When shopping for a laptop, you are bombarded with many different hardware specs, including the Processor, storage, memory and much more. For those of you out there that aren’t computer experts, this can be quite confusing. RAM is one of the most important pieces of hardware you will buy on your laptop. But how much do you really need? Today, we will first describe in more detail exactly what RAM is and what it can do for you on your laptop. Then I will try to break it down for you so you can determine how much you really need.
So What Is RAM?
RAM, or random access memory, is often simply called RAM or even memory. Because of this term, it’s often confused with storage. Storage is supplied by your hard drive or other static memory storage medium. In most cases, these are either mechanical or solid state drives today. This is completely different from RAM. Memory is essentially how much you can load on your computer from your drive at one time.
To speed things up, the files you are working on are loaded into RAM, as this is much faster than storage media. But, your laptop doesn’t load everything at once. It loads only what it needs to work at that time. Once it’s no longer needed, your computer will purge it from memory so that memory can be used for something else.
Remember, it’s random ACCESS memory, so this memory is only used for what you are accessing at the time. It’s volatile memory, meaning nothing is stored permanently in there. Think of it like this. When you create a document in Microsoft Word, for example. Until you click that Save button, all the typing you have done could be lost if the application or your computer crashes. That’s because while you are working on it the document is saved in RAM and not on your storage media. If you don’t click the save button, it never gets transferred from RAM to your storage media, so it’s possible to lose it.
Typical RAM Configurations
Today there are four typical configurations you see on laptops for your memory, and it all comes down to size. There are four basic sizes:
- 4GB – Today this amount is usually found on most budget laptops under $400 or lower or laptops that are powered by Chrome OS as it is much more memory efficient when compared to Windows 10 or even macOS. While it will get the job done, some power users will find this amount much more limiting.
- 8GB – At the time of this writing, 8GB is the standard found on most computers today. Because it has become the standard, you will find this amount of RAM on many different types of machines, from budget to high-end. Currently, it is the best balance of RAM that gives power users what they need while not breaking the bank and keeping things in reach for budget shoppers.
- 16GB – This amount of memory is usually found on most gaming and high-end workstation replacement laptops today. While not as commonplace as the others, you will see this amount found much more often than the next one on this list.
- 32GB (or more) – This amount of RAM is only found in the most high end laptops out there, and on some units it’s possible to load even more, although in many cases 32GB will be your upper limit, at least at the time of this writing.
On some older configurations you may still find 2GB of RAM. This amount is rarely seen today but could be found as recently as 2015-2016 on many small, budget machines powered by Windows 10. Unfortunately, this amount just isn’t adequate for anything but the most basic usage, and many budget shoppers will still find these machines way too slow for their tastes.
Are Their Limits?
So are their limits to how much RAM you want/need? Well, there are a few factors that you need to consider.
1. Your budget – RAM may be one of the most affordable ways to upgrade your laptop, but it can still get pretty costly, especially when you consider maxing out your laptop with the most amount of RAM possible.
2. What you want to do – In the end, it really depends on what you want to do with your laptop and how you use it. After all, if you are going to spend the money to upgrade your laptop, why spend money for RAM you don’t really need?
3. Hardware limitations – This one is true for all hardware, both desktop and laptop, but is even more true for laptops. Laptops have limited RAM slots for expansion, so you will only be able to add so much. In many cases today, you are looking at a maximum of 16GB in many machines, while others may be lower or much higher.
How Much Do You Really Need?
Ok so you are probably thinking after reading all this, so how much do I need? The answer, like so many things in life, isn’t that simple. The real answer is – it depends. Now stay with me for a few moments and I will try and show you what I mean. Whether you need more memory or not is subjective and it all comes down to how you use your system and how much memory you already have.
For example, if you have 4GB now and all you do is check your email and surf the web, then chances are you don’t need anymore than you have now. Even if your computer is starting to feel sluggish. Chances are more RAM won’t help matters if it feels sluggish reading email. You have bigger problems than your memory.
However, if you do heavy word processing, Excel spreadsheets and even Adobe Photoshop edits, then more RAM will most definitely help you. Even if you already have 8GB, a boost to 16GB could make a big difference for you, especially when image and video editing.
If you are a gamer, then the more RAM the better. Sure, game graphics will mostly be handled by your graphics card and the graphics memory included on the card, but games are still large applications that are truly taxing your machine, so more RAM should help you feel at least a little boost. If you are a min/max type of gamer, then definitely add as much as your laptop and your wallet will allow, as I know you want the best that you can possibly afford.
Oh and one more thing, if you only have 2GB of RAM, leave this page and go buy RAM right away. I promise you will be glad you did.
Tips for Upgrading
Now that you have determined how much RAM you need and want, it’s time to go shopping. However, there are a few things you need to consider.
1. RAM Type – There are many different kinds of RAM out there today, but your laptop is designed to only take one type of memory. In most cases, these types today can be boiled down to the speed of the RAM. If you are unsure what type of memory you need, I suggest you download and run CPUID to find out. It’s a great tool for learning about the hardware on your system.
2. Available Slots – Every laptop is different. In some cases, you may not be able to upgrade your system at all. In other cases, you may have one empty memory slot or maybe more. Again, I encourage you to make use of CPUID to find out.
3. Pairing – On some motherboards you need to install a pair or memory sticks in order for it to work. While this is dying out on modern architecture, it can still be a factor you need to consider. Especially if your laptop has some age on it. In this setup, you may need to remove an existing stick of memory and install a pair or larger sticks to get the upgrade you want.
4. You Get What You Pay For – When you are shopping, you will find that the cost of memory is all over the place. Some high end memory can be almost double the price of bargain basement memory. I strongly encourage you to avoid that cheap memory at all costs. Remember, it’s cheap for a reason. While you don’t have to blow your wallet on the most expensive and fanciest memory type for your system, buying the cheapest you could possibly find is probably a big mistake. Shoot for somewhere in the middle, or go with a reliable brand with a lifetime warranty such as Crucial. You will be glad you did.
RAM is one of the most important parts of your machine, but it’s one that often goes misunderstood. While it may make your machine faster in some aspects, at the end of the day your processor can only process data so fast, so upgrading may not make any difference at all. Still, it couldn’t hurt to add a little to your system, especially if you are on the low end of the memory scale.
Just make sure you choose the right memory and don’t go overboard. In the end, if you aren’t creating high end graphics or playing resource intensive games, you probably will never need more than 8GB, and if your usage is very basic, 4GB could be just fine for what you do. Still, if you need more or if your machine feels sluggish when running large applications, memory is one of cheapest and easiest ways to give your system a little boost. So what are you waiting for?
About the author
Matt is an IT professional with over fifteen years experience supporting network infrastructure and computers. An avid gamer, Matt enjoys his time playing and writing about his experiences both in the IT world and in the gaming communities. You can find more of his writing for LaptopNinja where he enjoys talking about everything tech.