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Does My Computer Need a Memory Upgrade?

More RAM is usually better, but when is it really needed?

A memory upgrade can be an easy, inexpensive way to improve system performance, but how do you know if an upgrade is called for?
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RAM
RAM chips. (Image: canva.com)
Do I need to install additional memory? My machine has 2GB 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.

Upgrading your computer’s RAM is one of the most cost-effective ways of increasing performance.

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

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TL;DR:

Memory upgrades

When purchasing a new machine, it’s a good idea to ensure you can upgrade the machine with additional RAM in the future. If you find your machine struggling because of limited RAM, then an upgrade — when possible — can be an inexpensive way to improve performance and lengthen the machine’s life. (While you’re at it, consider replacing your old metal-platter HDD with an SSD for even more speed.)

Minimums

First off, I will say that 2GB (gigabytes) of RAM is pretty small these days. It’s really the bare minimum to run Windows.

It’s rare you’ll want to run Windows at its minimum configuration. It won’t take much for performance to suffer.

I would encourage you to make sure that any new machines on which you plan to run Windows have at least four gigabytes of RAM, and more is better.

RAM is cheap, and over time, Windows and the applications you’ve installed are only going to get larger. What was a reasonable configuration a few years ago is likely to get stressed by updates, new tools, and new applications.

It’s about what you do

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

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

But 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 two gigabytes isn’t enough.

If after downloading those pictures you then fire up an image-editing program to crop, tweak or otherwise adjust them, it’s almost certain that what you have isn’t enough, since image-editing programs often 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 you need to check before you consider adding more RAM, particularly in older machines, is how much RAM your PC can handle. The maximum amount of RAM you can add to a computer is a physical limitation of the computer’s motherboard.

When buying a new machine, 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 64 gigabytes of RAM (my needs are above average Smile). But I also made sure that when the time comes that 64 gigs aren’t enough, I can add more. My computer can support a total of 128 gigabytes of RAM.

In your shoes, I 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 the maximum supported by the motherboard. It’s not only a cost-effective way of improving performance, but it’s also a cost-effective way of lengthening your computer’s useful life.

A different upgrade

One of the upgrades not related to RAM that’s become popular in recent years is the SSD, or Solid State Drive. Chances are if your computer is running an older, traditional, spinning-platter hard disk, you’ll notice an immediate performance improvement if you replace that with an SSD. Windows will boot faster, and your files will copy faster.

It might be worth considering.

Do this

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 say you were experiencing any problems, so even though RAM upgrades are simple and inexpensive, if there’s no real reason, why bother with the expense or risk?

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

Here’s a great second step: subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

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22 comments on “Does My Computer Need a Memory Upgrade?”

  1. I have a 5-year-old machine that I’ve given to my teens. I upped the RAM to 8GB 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.

    Reply
  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
    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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).

    Reply
  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
    Reply
  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!

    Reply
  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
    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • OK, now tell us how to determine the Commit Charge Peak.

      You might also recommend adding two or three exta gigs to the final page file size as “extra wiggle room” for exceptionally or unusually demanding usage.

      Reply
  10. Leo, you wrote:

    “…If you plan to keep that machine for any length of time, I’d upgrade the RAM to the maximum supported by the motherboard…”

    In that case, why not do that to start with and be done with it? Whether you run out of physical room for more memory now, or in the future… what’s the difference — except maybe increased cost in the future due to inflation or scarcity???

    Leo, you also wrote:

    “…One of the upgrades not related to RAM that’s become popular in recent years is the SSD, or Solid State Drive…”

    Yes, but NOT as your BACKUP drive. As you’ve (Leo) stated in the past, backups should NOT be stored on an SSD, but only on a traditional hard drive (HD). (I can only guess that you don’t consider SSD’s reliable enough for the occasional writing, reading, and static storage demands, of holding reliable backups, although why, in that case, you would consider them to be reliable enough for the much more demanding and constant activity of everyday use, escapes me.)

    Reply
    • The price of RAM has been coming down over time. So it’s typically been more costly to max out the machine before you actually need it. (Caveat: supply chain issues of the last couple of years are making everything wonky.)

