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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?
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. There are hundreds of other distributions to choose from, and quite a few target older machines that came with much less RAM.
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. 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. 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!