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Around these parts, we encourage you to upgrade your existing computer rather than buy a new one. It’s easier on your wallet and helps cut down on the amount of ewaste The Truth About e-Waste Recycling and Its Effectiveness The Truth About e-Waste Recycling and Its Effectiveness The world is producing more e-waste than ever before. We should be recycling it, but there are some problems there that you may not be aware of. Read More . But as is often the case, saving money can require a bit of knowledge.

You’ve narrowed down the source of your PC’s sluggishness to RAM, but what do you do about it? Should you increase the amount of RAM or would you be better off with faster RAM? That question isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

Why You Need RAM

You need to be sure you have enough RAM to meet your general requirements. If you’re not sure what RAM is, don’t worry, we have you covered Everything You Need to Know About RAM & Memory Management Everything You Need to Know About RAM & Memory Management RAM is your computer's short term memory. Hence, memory management has a significant impact on system performance. Here we explain how RAM works and whether you can do anything to increase its efficiency. Read More .

In short, think of RAM as short-term memory that your computer processor uses to store files it needs to access quickly and often. Utilizing this space allows your machine to respond instantly, rather than taking several seconds. This may not sound like much, but it’s often a wait of only a few seconds that makes a PC feel old and underpowered.

When your computer is struggling to open the programs you wish to run, you probably need more RAM. That slowdown comes from your PC having to unload tasks from fast RAM memory onto your hard drive. This general storage area has plenty of space, but its speeds are much slower.

You may have low RAM if you’re using an older PC that came with enough memory several years ago but no longer meets the demands of today. You’re also likely to run out of RAM if you buy a cheaper laptop that doesn’t come with all that much. These devices tend to be fast initially, but as software changes and programs use more memory, there isn’t any room for future growth.

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The Difference Between Capacity and Speed

You can measure RAM capacity in megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), or terabytes (TB). Increasing the size of your RAM reduces the likelihood of needing to use your hard drive for these temporary files Is Your Virtual Memory Too Low? Here's How to Fix It! Is Your Virtual Memory Too Low? Here's How to Fix It! The curse of Windows is its slowing down over time. Often, low memory is to blame. Here is one more way to virtually unburden your RAM. Read More . But once you have enough to meet your needs 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 , you reach a point where adding more may not be the best way to get the speed improvements you’re looking for. You may benefit more from buying RAM that’s faster than the RAM you already have, even if it’s the same amount.

There are a couple of metrics that determine your RAM’s speed. Frequency affects maximum bandwidth, which is how much data can travel to and from your memory stick at a time. Latency affects how quickly RAM can respond to a request.

Frequency is measured in megahertz (MHz) and you want a bigger number. Latency appears as a series of numbers (such as 5-5-5-12) and you want these to be lower.

Once your capacity needs are met, increasing frequency and reducing latency may yield you a more noticeable result than packing in more RAM. As for how much of a difference you will notice, well, that depends.

How Much (Or How Fast) RAM Do You Need?

Having buckets of RAM is useful if you’re into professional video or audio editing. Yet even then, 8–16 GB of RAM should be enough to handle running several professional applications simultaneously. You likely won’t need to think about upgrading for several years, if that.

If you’re a gamer RAM For Gamers: What Do The Specs Mean And How Do They Alter Performance RAM For Gamers: What Do The Specs Mean And How Do They Alter Performance If you want to experience great performance while playing games, it's important that you use the right hardware that can do the job. Read More , you may get some benefits from having 16 GB, but 8 GB can handle most games. Making the leap up to 32 GB is currently unnecessary. At that point, you may be better of getting faster sticks.

Regardless of how you use your PC, speed won’t matter if your motherboard isn’t as fast as your RAM. A 1333 MHz motherboard will limit your 2000 MHz RAM to 1333 MHz.

There are situations where more RAM is needed, but you’re more likely to encounter them if you manage servers. The demands of running applications, games, and websites simply aren’t that high to warrant packing your desktop with all the RAM you can muster.

