How much RAM do I need?

How much RAM do I need?

Summary: Here's my definitive answer to that question!

SHARE:
TOPICS: Hardware, Processors
44

This question has been popping up in my inbox with increasing regularity over the past few weeks and composing individual responses is eating into my gaming time (damn those Steam sales!). So I can free up some more time for Skyrim and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (yeah, I know, I'm late getting to that game), here's my definitive answer to the question 'How much RAM do I need?'

Build your own "Ivy Bridge" desktop PC


Image Gallery: Build your own "Ivy Bridge" desktop PC Image Gallery: Charge Image Gallery: Charge

Note: These figures apply to Windows, Mac and in most cases Linux.

1GB

Consider 1GB the base minimum. 1GB of RAM is enough for basic operations like web browsing (don't expect to run a browser with dozens of tabs open though) and email, and some word processing and light image editing.

Gaming with this much RAM is going to be painful, and ripping media will pretty much take over the entire system, and forget about any video editing.

I'm not making a strong case for 1GB of RAM simply because I don't like being limited to 1GB of RAM.

2GB

I now consider 2GB to be the minimum for a modern operating system (read that carefully). You might get away with less, but chances are that it's going to make you shout a lot fo bad words at your system.

With 2GB you should be able to do pretty much everything with your PC that a PC can do - gaming, image and video editing, running suites like Microsoft Office, and having a dozen or so browser tabs open all become possible. 2GB is also enough to run a hardcore suite of apps like the Adobe Master Collection CS5.5 (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!

4GB

We're now getting into serious territory. If you're running a 32-bit operating system then with 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 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).

I recommend 4GB of RAM for all but the most basic of systems.

8GB

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

Now we're into hardcore/performance territory. If you're building a gaming PC, I recommend 8GB of RAM. If you're building a machine dedicated to photo of video editing, I recommend 8GB of RAM. If you want a fast PC, I recommend 8GB of RAM.

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 you can buy 8GB of RAM aftermarket for under $50 (faster the RAM, the more expensive it is, but at the time of writing 2GB of branded DDR3 1333 RAM can be found for about $12).

12GB/16GB+

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

Is there a case for more than 8GB of RAM? Sure there is, but the bang for the buck trails off. Gaming systems don't really benefit from more than 8GB of RAM (I've rarely seen Skyrim consume more than 1GB of RAM, even with the 4GB 'large address aware' patch, although my game is largely unmodded).

Note: 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 a whopping $340 on top of the base price to upgrade a Dell XPS 8300 from 8GB to 16GB of RAM, when 16GB of compatible RAM from Crucial is just over $90!

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. Try running Premiere Pro, Photoshop and After Effects side-by-side on a system with 8GB of RAM and then bump that up to 16GB and feel the difference!

More than 16GB ... if you need this sort of RAM horsepower in a desktop, you're doing some heavy lifting!

[poll id="741"]

Related:

Topics: Hardware, Processors

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

44 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: How much RAM do I need?

    Size doesn't matter!
    Loverock Davidson-
    • RE: How much RAM do I need?

      @Loverock Davidson- You keep telling yourself that...
      jeremychappell
      • RE: How much RAM do I need?

        @jeremychappell

        That's the reason he has to love a rock.
        Return_of_the_jedi
      • Is he the real deal?

        @jeremychappell | Return_of_the_jedi

        Are you even sure he's the real deal, with that tiny hyphen- attached to his nick? Inquiring minds would love to know.
        klumper
    • RE: How much RAM do I need?

      1Gb with Vista or Windows 7 just about works. I'd call it just "below" minimum. It will work but you'll get angry with the PC. Incidentally try running Vista with 512Mb, my god it's painful, very painful.

      2Gb and both run perfectly well for 90% of users. 2Gb is the sweet spot for the majority of Windows users, that is those who only web browse, word process and e-mail. The usual stuff.

      I run Win7 x64 and went from 2Gb to 4Gb but due to a BIOS limitation Win7 can only see 3Gb. Let me tell you, it doesn't run any different what-so-ever. So it's certainly not always night and day going from 2Gb to 3Gb.

      The laptop came with 2Gb (but is capable of up to 4Gb, it was clearly stated on Toshiba's website) and Vista x86 because of these two reasons Toshiba refuse to release a BIOS upgrade, despite there being absolutely no way to use the extra 1Gb the BIOS states it can see (i.e - it says there is 4Gb) but cannot utilise. It's most annoying. That and the build quality have put me right off Toshiba's.
      bradavon
      • RE: How much RAM do I need?

        @bradavon Sounds like a PICNIC issue.

