How much RAM do I need? (Early 2013 edition)

Summary:How much RAM does your system need? Find out in this definitive guide.

With people eyeing new Windows 8 and Mountain Lion powered computers, the question of how much RAM a modern system needs is hitting my inbox with increased frequency.

Here is my definitive guide to how much RAM you need.

Note that dual-channel motherboards will support 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB of RAM, depending on motherboard, while triple-channel boards support 3GB, 6GB, 9GB, or 12GB,again, depending on motherboard support.

1GB

Consider 1GB the absolute base minimum. The days of measuring RAM by the megabyte are long gone.

1GB of RAM is enough for basic operations like web browsing—although don't expect to run a browser with dozens of tabs open—email, some word processing, and light image editing.

Gaming with this much RAM is going to be painful, and carrying out tasks such as image processing or ripping a CD will pretty much take over the entire system. As for video editing, forget about it.

I'm not making a strong case for 1GB of RAM simply because I don't like being limited to 1GB of RAM. Ideally, no matter who you are or what you do with your computer, you probably could do with more RAM.

2GB

You might get away with less, but chances are that it's going to make you shout a lot of extremely bad words at your system.

With 2GB you should be able to do pretty much everything with your computer that a computer is capable of doing—gaming, image and video editing, running suites like Microsoft Office, and having a dozen or so browser tabs open all become possible. Sure, RAM is going to be a bottleneck, but 2GB is enough to get some real work done.

2GB is also enough to run a hardcore suite of apps like the Adobe Master Collection CS6 (or so says Adobe, but if you've got $2,500 to put down for the software, you should be able to afford more RAM!).

Bottom line—If you've got a system with 2GB of RAM and it feels slow, add more RAM!

3 - 4GB

If you're running a 32-bit operating system then with 3 or 4GB of RAM installed you'll only be able to access around 3.2GB (this is because of memory addressing limitations). However, with a 64-bit operating system then you'll have full access to the whole 4GB.

The difference in performance between a system with 2GB of RAM and one with 3 or 4GB is like night and day. Even on a 32-bit system that limits the RAM to a little over 3GB, the performance boost is well worth the cost. Not only do application run faster, you can run more applications simultaneously—handy if you run suites like Microsoft Office or Adobe Master Collection.

If you have a 64-bit operating system, then bumping up the RAM from 2GB is a no-brainer.

All but the most basic of Windows 8 systems come with 3 or 4GB of RAM, while 4GB is the minimum for all new iMacs, MacBooks, and MacBook Pros..

6 - 8GB

Note: You will need a 64-bit operating system to make use of this amount of RAM.

Now we're into hardcore/performance territory. If you're building a gaming PC, I recommend bumping your RAM up to 6 to 8GB, dependant on how much your motherboard supports. If you're building a machine dedicated to photo or video editing, or just want a fast system, then consider this a must. 

6 to 8GB of RAM is not expensive either. Sure, get the OEM to fit it into a new system and you're likely paying a premium (especially if that OEM is Apple), but from an aftermarket supplier this can be had for under $50.

At the time of writing 2GB of branded DDR3 1333 RAM can be found for about $12.

12 - 16GB

Note: You will need a 64-bit operating system to make use of this amount of RAM.

Is there a case for more than 8GB of RAM? Sure there is, but the bang for the buck trails off.

The time when more than 8GB of RAM becomes useful and starts paying for itself is when you're running a number of resource-heavy applications simultaneously especially image or video processing, CAD, or 3D modelling. Try running Premiere Pro, Photoshop, and After Effects side-by-side on a system with 8GB of RAM, then bump that up and feel the difference.

Having more than 8GB also comes in handy if you make extensive use of virtualization tools such as Microsoft Hyper-V or VMWare Workstaton, especially if you run multiple operating systems simultaneously.

Be wary of OEMs upselling 12 or 16GB of RAM for gaming systems. Not only is it usually unnecessary but it's very, very expensive. For example, Dell will charge you $175 on top of the base price to upgrade a Dell XPS 8500 from 8GB to 16GB of RAM, while an extra 8GB of compatible RAM from Crucial is around $60!

16GB+

Note: You will need a 64-bit operating system to make use of this amount of RAM.

You're now deep in the realm of heavy lifting. A workstation with more than 16GB of RAM will be a do-anything system.

Remember that 64-bit Windows 8 will support up to 128GB of RAM, which Windows 8 Pro and Enterprise supports up to 512GB.

Topics: Hardware

About

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is an internationally published technology author who has devoted over a decade to helping users get the most from technology -- whether that be by learning to program, building a PC from a pile of parts, or helping them get the most from their new MP3 player or digital camera.Adrian has authored/co-authored technic... Full Bio

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