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

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

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

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TOPICS: Hardware
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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.

Topic: Hardware

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31 comments
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  • OS

    The amount of ram is also dependent on the operating system itself.
    Not just 32 or 64 bit.
    Different versions of Win 7 and Win 8 can handle varying amounts of ram.
    Although most people who visit this site already knew that.
    MoeFugger
    • Irrelevant

      On certain x86 hardware, it is possible to resolve the 3GB barrier by using an operating system such as Linux or certain versions of Windows Server that fully support physical address extension (PAE) mode on x86.

      This is a rare exception to the rule. The rule is, you need a 64 bit OS to use more then 3.5GB.
      Sqrly
      • Win 8 *requires* PAE support

        A few months ago I tried upgrading from Win 7 Home Premium to Win 8 Pro on a 2005-era mobo with 3GB RAM and was surprised when AFTER 90 MINUTES DOING THE **ENTIRE** INSTALL (!) ... it crashed with a message that the processor was not supported. Win 8 requires a processor with PAE support. Win 7 doesn't. All processors within about the last 5-6 years support PAE.

        Once PAE support becomes pretty much the norm, developers will start using it and then 32 vs. 64-bit will pretty much become irrelevant.
        Rick_R
        • PAE is a workaround, not a solution

          Each application will still be limited by the 32-bit addressing limits. You can't develop for 64 bit and expect it will work on 32 bit systems.
          Hans:P
  • 1gb

    I say nothing should have 1 gb. Most users will have multiple windows opened if just reading news and emails. And probably listening to music. I would say a minimum of 4GBs and of course depending on what the OS can recognize and use.
    kmdennis@...
    • My iMac

      has 2GB and is unusable with Lion. Open Safari and Mail at the same time and it grinds to a halt and Flash video stutters. Opening Apeture takes a couple of minutes!
      wright_is
  • You can never have too much

    in a 64-bit system. C'mon, 16gb for my MacMini only cost $80 from Crucial. If you only have 4gb to begin with, you might as well max it out and forget about the whole issue.
    D.J. 43
  • SSD and RAMDisks

    Awhile back I picked up a 64GB SATA 2 drive from MicroCenter for $29. I have the OS and programs on that (two computers actually, one running 7 Home and the other 8 Pro) and data on a separate drive and I have a LOT of installed programs.

    In that regard, many programs such as PhotoShop Elements install LOADS of image files, etc. I use junctions to move the actual files to the data hard disk while letting Windows and the application think the data is still on the SSD. Same sort of thing with MSOCache. Also, many programs now install the full set of installation files on the hard disk, so I move those too if they're large.

    Going to an SSD can massively speed up a system, sometimes even more than adding RAM.

    Also, AMD and several other companies now have free or inexpensive RAMDisk programs that will make use of unused memory above 3.2GB on a 32-bit OS. Moving temp files to a RAMDisk can massively speed things up too. AMD's RAMDisk can be set to automatically save contents to the hard disk before shutting down and reload automatically on boot. I haven't tried it but it seems putting the pagefile in unused RAM should speed things up quite a bit without trashing an SSD.
    Rick_R
    • Pagefile

      It is never a good idea to be putting the pagefile onto a ramdisk. If you have enough ram to be using a ramdisk then you should just disable the pagefile completely.

      http://www.overclock.net/t/1193401/why-it-is-bad-to-store-the-page-file-on-a-ram-disk
      MrBlank
      • RAMDisk vs SSD

        AMD has some specs on their website. A RAMDisk came in at 6150 MEGABYTES per second read rate and 8100+ MB/s write compared to 450MB/s and 525MB/s for an SSD.

        I put in a support request with Dataram, the company that wrote AMD's RAMDisk software asking whether a 32-bit system can use memory above 3.2GB. (A lot of us with 32-bit systems either don't want to pay to replace the OS with 64-bit or don't want to spend the 100+ hours necessary to fully install a new OS plus all the programs plus all the updates, just to have the ability to use more RAM.)
        Rick_R
    • Using more than 3.2GB with 32-bit with RAMDisk

      Here's the response Dataram provided. Their software (same as AMD) costs $20 for the licensed version. So you could have a pagefile in RAM above 3.2GB. Specs are in a following comment.

      Hello,

      You would have to purchase the licensed version to use 'above' the 4gb limit on 32 bit Windows. You can use above the limit or below the limit. If you had 8gb in your system, you could use the 4gb 'above' for your RAMDisk, and leave the 3.2gb for Windows.

      Keep in mind, some 32 bit motherboards/systems have had some issues with this in the past (not being able to see the above 4), but if your system was one of those, we'd issue you a refund if you can't use the software.

      Thank you,
      Dataram, Inc. Customer Support

      POWERED BY GIVA, Inc.
      Rick_R
  • AMD's RAMDisk program

    http://www.amd.com/us/products/desktop/radeon-memory/Pages/ramdisk-overview.aspx
    Rick_R
  • Two questions

    Thank you for the interesting article and a fairly easy to follow guide for how much ram a person needs.

    I have two questions that I was hoping that you could elaborate on.