        Win7 x64 would never come on a rig that couldn't handle 4GB of ram, so it is safe to assume that you installed it on an old machine without doing your homework. Not the pc's fault!

        As for your laptop, you have Vista x86 which is a 32 bit operating system; 32 bit systems can't utilize 4GB of ram, regardless of the computer's specs. A BIOS upgrade wouldn't do a thing.

        Familiarize yourself with Google and watch your annoyance disappear.
        ddferrari
        • 32 bit os

          It will use most of it. 32 bit has a max of 4gb, but as an example xp can only use about 3.6gb. It's by definition a waste but it's the best you can do without upgrading the os. I ran a xp system with 4gb of ram for 5 years and it was far better then if I used only 2gb.
          Iamlucek
  • How much virtual RAM do I need for the cases outlined in the article?

    nt
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • I say get as much as you can afford unless you are the DIY type.

    Most people on this board I would guess are comfortable with opening up their computers and adding RAM, but many people will never open the case at all. For those people, getting more RAM upfront can give your system more longevity for apps down the road that may require more horsepower 2 years from now.

    As for pricing, I just bought a new iMac from Macmall and they upgraded my quad core i5 with 4 Gb of DDR3 ram to a quad core i7 with 12 gb for only $120 more. (still hundreds less than MSRP.) Not sure I will tap into that much RAM in my home system any time soon, but who knows 2 or 3 years from now. (kept my last computer 7 years.) And for only $120 I figured it was a great deal. The processor upgrade alone is $200 on Apple's website.
    Tigertank
    • Are you sure they used Apple approved RAM for your iMac?

      @Tigertank
      Going from 4GB to 8GB costs $200 from the Apple store so I'd be extremely nervous that Macmall did not use Apple approved RAM in your iMac. You have to know that not all components are built the same and that Apple's components are far better than what you find in PCs. You must have gotten PC quality RAM in your iMac. Stick to Apple approved RAM next time. Your Mac will last longer and run faster. Sure it costs more but come on Tigertank, you get what you paid for. Since you paid so little for your upgrade, you got very little for it too: junk RAM that will give you a lot of errors.
      toddybottom
      • Good parody! I almost fell for it! (nt)

        @toddybottom

        nt
        snberk341
      • good one NZ

        @toddybottom

        nt
        Tigertank
      • Interesting how the argument flip flops more than Romney does

        I guess the argument that "you get what you pay for" and "Apple components are higher quality than garbage PC components" is only made when it benefits you yet you won't hesitate to cheap out and buy garbage PC components without acknowledging your hypocrisy.

        Will you admit that buying PC quality RAM lowers the prestige, reliability, and speed of your iMac?
        toddybottom
      • RE: How much RAM do I need?

        @NonZealot
        Up to your old tricks again eh, NZ? I swear if it weren't for strawmen you wouldn't have any friends at all.
        Happy New Year :)
        Tigertank
      • I'll take that as a no

        I sure hope for your sake that your iMac doesn't explode now that it has junk PC parts in it. Is the danger you've placed your children in really worth the $200 you saved?
        toddybottom
      • RE: How much RAM do I need?

        @toddybottom: Er. PC RAM is MAC RAM and MAC RAM is PC RAM. PCs are just as capable of running high quality memory to low quality memory. I see you too have fallen for the (very effective) Apple marketing. "Apple approved RAM" ha ha. That translates to, we use high quality memory, the stuff that works just as well in PCs too.

        At least with PCs you're free to research what high quality memory translates to, buy it yourself (really shop around) and fit it yourself. None of this sealed iMac/Macbook nonsense.
        bradavon
        • FIFY

          "@toddybottom: Er. PC RAM is MAC RAM and MAC RAM is PC RAM. PCs are just as capable of running high quality memory to low quality memory. I see you too have fallen for the (very effective) Apple marketing. "Apple approved RAM" ha ha. That translates to, we use high price memory, the stuff that works just as well in PCs too.

          At least with PCs you're free to research what high quality memory translates to, buy it yourself (really shop around) and fit it yourself. None of this sealed iMac/Macbook "

          The quality of their ram isn't really at the high end of performance just price.
          Iamlucek
          • comparison

            Best ram speed on a mac ATM 1600mhz.
            Best ram speed for any brand 2800mhz
            Iamlucek
      • That's a rip off

        You get what you paid for is a saying thrown around a lot for mac's. But paying $200 for ram is a rip of and it is in no way better than what you could find in a pc. If you have to pay $200 for ram then Apple is just ripping you off. So no you don't get what you pay for when buying ram from Apple, you get a lot less.
        Brock Jones
  • RE: How much RAM do I need?

    I Have 16GB of triple channel ram in my pc
    Viper589