      I don’t recall saying don’t store backups on SSDs, but I could be forgetting. SSD quality has been improving so I’d not be as frightened of it as in the past. It really depends also on what KIND of backups you’re storing. Daily backups that cycle out after some period of time are less of a concern than what I’d call long-term archives, which you expect to keep … uh … long term. I’d default to magnetic disks for the latter.

      Reply
      • One reason not to use an SSD for backup is the cost. An SSD used for backup wouldn’t add any noticeable speed as backups are usually scheduled to run when you are not using the computer and if they run while you are using the machine, they happen in the background, and you can set them to run on a low priority so as not to slow your workflow.

        Reply
  11. The one caveat not mentioned about adding more RAM is whether the PC is a 32-bit or 64-bit CPU/OS. A 32-bit system is limited in its addressable memory regardless of how much RAM is installed. In all practicality, 64-bit systems don’t (of course there is a finite limit but it’s way too large to care).

    Reply
  12. Apologies; all those years ago, I forgot to say that you need the Microsoft tool ‘Process Explorer’ to determine the Commit Charge peak. No other tool that I am aware of will show this value which is the peak usage since Windows was started.
    Run Process Explorer and select View / System Information and select the Memory tab; the value you need is the third entry in the left column below the graphs – Commit Charge : Peak. [Currently 6,260,100 K on my 8GB Win 10 Pro system].

    Reply
  13. I do a lot of things with my computers, and I experiment a lot, so I use virtual machines for experimentation to protect my host device. As a result, I try to have at least a TB of SSD disk space for VM storage, and at least 16GB RAM on all my computers. I know, I’m not the common user, but this is why how you intend to use your computer should go into what you spend your money on when you buy/build it.

    Leo’s advice to be able to at least double the amount of RAM you have when your machine is new is also very good. After all, what value is there in having RAM you don’t need today as long as you can add more when you need to?

    Other considerations many may not consider include network/Wi-Fi bandwidth capacity for those who do a lot of large downloads or uploads, or the ability to connect more than one display for people who do coding or study computer science, etc. If you’re a gamer, you’ll want to max out everything to get the best performance you can afford.

    These are my thoughts on this subject. I hope they help others,

    Ernie

    Reply
  14. Here today in Dec 2022, and it’s been like this for quite a few years now, I think the following are a good guideline for RAM for most people…

    -2GB of RAM = absolute minimum (avoid this!). even on Linux, which is lighter than Windows, while you can boot up and do light, if not very light, browsing you will quickly run low on RAM. not realistic for most people in my mind besides very light users who might turn on their computer to check their email or to browse a single site for a bit and then turn it off types of users. but any more than that you will want to shift to the next one I mention below at the minimum…

    -4GB of RAM = realistic minimum. in today’s world this is a realistic minimum as while you don’t have much room to breathe it will allow you to do some level of browsing for a while without running out of RAM very quickly. this is probably passable for light-to-moderate users.

    -8GB of RAM = the sweet-spot for most causal people as it tends to offer the best bang-for-the-buck. for the casual computer user (browsing the web and other similar tasks) this is typically the point where going any higher won’t help much and you can even play most games with this amount of RAM, even though you will likely have to close out of your web browser to do it, especially for fairly recent games, to leave sufficient RAM to the game itself.

    -16GB of RAM = a sweet-spot for many, but gives you solid room to breathe. those who play modern games and do somewhat heavy tasks will want this to be safe.

    -32GB of RAM = any higher is likely overkill/waste-of-money for a high percentage of people. even this amount is probably mostly a waste of money for most people I suspect, but at least I can see considering it since it will almost certainly future proof the computer for MANY years to come, but any higher (like going to 64GB of RAM for example) is just a waste of money unless your one of the rare users that would use more than 32GB as even 32GB is difficult to use up as I would struggle to burn through 16GB (but ‘maybe’ with 16GB) and I would say I am heavier than a common-ish persons use most likely.

    in short, 8GB of RAM or 16GB of RAM will be the sweet spot for most people since you tend to get the most performance to money spent on these two options.

    if your just web browsing and the like, 8GB will likely be ‘good enough’. if you want to play modern video games for example, or have a fair amount of room to breathe, I suggest 16GB of RAM. beyond 16GB of RAM will likely yield little to no performance gains for most, if not vast majority, of people.

    p.s. speaking for myself… I had 8GB of RAM from May 2012 until sometime in the year 2020 when I upgraded to 16GB of RAM (on same motherboard/computer). for general use (I do have a 250GB SSD though) I can’t say there was any obvious/noticeable difference for day-to-day web browsing and the like. but certain tasks it helps (like running a VM or leaving my browser running while I load up a game etc) and I have room to breathe now.