    The first question has to do with video ram. If a 32 bit Windows OS only allows the use of 3.2 GB of ram, how should a person factor in a video card when they have a video card with 1GB of ram and they are using a 32 bit OS?

    The second question may be a bit strange and has to do with the standard 8-bit byte that is used when measuring ram.

    My question has to do with the amount of ram that is used, for each instruction word stored or for each data word stored, by a 32 bit OS vs. a 64 bit OS and how that change from 32-bit to 64-bit OS could negatively impact the number of available ram locations.

    Back in the late ‘70s I did a small bit of coding for a military 32-bit computer. Ram was very limited (16k bytes if measuring using an 8 bit byte) so we were intensely aware of every bit/byte that was used. (no it was not a toy computer, it computed missile trajectory, tracked satellites, etc. . . )

    Here is a simple example that may clarify my question.

    If we have 10 (ten) 32 bit ram location for data storage but we increase the data word length to 64 bits (using a double length word) then, if we stay with the original 10 – 32 bit locations available for storage, we actually only have 5 ram locations available for data storage (because each word takes up 64 bits or two memory locations).

    If we expand and shift the above example to the existing computer of today, by changing the OS from a 32 bit to a 64 bit, if the word length has been increased from 32 bits to 64 bits then don’t we increase the ram usage?

    I am aware that many computer programs today are coded for 32 bits and as such they do not necessarily utilize 64 bit word lengths but as programmers code to make use of the expanded word length capabilities of the 64 bit OS, will that have a negative impact on available ram (when a user upgrades from a 32 bit OS to a 64 bit OS and does not also increase the amount of ram the computer has)?

    So, if the user upgrades to a 64 bit OS shouldn't the user, because the 64 bit OS will inherently consume more ram, also change how they view ram usage and increase the available ram?
    John238
    • It's complicated

      The question about the video ram is an interesting one. It depends on what you're doing. If you give it a small window, you get less performance. If you give it a big window, you get better video performance but less usable memory.

      As for the instruction word, it depends on the CPU. The MIPS and ARM CPUs use 32-bit op-codes (instruction words), even when operating in 64-bit mode. The MC680x0 and the VAX used 16-bit op-codes which could be followed by an 8-bit, 16-bit, or 32-bit immediate data operand.

      But now we get into the complicated part. The 8086/8088 used an 8-bit op-code which could be followed by an immediate 8-bit or 16-bit data word. The 80386 added some 16-bit op-codes by using some of the unused 8-bit op-codes. This dealt with the problem of running out of op-codes. It also added the ability for the op-code to be followed by a 32-bit data word. The Pentium implemented some 32-bit op-codes to handle special features like MMX. The AMDx64 does not increase the op-code length beyond 32-bits but increases the immediate operand length to 64-bits. But since the AMDx64 is backwards compatible machine-language wise with all its predecessors, this means that it can still run machine code written for the 8088. That means that an o/s written for the AMDx64 architecture uses a combination of 8-, 16-, and 32-bit op-codes and a combination of 8-, 16-, 32-, and 64-bit operands.
      mheartwood
      • Oh yes!

        The 8088 was also a superset of the 8008 which could access a maximum of 64kB of memory and had only 4 registers. So an AMDx64 can still run machine code written for the 8008.
        mheartwood
    • Re: Two questions

      Your (one?) question was about "data" storage, which doesn't need to be done differently on 32-bit versus 64-bit architectures. So there's no reason for that data to take up more space.

      However, machine addresses (pointers or references in higher-level languages) are twice the size. This will affect the sizes of data structures that contain pointers, specifically. So there will be some increase in memory usage from that cause.
      ldo17
  • I had 256Mb in my last XP laptop and it worked fine

    I was scared when upgraded it to Vista one with 2Gb of RAM to realize that old one was faster. The machine started breathing only after I added 2 more Gbs. Fortunately Microsoft turned the wave somewhat and modern Windoze require a bit less ram, you can actually work with 2Gb in 7 or 8. But, I still have 2Gb in my 2011MBA and it does well, and I am scared when read in reviews (like amazon ones) that people recommend getting 8 or 16Gb for their new macs - but what are the extra possibilities gained? Looks like OSX went out of control similarly to what Windows some time ago. Android is another scary story, modern phones have 2Gb of ram and half of that is used even when idle.
    polarcat
    • No one cares what you have to say.

      When you refer to Windows as "Windoze". Grow up and join us in the 21st century by referring to it by its proper name.
      ye
    • Hmm

      I call bull, a 256 MB ram on XP is fine, buty does not run better than Vista with 2 GB of Ram. Your bias with calling it Windoze gave it away... Go away!!
      schultzycom
  • 32bit vs 64bit

    When you were talking about users choosing between a 32 and 64-bit OS when deciding between 2 and 4GB of RAM, you should also mention that the minimum requirement for a 32-bit version (1GB) of Windows 7, is less that the minimum requirement for the 64-bit (2GB) version and if their board can only take 4GB then they may be better off using a 32-bit version instead of the more RAM hungry 64-bit. I am using Windows 7 as an example OS.

    Hope that made sense?
    TheGift73