Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

Do I Need a Computer Memory Upgrade?

//
Do I need to install additional memory? My machine has 1GB of RAM. I have a HP Photosmart printer & therefore am always downloading from my camera to my computer. Wondering if a computer memory upgrade is called for.

I’ve said it before: upgrading your computer’s RAM memory is one of the most cost-effective ways of increasing its performance.

However, it’s not a silver bullet. Whether or not it will actually help you depends on many things. And of course, whether or not you actually can add more memory is something we also need to look at.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

Minimums

First off, I will say that 1GB (gigabyte) of RAM is pretty small these days. Both Windows 7 and 8, for example, list 1GB as the bare minimum requirement to run the 32 bit version of the operating systems The 64 bit versions require twice as much: 2GB.

And as I said, that’s just the minimum. It’s rare that you’ll want to run those operating systems at their minimum configuration.

I would actually encourage you to make sure that any new machines on which you plan to run Windows to have at least two gigabytes of RAM for the 32 bit, and four gigs of RAM for the 64 bit version; perhaps even more.

There are several reasons for my suggestions. For one thing, as I’ve said, RAM is cheap these days. But for another, over time Windows itself and the applications you’ve likely installed on it are getting larger. What was a reasonable configuration a few years ago is likely getting stressed just a little by updates, new tools, and applications that have likely been added as well.

It’s about what you do

How much RAM is appropriate for you actually depends on what you do with your machine.

If all you do is download pictures, then what you have may actually still be just enough: downloading and printing pictures is just not a particularly memory intensive task.

RAMBut I’m betting you do a lot more with your computer than just download pictures. You probably surf the web, use email and perhaps even write documents. If you’ve got Microsoft Office installed and you use it regularly, for example, then yes – one gigabyte isn’t enough in my opinion.

If after downloading those pictures you then fire up an image editing program to crop, tweak or otherwise adjust them, then it’s almost certain that what you have isn’t really enough, since image editing programs are often applications that use a lot of resources, particularly RAM.

And if you download photos, check email, surf the web, write documents and tweak photos all at the same time (leaving all those programs open and running at once), then it’s clear – you want more RAM.

Preparing for the future

The limiting factor that you need to check before you consider adding more RAM, particularly in older machines, is how much RAM your PC can actually handle. The maximum amount of RAM you can add to a computer is a physical limitation of the computer’s motherboard design.

When buying a new machine, I often recommend that you make sure the machine can handle more RAM than you need today. For example when I purchased my most recent desktop I ordered it with 16 gigabytes of RAM (my needs are above average 🙂 ). But I also made sure that when the time came that 16 gigs wasn’t enough, I could add more. Thus my computer can actually support a total of 64 gigabytes of RAM.

In your shoes, personally I probably wouldn’t hesitate to add RAM if your machine supports it. If you plan to keep that machine for any length of time, I’d upgrade the RAM to its maximum. It’s not only a cost-effective way of improving performance, but it’s actually a cost-effective way of lengthening your computer’s useful life.

Particularly as my machines get older, if I plan to keep them for any length of time, maximizing RAM capacity is one of the things I do to lengthen their useful life.

But if it ain’t broke?

One last counter argument: if things are working, why look at it at all?

There’s certainly a great temptation to upgrade, to get the latest and greatest, to see if things can be faster or better than they are. But … if it ain’t broke, why fix it? You didn’t indicate that you were experiencing any problems, so even though RAM upgrades are simple and inexpensive, if there’s no real reason, then why bother with whatever expense or risk?

On the other hand, if things are slow, if you see a problem, adding RAM is a reasonable first step.

10 comments on “Do I Need a Computer Memory Upgrade?”

  1. I have a 5 year old machine that I’ve given to my teens. I upped the RAM to 2GB and got a new direct x 10 graphics card and 320GB hard drive combined price over $100. It now does everything most people would ever need including playing some fairly demanding games. If you don’t play Graphic intensive games or video editing you can skip the graphic card upgrade and get all you need out of it for a little over $100. Those three things usually have much more impact than a faster processor. And it’s usually much better to replace your old ram with new ram and not just add ram as the new ram is usually faster but when combined with old ram it runs at the speed of the oldest ram you have installed.

  2. Re: Adding Memory
    I have a Compaq Presario R3000 laptop, using 512 memory. Crucial says I can add another 512 or 1Meg. I bought another 512 chip but when I opened the slot, there was only room for one chip! Can it Be? What to do? Charles

    Contact Crucial. It’s possible that instead of adding a 512Meg chip, the existing one needed to be replaced with a 1gig? Or something else is at play.

