How much RAM does your PC or Mac need? (2021 edition)

The bottom line is that you probably need more RAM than you think you can get away with, especially with modern systems where upgrading is not an option.

I've been building and upgrading PCs and Macs for a long time, and if there's one question I wish I could have a dollar for every time it has been asked, it's the RAM question.

How much RAM should I install?

People ask this both when buying a new system, and when upgrading. And it's not an easy question to answer because unless you're very clear about what you want to do with the system, how long you're planning to keep it, the answer can be rather vague.

We also need to add to the equation the fact that a lot of modern systems -- especially portables, in particular MacBooks -- don't have the option for you to upgrade the RAM.

If this is the case, what you buy is what you're stuck with.

Must read: Best CES 2021 laptops: Top notebooks, 2-in-1s, and ultraportables

RAM is also pretty cheap. Macs and premium systems are an exception, where you end up paying a $400 premium for $100 of RAM to upgrade from 16GB to 32GB, but that's the nature of the beast.

Buy premium, pay premium.

But that's not to say you can't save money upgrading your systems that allow you to do that. At the extreme end, take the Mac Pro. That thing can take 1.5TB of RAM, and the upgrade from the base 32GB from Apple will set you back $25,000.

That's $2,085 for every 128GB DDR4 ECC module.

Note: When it comes to upgrading RAM, I find that Crucial and Kingston have the best online guides for what RAM you need and the process.

Shop around and you can find the same RAM for $1,098 per module.

A savings of almost $12,000.

So, how much RAM do you need?

I've simplified my thoughts on RAM for the modern world, breaking things down into four categories.

4GB: The minimum

This is what you need for a basic PC system. You're probably still going to be hating life if you use Chrome with loads of tabs open or try any kind of video editing, but it'll work.

And this really isn't going to be much of a gaming system.

8GB: Mainstream

Yes, I'm calling 8GB of RAM mainstream. This gives you an all-rounder PC that can handle gaming or HD video editing. It's the minimum recommended for applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, and Premiere Pro.

Sure, spend a lot of time in heavy applications such as Photoshop, and you're going to feel the limit, but it's workable.

16GB: Performance

For the majority of users, this is the perfect place to be. You can run heavy duty applications side-by-side, and have the room you need for 4K video editing and high-end gaming.

Sure, run Chrome with a couple of dozen tabs open and you'll feel the pressure, but that's life.

+16GB: Workstation

It's funny that while the jump from 8GB to 16GB feels huge and noticeable, the jumps from 16GB to beyond don't feel as dramatic. Instead, you get to that place where you stop thinking about RAM.

A sort of digital nirvana.

But you are in workstation territory. A system where RAM is rarely going to be a limiting factor. But you need to make sure that all your other components are up to the job, because if you are spending this sort of money on RAM, you don't want to be suffering bottlenecks elsewhere.