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When you’re building or upgrading a gaming PC, you have several components to consider. Each one affects your computer’s performance in different ways, and neglecting any could lead to a bottleneck.
Today, let’s focus on RAM. We’ll look at RAM’s role in gaming, the RAM specs you should look for when shopping, and what you don’t need to worry about.
What Is RAM?
Just in case you’re not at all familiar with RAM, let’s briefly define what this vital computer component does. See our intro to RAM for more information.
RAM stands for random access memory. It’s short-term volatile storage that temporarily holds information your PC needs to access. When you open any program, the OS stores it in RAM. Then, once you shut down your machine, it clears out anything that was in RAM.
Without sufficient RAM, your computer could slow to a crawl when you open too many programs.
How Does RAM Play Into Gaming?
RAM is important because your system can access data in it more quickly than it can retrieve info from your main storage disk. You have the entire game’s data stored on your hard drive or solid state drive, but constantly pulling it from there is inefficient. Thus, your computer moves the game information it will need to RAM in order to quickly load it.
With low RAM, your computer won’t be able to store all the game info it needs to run properly, leading to choppy frame rates and poor performance. An extreme lack of RAM could even prevent the game from working at all.
It’s important to note that dedicated video cards have their own RAM, known as vRAM. This is different than system RAM in that it’s completely focused on sending graphics to your display. Thus, if you want to play games at high resolutions like 4K, you need a lot of vRAM. You could have 32GB of system RAM, but performance would still suffer greatly with just 2GB of video RAM in your card.
See our guide to increasing vRAM to learn more about this.
Is More RAM Better?
Because RAM allows games to load efficiently, you might think that adding more RAM will always result in better performance. However, this isn’t the case. If you have more RAM than information you need to hold, the extra goes to waste.
To help illustrate this, think about a storage container for liquid. If you need to store a gallon of water, but only have a half-gallon container, you can’t keep everything in one place like you want to. But if you have a 10-gallon container that’s only storing one gallon of water, most of that container is going to waste.
It’s the same way with RAM. You could put 64GB of RAM into your system, but if you only use 2GB to play light indie games at 720p, you’ll never utilize the vast majority of that memory. While it’s not a bad idea to have a little extra RAM for future-proofing, unused RAM is wasted RAM in most cases.
How Much RAM Do I Need for Gaming?
As of this writing, the generally accepted baseline is 8GB of RAM for normal PC gaming. Casual tests have found little performance benefit between having 8GB and 16GB of RAM.
While you can get away with just 4GB of RAM for many older games, there’s little reason to build a new system with this little RAM. As games continue to become more complex and require more RAM, 4GB won’t be enough.
If you want to future-proof your system, or also use your computer for activities like video editing or heavy multitasking, then 16GB is a fine upgrade to make. While you might not see a huge benefit in games right away, that foresight will pay off in the future.
Understanding RAM Specs for Gaming
The amount of RAM that you have for gaming is only part of the story. Not all RAM is the same; it has other specifications to consider. Let’s look at at a few of them.
Virtually every stick of RAM you see will have DDR and a version number accompanying it. DDR stands for Double Data Rate, which means that it operates twice per every clock cycle. Over time, this technology has improved, which has led to DDR2 and further versions.
DDR2 is quite outdated, so you’re unlikely to come across it now. You’ll still see DDR3 RAM around, but it’s mostly been superseded by DDR4, which is the current standard. While DDR5 is on the way at the time of writing, it’s not commercially available yet.
Different generations of RAM are not compatible with each other, so you can’t plug a DDR4 stick of RAM into a motherboard with DDR3 slots. If you’re buying more RAM for an existing machine, make sure it matches what your motherboard supports. For a new build, stick with DDR4 since it’s the best we have now.
In addition to DDR, you’ll also see a RAM stick’s clock cycles listed on its product page. These are offered in megahertz, and represent how many cycles the RAM can perform every second. For instance, 2666MHz RAM runs 2.666 billion cycles each second.
As you’d expect, the higher this number, the faster the RAM and the smoother your experience. However, it’s not a drastic improvement. Faster RAM is better than slower, but in most cases, it’s not noticeable.
The DDR generation and the clock cycles are correlated; you won’t see ultra-fast numbers on ancient DDR2 RAM, for example. Because of this, as long as you stick to the current standard, you know you’ll have RAM that runs at a decent speed.
If you mix sticks of RAM with different clock cycles, it will all run at the lowest frequency. Your motherboard may also limit the available speed.
You’ll also sometimes see a series of numbers listed on RAM, such as 5-9-5-23. These are called timings and illustrate how much latency the RAM has when responding to requests. Most people don’t need to worry about these numbers; capacity and DDR generation are more important.
Number of Sticks
When buying RAM, it’s also important to consider how many slots your motherboard has. Most motherboards support dual-channel memory. This lets your system utilize two sticks of RAM simultaneously, which has slight performance benefits.
Say you wanted to put 16GB of RAM in your system. To take advantage of dual-channel memory, it’s better to buy two 8GB sticks than one 16GB stick. If your motherboard has more than two slots, make sure you arrange the sticks according to the manual to properly utilize this.
Summarizing RAM’s Role in Gaming
We’ve looked at several aspects of RAM’s role in your gaming machine. But thankfully, it’s not actually too complicated. Below is a summary of the most important points:
- RAM is a short-term storage unit used to temporarily hold data from a game you’re playing.
- 8GB is the baseline for gaming today, but 16GB is a good future-proofed option.
- Until DDR5 arrives, use DDR4 RAM (unless you’re limited by a motherboard with DDR3 RAM slots).
- The higher the RAM clock speed the better, but this has a minimal effect in the real world. Higher cycles come with newer DDR generations. Mixed RAM sticks will drop to the lowest speed.
- Consider the number of slots on your motherboard when deciding how to buy your RAM.
With all this said, keep in mind that RAM is a relatively minor part of a gaming computer. As long as you have enough RAM and it’s not too old, that aspect is pretty much taken care of. You can then work on finding the slickest-looking RAM that blends in with the rest of your build.
You’ll see much greater benefit from upgrading to a more powerful graphics card with additional vRAM. And if you still have an old HDD in your system, you should instead prioritize upgrading to an SSD. Check out the upgrades that will have the biggest effect on your PC for some advice on this.