    NOTE: I leave my main computer running 24/7 with the browser loaded up basically all of the time to (short of browser updates etc) with many tabs open etc so I guess I would be a decent example of, at least a slightly heavier web browsing which if 8GB or 16GB is good enough for me, chances are it’s at least good enough for the majority of people.

    Reply
    • Sounds good and I’ll add one more thing which I’ve learned from experience. If you want to play games and the computer is a older, you might need to upgrade the graphics card. By maxing out the RAM and adding a mid-price range graphics card, I kept an old computer running Windows for 8 years.

      Reply
  15. @ Mark Jacobs ; Yeah, I agree. a decent GPU can give a good boost to aging hardware on games. but the thing is with CPU’s I would say just about anything around i5 2nd gen or better (so about the last 10-11 years or so) can run just about any game if paired with a decent GPU.

    but I guess it depends on how old the computer is as any ‘good’ CPU made in the last 10 years, maybe a bit more, can play probably a large portion, if not all games, if paired with a decent GPU.

    I have been on the same computer as my main PC now for 10 years and 7 months and counting as my previous record was 6 years and 2 months (March 2006 until May 2012) and before that would have been sometime in 2001 until March 2006 etc. although my GPU, which is a 1050 Ti 4GB, I have had since July 2017 (it’s basically 2016 technology though) which was a rather large upgrade from my previous Radeon 5670 512MB as I got that in the year 2010. but both of those are powered solely from the PCI-E slot and from what I read the max power draw from the PCI-E slot is 75 watts. but the GPU I had prior to that Radeon was a Geforce 7900GT 256MB (which is what I had on the first PC I built in March 2006 (although my first PC straight up was 1995)) which does require additional power to the GPU to run. but that Radeon 5670 512MB is currently in my backup computer, which is where it originally was in for about a couple of years before shifting to my current main PC’s board from May 2012 until July 2017. I never shifted over to Linux (Mint) until Jan 2019.

    in fact, I had a i3-2120 (dual-core) from May 2012 until sometime in the year 2020 when I got a hold of a used i5-3550 (quad-core) CPU on Ebay for only $20 (I was going to opt for a i7 3rd gen but the price was just not right as it was roughly $70 or so which did not make much sense for me to spend that much on older hardware as the i5 was a much better buy and nearly as good) and just used my i3-2120’s heatsink/fan on the i5-3550. I obviously had to clean off the old thermal paste on the used CPU and my heatsink and reapplied some Arctic Silver 5 thermal paste which I had since I built my first PC in March 2006 and it still worked well. but just that CPU upgrade gave me a rather big performance boost on anything that takes advantage of more cores even though for general use it feels about the same, maybe a touch quicker. because I think there is something in the ball park of a 5% performance boost for each generation increase (at least the last I heard years ago) and not to mention the CPU is more energy efficient to going from 2nd to 3rd gen.

    but to cut back on CPU heat, since if I recall correctly the official i5 2nd/3rd gen etc CPU’s have a copper contact on their stock heatsinks where as the i3-2120 does not, but I am not sure how much of a effect that has on heat. but thankfully on my ASUS board I learned there was a way to undervolt the CPU as I currently have mine undervolted by -0.120v (by -0.010v increments) as that shaved off about 12c under full load which makes my CPU run in a range I am much more comfortable with. but I noticed if I go a little too far, like to -0.140v, the computer will hang/freeze within about 24hours tops and going a bit further than that the computer has trouble posting/booting (I think it was -0.160v, maybe -0.150v). I was using -0.130v for quite a while, but I think raising voltage a touch (to -0.120v) ‘may’ have cured rare freezes on occasion. but I do know for sure that -0.130v is the most I can lower the voltage and pretty much have a stable computer, but I backed off a touch to be a little safer.

    it appears my ASUS board (which I am running newest BIOS) runs that i5-3550 CPU @ 3.5GHz when on a full load (like hitting it hard with Prime95’s torture test for example) even though it’s only officially rated at 3.3GHz. so I might be getting a bit of a boost here.

    Reply

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