How Should You Buy or Upgrade RAM?

Are you trying to upgrade or starting from scratch? The first option comes with more limits How To Upgrade A Laptop's RAM, Step By Step How To Upgrade A Laptop's RAM, Step By Step Is your laptop old, slow, and has the hardware never been upgraded? Working on a slow computer can be a real drag. Before you buy a completely new one, however, you should consider ways to... Read More .

For starters, is your RAM soldered on? In that case, you can’t upgrade. Sorry. If not, how many RAM slots does your machine have? This can determine how much RAM you’re able to have. DDR2 sticks max out at 4 GB. DDR3 sticks can go up to 8 GB. You need two DDR3 RAM sticks if you want 16 GB of RAM. Unless, that is, your machine can handle 16 GB DDR4.

So when there’s only one RAM stick in a machine that has enough slots for two, try adding a second stick rather than replacing your existing one. Dual-channel platforms can offer some benefits depending on the type of strain your computer is under.

Yet if you’re starting from scratch and debating between one 8 GB stick versus two 4 GB sticks, go with the former. That leaves you the option to add a second stick to reach 16 GB in the future, rather than having to replace the two you have. The difference between one and two sticks isn’t so great that you’re likely to regret (or even notice) going with one.

If you want to upgrade your RAM but all of your slots are already at their maximum capacity, then your only choice is to buy faster sticks.

Is Capacity or Speed More Important?

The amount of RAM you have is more important to a point. After that, you start experiencing diminishing returns. Going over 8 GB isn’t really necessary yet unless you’re a more demanding user.

If you are a more demanding user, there isn’t a clear catch all answer. In some instances, you’re better off getting more RAM. In other cases, you will see better results going with a higher frequency and less latency. You may also notice a difference depending on which operating system you run Does Linux Use Less RAM Than Windows? Does Linux Use Less RAM Than Windows? It depends. Windows and Linux may not use RAM in exactly the same way, but they are ultimately doing the same thing. So which one uses less RAM? Read More . Switching from one to another may be all the upgrade your computer needs.

Have you upgraded the RAM in your machine? What was your experience? Was there another component that seemed to have more of an effect on speed than RAM? Share your insights with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Valentyna Chukhlyebova/Shutterstock, Richard Peterson/Shutterstock

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  1. Viktor
    September 13, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    I have a laptop with one 4 GB 800 Mhz module and 4 slots in total. I just bought another module, 8 GB @ 1600 Mhz. I know the new module will only run at 800 MHz if I keep both of them in.
    So the question is 12 GB @ 800 MHz or 8 GB @ 1600 MHz? (Both MB and CPU support 1600 Mhz.)

    I'll probably switch it around and run some tests.

  2. sunshine
    May 8, 2017 at 6:26 am

    awesome tips about computer memory ...

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      May 23, 2017 at 3:53 pm

      Glad to help!

  3. Silver Dragon Systems
    April 14, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    One thing you forgot to mention is the limitation your motherboard has on RAM. Just because you have 2 RAM slot does not mean you can put any size RAM in those slots. Depending on the age and/or manufacturer of the system, your maximum amount of RAM may be limited to say 4 GB (2x 2GB slots). I have dealt with many issues where someone has tried to upgrade their RAM without checking to see what the maximum RAM supported by their system is, so they spend the extra money for say 16GB of RAM only to find out that their Motherboard only supports 8GB max.

    • Joe Smoe
      April 20, 2017 at 3:05 pm

      Adding
      Not just the Motherboard, but your CPU's RAM support is also a note to look into. The new i7-Skylake or KabyLake are maxed at 64GB. Where as the older versions of the i7s are maxed at 32GB.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      April 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm

      You're right. I mentioned the limitation on speed, but I forgot to mention the same limitation on capacity. Thanks for pointing that out!