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. 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, our quick guide to RAM is here to bring you up to speed.
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.
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. But once you have enough to meet your needs, 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, 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.
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 (see our guide to DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4 if you’re not sure).
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. Switching from one to another may be all the upgrade your computer needs—though you should also know how to manage RAM in Linux if you do.
Image Credits: Valentyna Chukhlyebova/Shutterstock, Richard Peterson/Shutterstock