What is RAM? Choosing the Right Amount for Your Needs

Posted by Gretchen Thomas on June 22, 2021
Hardware & Software Support, Managed Services

RAM stands for Random Access Memory. This is the short-term memory your computer uses to store all the information it is actively using. So, if you are a multitasker with several applications open at once, your RAM enables you to quickly switch between them. You don’t have to restart every application anew when you come back to it.

RAM allows your applications to run smoothly. Your applications include your email, browsers (Chrome, Safari, Opera, etc.), word processing (Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, etc.), data entry (Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, etc.), and many other programs and tools you use that make your job easier. So if you are alternating between writing a document, creating a spreadsheet, and browsing the Internet during a normal workday, your RAM streamlines these processes to make your workflow efficient.

Because RAM determines the performance and speed of your computer, it is one of the most important variables to consider when shopping for computers.

The Classic RAM Metaphor

A common metaphor may help you to remember what Random Access Memory is. Most companies still work with paper and file cabinets even though they predominantly work with and store data on computers. On your physical desk, you may have a number of projects you’re currently working on. This is like your computer’s RAM. You can’t have everything in your file cabinet there. That would be confusing and overwhelming. You just have what you’re working on this week. So, your file cabinet is like your computer’s long-term memory. This is your hard drive or SSD (Solid State Drive). When you are finished with a project or filling out a form, you file it away in your file cabinet for easy retrieval when you need it again.

The Goldilocks Principle

  • Too little RAM causes your computer to run sluggishly.
  • Too much RAM for your computing needs is overkill and isn’t cost-effective.
  • Just the right amount of RAM for the way that you use your computer is what you need.

How much RAM do you need?

If your workflow includes running a number of programs at the same time, you will need a greater amount of RAM. For most users, 8GB is enough. The more programs you have open at the same time on your computer, the more RAM you need. Additionally, the more complex your programs are (i.e., graphic software applications like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or Premiere), the more RAM you need. 16GB is usually plenty for graphic designers, web developers, videographers, gamers, and other users of programs at that complexity level. Any more is overkill.

If you are running a large database, Vendor Management System (VMS), or using a RAMdisk, you need more than 16GB. Extremely large amounts of RAM (I’m talking TB) are possible for 64-bit processors, but they will cost you.

One common sign that you need more RAM is a sluggish computer. Are you are pulling your hair out waiting for it to complete tasks? Or are you sitting there, chin in hand, watching the spinning beach ball (pinwheel, flipping hourglass, etc.) more often than not when you have major deadlines to meet? If so, it may be time for that upgrade.

Upgrading Memory vs. Upgrading Your Whole Computer

You can upgrade your memory on your current computer or buy a new computer with more short-term memory. The amount of RAM you get should be compatible with your other computer components. Since tech is always evolving in speed and efficiency, upgrading just your RAM on an older computer may not be the best way to solve the problem. Without that compatibility, adding more RAM may not give you any substantial improvement. You may have to purchase a new computer.

I know buying new computers isn’t always fun. It’s expensive. And we remember all too well how much we paid for our current computers. We want to put to good use, for a good long time, the investment we have already made in our current technology. This is why we don’t need to buy too much RAM but instead, we can use the Goldilocks principle of finding just the right amount for our needs.

For more on when to upgrade your computers and other devices, see: Why Do We Resist Updating Our Technology?

A Handy Tool: Crucial System Scanner

If you are going to upgrade the RAM on your current computer, you can use Micron’s Crucial System Scanner to determine what is compatible. If you don’t feel comfortable having an application from the Internet scan your computer, ask your IT Company to safely and securely walk through this process with you.