RAM, or Random Access Memory, is super-fast storage for active computer programs. It’s much faster than the long-term storage provided by your hard disk.
It’s also one of the easiest upgrades to make for a desktop or laptop computer. If your machine feels sluggish, more RAM is almost certainly the answer.
What is RAM?
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is a high-speed storage solution that gives applications, games and the operating system itself quick access to information. Without it, these components would have to dig through much slower, longer-term storage, like hard drives and SSDs, every time they need something, which slows everything down.
Think of RAM as the middle ground between the small, super-fast cache in your CPU and the large, very slow storage in your computer’s hard drive or SSD. The operating system, applications and programs use the cache for immediate data access, while the larger amount of RAM is a sort of temporary workspace for them all to work on simultaneously.
When buying RAM, it’s important to consider capacity as well as clock speed and latency. For example, a PC with a slower clock speed may be better for some users (such as video editors or heavy gamers) than a faster clock speed, due to lower latency and power consumption.
How RAM Works
When a computer is working, it needs to quickly access many pieces of data. RAM acts like a desk drawer where short-term facts are kept within easy reach of a computer’s processor. However, unlike a physical desk, RAM can lose its contents as soon as power is turned off.
Non-volatile system storage, like HDDs and SSDs, doesn’t lose its data when the power is cut, but it also can’t hold as much information at one time. Unlike storage, RAM can be refreshed with new data, but it cannot be used as permanent memory.
The most common type of RAM is called synchronous dynamic random-access memory, or SDRAM. It uses pulses of the system clock to transmit data. Newer technologies allow more data to be transmitted during each pulse. This increases the speed at which data is delivered to the CPU, while lowering the power consumed by the RAM module. The four-digit number that follows a RAM product name, such as DDR4, indicates how fast the modules operate.
What is the Minimum RAM Needed for a PC?
For most people, the minimum RAM required is 8GB. This is enough to comfortably run a few lightweight programs, open a handful of browser tabs, and play mid-to-high-end games without suffering significant performance degradation.
If you have a 32-bit computer, you’ll only be able to access around 3.2GB of the RAM installed, but upgrading to a 64-bit operating system will make the difference between night and day. 8GB is also the bare minimum needed for most gaming PCs, though 16GB offers a noticeable improvement for casual and hardcore gamers alike.
More than 32GB is recommended for power users like engineers and professional video editors who use memory-hungry applications. If you plan on gaming at high refresh rates and resolutions, or if you regularly work with 4K photo and video editing software, consider going even higher to future-proof your hardware.
What is the Maximum RAM Needed for a PC?
Generally speaking, the more RAM your computer has, the better it will perform. Obviously, it’s not a good idea to buy more than you need — paying for more capacity than you will use wastes money.
For the bare minimum, you should aim for 4GB of RAM. This amount is enough to run the OS and a few apps without suffering from noticeable performance lag.
Most gaming PCs require at least 8GB. This amount is sufficient for most gamers to play games in focused sessions while simultaneously streaming and opening a web browser or other programs. However, for high-end titles, 16GB is a solid choice. This should give you plenty of room to flit between different games and still have room left over for other tasks such as editing photos or video.