    – Leo
    20-May-2009
  3. If you have to ask, I would say you need the extra RAM. For one thing, programmers and web page designers just assume that you have all that memory. They have become lazy over the years, and are not concerned with the resources (i.e. memory) that their software requires. In the past, programs were designed to be compact and efficient, and efforts were made to free up the memory they used once the program was finished. These days, that seems to be at the bottom of the programmer’s priority list. Considering how inexpensive RAM has become, you will only see an improvement by adding more. If you are not comfortable installing it, take your machine to a store that offers computer service and let them do it. Many of them also offer free/inexpensive system analysis, which you would likely find informative regarding future decisions.

  4. There is also the implied question around the phrase “& 1112 MB of virtual memory”. Assuming your hard drive is not also already full, there is no reason not to up that to a much larger number… especially if you are tight on RAM! As RAM fills up, a normal part of the processing of the system is to move inactive portions of open programs to the hard disk… in that “virtual memory” area. Give the system room to store those inactive pages rather than a reason to complain that it is out of disk space. I run all my systems with at least 4GB (for some reason some installs have this as their max, and no, its not due to being a 32bit op sys, remember each process gets their own 2-3GB of private addressable memory, so a 32bit system can easilly be managing much more than 4GB of addressable virtual memory), and many with more (8-12GB).

  5. if i upgrade my gateway sx2370-ur30p from 4gb of memory to 16b do i have to upgrade my hard drive ?it is a 1tb or can i get by with the 1tb

    No. There’s no required relationship between RAM size and hard disk size. If you have enough disk you have enough regardless of how much memory you have.

    Leo
    31-Jul-2012
  6. @Douglass,
    Nope… a memory chip and hard drive are each their own hardware unit. So you can just go ahead and upgrade the memory. A 1 terabyte drive should be plenty!

  7. In your answer you said that there is no relation between RAM and hard drive size. That makes sense, but I’ve read in some places that the recommended swap file size should be roughly twice the size of your RAM. I never understood that. According to your recommendation, I got rid of my swap file when I doubled my RAM to 8GB and it worked perfectly. Do you have any idea why people recommend that the swap file be double your RAM size?

    To be honest, no, I’ve never really understood that recommendation.

    Leo
    01-Aug-2012
  8. My cell phone said a max of 512 MB. I have a 2 GB card in it now.
    I put in a 1 GB in an older laptop that was supposed to have a max of 512 MB. It worked fine.

    Since memory is so inexpensive, if I only had 1 GB of ram, I would first find out if it is on 1 or 2 chips.
    Then I would up to at least 2 GB (2×1 GB?) or 4 GB (maybe 2×2 GB), depending on the computer and situation.

    • In the old days, you could add more RAM beyond what they said the max was, but the BIOS would stop using memory beyond the stated maximum. If you checked how much RAM was actually in the computer, it would be whatever the stated max was, not the size of the memory sticks. I don’t know if this is still true today.

  9. Windows – How’s my real [RAM] and virtual [Page file size] memory doing?
    Windows and the programs it runs are broken up into pages. Because disk space [page files] can be used to extend ‘memory’, the pages can be in either a) ‘Real memory’ [that is RAM] or b) on disk in the page file[s]. RAM is ‘fixed’ [but can of course be changed by adding or removing ‘chips’] whereas page files are specified by the user and are easily changed [although a boot is typically required]. You can ‘run out’ of either, so what can you check on your system.
    The crucial indicator for RAM shortages is the system measure ‘Page Read Delta’. This is measured in pages per second and indicates program pages that had to be moved to disk from RAM and are now needed [because the program is running] in RAM again. This should be 0 or in low single digits MOST OF THE TIME on a system where enough RAM is installed. If it’s not, you need more RAM or to run less ‘stuff’!
    Page file sizing is the subject of much ‘Internet speculation’ but is USER dependent. No formula such as 2 times RAM size is appropriate as the page file size depends on what programs you run at the same time. Every user will be different as it’s based on ‘commit charge’. [The system’s ‘commit charge’ is the total memory used for all running programs and their data plus Windows own requirements : it goes up and down as programs start and stop]. The space used is made up of the total of RAM size plus page file size(s) – this value on any particular system is known as the Commit Charge Limit.
    Windows keeps track of both current and peak ‘commit charge’, the peak being the most ever used since Windows was last booted. The page file size needs to be big enough so that RAM size plus Page file size is larger than the Peak commit charge.
    The simple way to set it is:
    Firstly, set a fixed page file size that’s quite large – about 3 times the size of RAM. [There’s no harm in a Page file that’s bigger than it needs to be]! For a 4GB RAM system , set it to 12GB, for instance and reboot Windows. On such a system, this will set a Commit Charge Limit of 16GB.
    After running a typical mix of the programs you use, check the Commit Charge Peak; subtract this from the Limit and decrease the page file size by this amount.

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.