. Edy
    January 19, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    I just skimmed the article, but I don't see you mentioning the fact that Linux intentionally keeps as much RAM occupied as possible, so that you can switch through frequently used apps faster. It frees RAM only when it needs to. Windows doesn't do that. This brings a lot of speed improvement.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      January 19, 2017 at 3:10 pm

      You're right, I didn't go into that. Thanks for bringing it up!

  5. Wperry1
    January 19, 2017 at 2:45 am

    Please do some research on ReadyBoost. It does not emulate RAM. It acts as a disk cache and leverages the fact that reading non-sequential data from flash drives is often faster than from spinning disk.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      January 19, 2017 at 2:33 pm

      I did not say that ReadyBoost emulates RAM. I said it turns a flash drive into a temporary substitute for RAM. I know, technically, there's more to it than that, but conceptually? Your explanation (and the reading I've done) doesn't clarify to me how this isn't the case. But if you still feel the wording I've used is misleading, I'm open to more feedback.

  6. Michael J. Tobias
    January 18, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    I've used Linux for almost 2 decades now and have tried everything from fluxbox to KDE, Fedora, Susa, Mandrake (old Mandriva), Mint, and several different *buntus. For the last 6 years, I've been settled on Xubuntu as I find it has the perfect blend of useability and speed for just about any computer on which I try it.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      January 18, 2017 at 7:30 pm

      Agreed, Xubuntu and XFCE are a great way to speed up a PC!

      • Ubuntu72
        January 22, 2017 at 10:20 pm

        Trisquel Mini is a great LXDE based OS for old PCs. It can run with 64MB RAM with some minor changes (I'd recommend 128MB or better 256MB).

    • G-Unit
      February 19, 2017 at 7:08 pm

      Couldn't agree more! Xubuntu all the way.

  7. Saku
    January 18, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    I tried Linux back when I was a student and it's good. But after school days, Windows pulled me back until I converted to OSX.

    • Josh
      January 18, 2017 at 4:45 pm

      you had me convinced you were smart until you said you went to OSX

      • Saku
        January 18, 2017 at 8:55 pm

        I never implied I am smart in any way.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      January 18, 2017 at 7:31 pm

      What was it about Windows and OS X that pulled you in?

      • Diptanshu S
        January 19, 2017 at 8:33 am

        For me, all was well up to Ubuntu 14. v16 seems a bit buggy to me and apps such as IP messenger, time tracking etc. do not offer a refined experience. Since I have a 32-bit computer even Chrome browser is not available.
        I find I get more work done on OSX and Windows. I use both for work. +1 for OSX as there's less danger of viruses. OSX not only lets you do your job but you can do it in style.
        So there.

        • Bertel King, Jr.
          January 19, 2017 at 3:06 pm

          Ah, sorry to hear about that! I've also had a frustrating experience with Ubuntu at times, though it was mostly stable for me. I've heard of many people encountering bugs in 16.04.

          If you do try Linux again, I would recommend trying a distro other than Ubuntu. We've covered many alternatives on MakeUseOf. I would suggest Elementary OS, but it no longer supports 32-bit hardware.