How much RAM do I need?

Question

When buying a new computer, how do I know how much RAM I should buy?

-Kristin

Answer

This question was answered on August 18, 2006. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

This very important question has been at the foundation of the computer buying process since the introduction of the personal computer.

The fact that computers are now truly personal means that who you are and what you use your computer for will be the ultimate determining factor on answering this question.

When I got started in the business, deciding between 512K and 640K was the big question It then evolved to deciding between 640K and 1024K as operating systems and programs were more able to make use of “extended memory”.

As of this writing, the decision points are 512 MB, 1 GB or 2 GB of RAM (we’ve come a long way, baby!)

Before I go into further detail, let me pull out my classic “computer kitchen” analogy to help non-techies understand the major components that determine performance in a computer.

In the “computer kitchen” the processor (Intel or AMD) is like the chef It does all of the real work and decision-making.

RAM is like a mixing bowl, it is a workspace that allows the chef to prepare the meals.

The hard drive is like a refrigerator; it is designed to store things both before and after they have been prepared.

Just about everything that you will be looking at will come with at least 512 MB of RAM (mixing bowl), so let’s consider this the entry level

If you will be performing simple tasks (such as writing letters, surfing the Net or sending e-mails) and the only games that might be played on the system are Solitaire and Tetris, then 512 MB of RAM is adequate.

If you plan on doing these tasks simultaneously (often referred to as multi-tasking – working on multiple courses in the computer kitchen at the same time), then bumping the RAM (mixing bowl) up to 1 GB is likely to be the most cost effective thing that you can do to improve the performance of the system.

In fact, before I would recommend spending more money to slightly improve the processor speed, I would strongly suggest you upgrade the RAM to 1 GB

A slightly faster chef is of no use if his mixing bowl is too small for the meals he wants to prepare Conversely, a slightly slower chef with a larger mixing bowl can output more food in a shorter period of time because of the additional workspace

As a normal course, Windows will use an open section of the hard drive (open workspace in the refrigerator) when it runs out of RAM (mixing bowl space) which significantly reduces the overall speed in which a task can be accomplished, so when in doubt add more RAM (reduce the trips back and forth to the refrigerator as much as possible!)

If you are a real power user, such as a hard-core gamer or those dealing in professional graphics or video, stepping up to 2 GB of RAM is in your best interest, since you will be routinely preparing 7-course French meals in your computer kitchen!

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Author

Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on August 18, 2006