Think of Random Access Memory (RAM), sometimes referred to simply as memory, as the short-term memory of your computer. RAM data can be recalled without having to access the hard drive, which is why having the right amount of memory in your computer directly correlates with performance. Without diving too deeply into the electrical science behind computer memory, understand that RAM lets your computer run faster and more smoothly—especially when multi-tasking—if you are someone who likes to have several programs open at once.
Why might you consider a RAM upgrade?
Certain applications lean heavily on system RAM. Chrome web browser is notoriously RAM hungry as it treats each open tab as an individual process with its own memory allocation. “Sandboxing” as this is called, is advantageous in that if one tab crashes it doesn’t take down the whole browser. The tradeoff is that it is RAM-intensive.
If you regularly work with several applications or browser tabs open at once, making a RAM upgrade is a near-surefire way to improve performance. If your PC is running slower than you think it should at any given time, the Task Manager in Windows is a good way to check whether you are overtaxing your available RAM.
Open the Task Manager in Windows 10 (or Windows 7 or Windows 8 on a legacy system) by pressing ALT + CTL + DEL.
Click the Performance tab. The Memory graph monitors your RAM usage in real time.
A good rule of thumb is that if the Available Memory is less than 25 percent of your Total Memory, a RAM upgrade will provide a tangible performance boost for the end user.
While in Task Manager, watch RAM performance when you open a new application. If new apps open slower than you would like, and you notice that usage spikes closer to 100 percent of capacity, then a RAM upgrade probably will serve you well.
How much RAM do you need?
As of this writing in 2021, 16 GB is considered the sweet spot for price-to-performance considerations in the context of mainstream work-related computing tasks. If you have several applications running simultaneously and a dozen Chrome tabs open you still should have plenty of headroom before you notice any lag in performance.
Anything more than 16 GB would make sense for workstation computers that are used for graphics rendering, scientific modeling, and CAD applications. It is not uncommon for 3D design workstations to have up to 32 GB of RAM.
Finding the right RAM upgrade for your system
RAM upgrades are sold as modules, or sticks, of memory. Each module has a set capacity–most commonly you’ll find of 4 GB RAM, 8 GB RAM, and 16 GB RAM sticks.
It is inadvisable to mix and match RAM modules in your system. Crossing brands might be OK if the modules are the same form factor and voltage, but ideally, you want all your RAM to be from the same kit. You will find RAM modules sold in packs of 2 or 4 (or more if you’re purchasing for multiple systems) which are optimized to work together in the same motherboard.
Motherboard and RAM compatibility
Your computer’s motherboard will also determine RAM capacity, as it has a limited number of dual in-line memory module slots (DIMM slots) which is where you plug in the RAM.
Computer RAM modules are standardized by the DDR form factor. Motherboards support only one, and which one mostly depends on how old your motherboard is. The most common varieties for desktop PCs include:
- DDR4 SDRAM (double data rate fourth-generation synchronous dynamic random-access memory) – The current generation of RAM that is found in PCs from 2015 and later.
- DDR3 SDRAM (double data rate type three synchronous dynamic random-access memory) – Found in computers made after 2007 until around 2015.
- Largely obsolete, DDR2 SDRAM (double data rate synchronous dynamic random-access memory) – is now found in the oldest legacy machines built between 2003 and 2007.
- Arriving on the market in late 2021, DDR5 SDRAM makes several performance improvements over the previous standard that will impact intense processes like video editing and encoding, computer-aided design, scientific computing.
There are other RAM specifications to note as well:
- Speed, or frequency (MHz) – Unless you are benchmarking performance you probably will not notice the difference between an 1866 MHz memory module and one that is 1333 MHz. Speed considerations are more important for server workstations that handle larger computing loads.
- Timings (Latency) – Timing or latency of RAM is represented as four numerals separated by dashes. Typically, lower numbers mean better performance.
- Multi-Channel Kits – If your motherboard supports multi-channel memory, a matching kit optimizes performance. To accommodate this, RAM can be shopped on the basis of system-specific memory.
Operating System RAM Limitations
The operating system you are running can affect the maximum amount of RAM you can use in your computer.
Bear in mind these limitations are for workstations running virtual machines that are serving several instances of an application or operating system. End-user devices need not worry about these limitations.
Systems running Windows 10 Home are capped at 128 GB of memory. You can have up to 2 TB of RAM in Windows 10 Pro, Education, and Enterprise environments.
Older Windows systems have a lower threshold. For example, The maximum RAM limit for 32-bit Windows 7 edition is 4 GB. For 64-bit Windows 7 editions:
- Windows 7 Home Basic: 8 GB
- Windows 7 Home Premium: 16 GB
- Windows 7 Professional: 192 GB
- Enterprise: 192 GB
- Ultimate: 192 GB
For Windows 8.1 32-bit, the limit is 4 GB of RAM. For the 64-bit Windows 8 editions:
Tools for finding the right RAM upgrade for your system
NeweggBusiness has a memory finder built into our site. It provides vendor-neutral specifications and product suggestions to locate find memory that fits a specific system.
Several memory vendors have similar tools. Remember to shop smart—write down the model numbers suggested by these tools and check the pricing against the NeweggBusiness memory store.
Select a brand to start your search
- Crucial memory finder
- Kingston system-specific memory
- Corsair memory finder
- SanDisk product compatibility tool
- Skill RAM configurator
- Six Hardware Upgrade Considerations for Better PC Performance
- DRAM Quality Issues and SSDs Signal a Push Toward New Universal Memory
- DDR4 RAM Has Arrived
Please share any additional tips for choosing a RAM upgrade in the comments section.