What Does RAM Do for Gaming and How Much RAM Do I Need?
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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 How to Increase Dedicated Video RAM (VRAM) in Windows 10 How to Increase Dedicated Video RAM (VRAM) in Windows 10 Wondering what dedicated video RAM is, how much VRAM you have, or how to increase VRAM? Here's a complete guide. Read More 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.

DDR Designations

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.

Clock Speed

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 These Upgrades Will Improve Your PC Performance the Most! These Upgrades Will Improve Your PC Performance the Most! Need a faster computer but aren't sure what you should upgrade on your PC? Follow our PC upgrade checker to find out. Read More for some advice on this.

Explore more about: Building PCs, Computer Memory, Gaming Tips, Performance Tweaks, Steam.

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  1. zedetach
    September 17, 2016 at 9:52 am

    I think it would be in the interest of every gamer that you run some benchmarks showing the performance gains when using high performance ram vs a generic one.

  2. be166
    February 5, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    " If you can afford it, more is always better"

    This is so wrong. This article is misleading readers to think that the more RAM you have, the better, but, in fact, you don't need more than 16 GB of RAM even for a super hard-core PC. Even 16GB of RAM is overkill. More than 16GB is just simple waste of money.

    http://www.pcgamer.com/how-much-ram-do-you-really-need-for-gaming/

    http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/388078/how-much-ram-do-you-really-need

    http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/buying-advice/pc-components/3572598/how-much-ram-do-i-need/

    http://www.pcauthority.com.au/Feature/375815,how-to-how-much-ram-do--you-really-need.aspx

  3. SWAPNIL
    December 20, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Intel i5-2400 with DH67BL Motherboard 64 bit OS
    Currently I am having 2 * 4GB OF KIngstone Desktop basic level RAMs.
    But Now i am thinking of upgrading RAMs with Corsair XMS3 DDR3 4 GB Desktop RAM (CMX4GX3M1A1333C11) OR G.Skill RipjawsX DDR3 4 GB (1 x 4 GB) PC RAM (F3-10666CL9S-4GBXL). BUT i am confused with this 2 , Could you please Suggest the Better one for My PC Specs.
    & Also if i use all 3 together what will be its advantages or Disadvantages.

  4. Chris M
    October 22, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Setting up a new computer, I have tried to find an answer to a few qustions. they are...

    1: I want 8G of RAM. Which would be better to buy, 2 x 4G or 4 x 2G?
    2: Which is better performance? 8G at 1600 or 4G at 2400?
    3: How much faster than an SSD is RAM? I understand they are both solidstate. but the RAM must be faster, or we would be seeing 256G RAM modules. And not at $2 billion each.

    • likefunbutnot
      October 23, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      1 - 2x4GB or best of all 1x 8GB. You only have so many DIMM slots. If you fill all of them you can't add more later.
      2 - You won't be able to tell a subjective difference unless all you want to do with your computer is run benchmarks
      3 - You are asking the wrong question. The correct question is, "How much faster is an SSD than a traditional HDD?" And the subjective answer to that is "A LOT." Figure you'll see about an order of magnitude in terms of real world performance difference for anything that hits your hard disk (startup/resume, loading applications, level load times in games). A good SSD is going to have an access time of around 100 microseconds (100 millionths of a second), compared to around 10 milliseconds (ten thousandths of a second) for a hard disk, but RAM's access times are going to be some single digit number of nanoseconds (billionths of a second)... but RAM has a very different interconnect with the CPU than a disk drive.
      If you have a staggering amount of RAM, you can in fact make a RAM drive. You'll have to use third party software to do it on Windows, but it might be useful if for something or other.

    • Danny S
      October 31, 2013 at 9:00 pm

      1) Depends on how many DIMM slots and maximum amount of memory your motherboard can support. If it has 4 slots and only supports up to 8GB, then do 4x2GB. Otherwise, do 2x4GB.
      2) Technically speaking, the 4G at 2400 would be faster, but the 8G at 1600 would let you run more (demanding) applications.
      3) I'm not quite sure, but it's certainly faster because it's directly connected to a motherboard bus and it's temporary. Remember, SSDs are permanent storage.

  5. likefunbutnot
    October 22, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Performance improvement does not come with goofy heat spreaders or LEDs, which is part and parcel of anything that's marketed to gamers.

    It's likewise disingenuous to suggest that even a hard core PC gamer currently needs more than 8GB RAM - even AAA titles really don't exceed a 2 - 2.5GB memory footprint, leaving plenty of room for an OS install and a browser with a few dozen open tabs. More RAM is only necessary if the system actually needs more RAM; there's no subjective difference in user experience on a Windows machine between a machine with 8GB RAM and one with 48GB until the footprint of running apps exceeds available RAM, and getting past 8GB in 2013 probably means running either content creation tools or virtual machines.

    For the most part, anything other than memory frequency is just going to be for benchmark wankery.

    Gamers, just like everyone else, would be best served with the purchase of the largest solid state drive they can afford. If that means skimping on RAM, so be it; 4GB modules are practically being given away in cereal boxes these days.

    • Tom W
      October 24, 2013 at 8:57 pm

      I've seen two games recently, Watchdogs and COD:Ghosts, which require 6GB of RAM as a part of their minimum specifications. That is likely to become common for many AAA games released on the next-gen consoles as well as PC. That's just minimum specifications.
      Some very highly detailed games will require maybe as much as 2x that for the highest settings. As time goes on and visuals get ever better, the amount of RAM required to play the games will keep increasing.

    • Kalis
      October 31, 2013 at 5:53 am

      The gamer's performance chain usually starts with the graphics card tending to be the weakest link, followed closely by the CPU and further behind by the RAM... typically. I'd agree with likefunbutnot since none of the games I have come close to the 8GB limit on my system, but if Tom W is right and the newest releases are using 6GB minimum, then at least RAM is cheap and easy to replace/increase compared especially to the CPU and GPU. Still, I'd test those two games to see if they do indeed use & surpass 6GB regularly, or if the requirements were simply exaggerated.

      As for the latency, I'm wondering if the difference is not just small but negligible. Actually, I'm wondering whether or not both frequency and latency make that much of a difference when in the middle of a game, and not just on a benchmark test.

  6. Joe
    October 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    You should also mention that some people may still be using 32-bit OS's and if so they are limited to only 3.2gb of RAM, anything additional will not be seen by the OS. Its getting rarer but I still see people using x86 OS's occasionally.

    • Keegan
      October 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      3.2gb RAM?

      Limits on physical memory for 32-bit platforms also depend on the Physical Address Extension (PAE), which allows 32-bit Windows systems to use more than 4 GB of physical memory. It usually goes up to 4 GB though.