16GB or 32GB of RAM: How Much Headroom Do You Need?

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16GB or 32GB

16GB or 32GB, just how much RAM do you need when 8GB isn’t enough? Sure, most users won’t need more than 8GB of RAM. But Web pages, applications and games use more RAM compared to just a few years ago. Windows 10 uses 2GB of RAM for instance. And how much RAM do you think you need for running games like League of Legends or Fortnite without stuttering? Once your laptop maxes out all available RAM, it turns to the hard drive, which is when you notice your system performing slowly. But no matter how fast your hard drive is, it’s still slower than RAM. Let’s explore what these different amounts of RAM can do for you.

16GB: Perfect for Most Enthusiasts

These are users like gamers and anyone utilizing memory intensive software. Most of the best laptops come with 16GB of RAM for good reason. Like we said, Windows takes up about 2GB of RAM and that’s before you open a single application. Graphics design work along with higher-end gaming typically require 16GB of RAM.

When you need more than the minimum 8GB requirement, 16GB is ideal. That’s plenty for work with high intensity programs and it allows for solid game play if you want to be a serious gamer. Most PC games use a fair amount of memory, ranging from 6.6 to 11.3GB. Even for games that only use the low-end amount of memory, it’s easy to see that 8GB is too close for comfort.

These days, 16GB strikes the perfect balance between price and capacity for most enthusiasts and gamers. With this amount of headroom, you’ll be able to game with up to 14 tabs open, using MS Word and streaming Twitch in the background.

So where does that leave us? Does 16GB hit the sweet spot? Or do you need 32GB? For most users the answer is going to be “No” to both questions. But while many users can easily get away with 8GB of RAM, you’ll prefer 16GB for playing modern games or doing demanding productivity work.

16GB of memory allows you to leave a task you’re working on up on your screen and move onto playing a game or doing extra work without eclipsing the 16GB mark. Thereby improving your user experience.

If the things you use your laptop for doesn’t come close to using up 16GB of RAM when fully loaded with activities, then all you may need is 16GB.

32GB: Stepping Up to More RAM

If you’re a creative professional, your needs are different. Rendering large files and other memory intensive tasks requires 32GB of RAM or more.

Moreover, while many game consoles don’t use anything close to 32GB of RAM. If you want absolute top performance with no stuttering issues or graphical performance hiccups. 32GB of memory is ideal. Not to mention the longevity that 32GB of RAM affords by helping you save money from not having to upgrade your laptop.

Editing huge video or photo files also requires up to 32GB, which you’d normally find in a desktop computer. It’s difficult to upgrade RAM on a laptop. So, if this is the kind of tasks you do, you’ll appreciate the extra headroom.  

Stepping up to 3GB of RAM yields quite a bit of freedom as far as leaving more applications and browser tabs open while you work. But on the flip side, you’ll be hard pressed to find any games that use up to 16GB of RAM, let alone 32GB.

If you’re a productivity user manipulating large files at once, however, you should definitely consider 32GB of RAM or more. If you see your system often edging toward a 16GB of memory usage, then you’ll want to make the jump to 32GB of RAM.

What If You Don’t Need All 32GB All the Time?

Outside of editing RAW photos, high-res video or similarly memory-intensive tasks, 32GB might be overkill. That said, the extra unused capacity affords you the opportunity to create a RAM disk for ultra-fast disk access, which can benefit some of the applications you use and some of the tasks you do.

What can you do with the extra capacity that 32GB affords if your daily activities don’t always come close to that ceiling? Some movie and photo editing tasks (especially in 4K+ resolution) benefit from the creation of a RAM disk. This takes some of the ultra-fast volatile RAM capacity and turns it into a drive. You can then use the drive as a scratch disk for your other projects. Advantage? It’s noticeably faster than working on those projects from a traditional drive, even if it’s the fastest PCIe SSD.

A RAM disk can cut project times down and make general performance like scrubbing through an unrendered video project smoother and more responsive.

So, How Much RAM Do You Need?

No matter your budget, every dollar counts. Buying a laptop with more RAM than you need doesn’t net you any more performance benefits, resulting in a waste of money.

To side-track a bit, memory often gets confused with the type of long-term storage offered by a MHD (mechanical hard drive) or an SSD (solid-state drive).

While RAM technically holds data like permanent storage, it serves a very different purpose which is one reason why instead of a large storage capacity. RAM has a comparatively small capacity, partly accounting for its much faster speed. As you open programs, RAM stores data that needs to be quickly accessed.

Different programs require different amounts of RAM, which is why the amount of RAM you need depends on the programs you use most often. But regardless of the application, it’s likely to use at least a little bit of RAM. And that adds up over time. If there’s not enough for your system, you’ll notice applications you’re using slow down severely.

And while it may seem counter-intuitive, too much RAM won’t impact performance whatsoever. For example, if your system has 32GB of RAM. But you only use 12GB, max. That’s too much RAM. You’ve gotta rock that smooth balance of choosing a RAM capacity that slightly exceeds your needs without completely jumping off the rails.

RAM Speed Versus Capacity

While you can’t increase speed performance with more RAM, the speed of RAM is a different story. Right now, DDR4 is the current standard. Each DDR generation has a different range of speed. DDR4 starts with DDR4-1600 and ends with DDR4-3200. The number at the end is the memory speed. The benefit of higher memory speeds is that you get more cycles per second, which simply means that the RAM can read and write data faster.

But it’s not as simple as buying a laptop with a higher number RAM speed. DDR4 memory modules are all rated to run at 2133MHz no matter what you’re using your laptop for. To access the extra juice, however, faster memory modules come with a profile on-board, called Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP).

XMP is easily activated through a laptop’s motherboard BIOS. This isn’t the same as overclocking memory mind you. It’s just activating the speed your memory is rated for – it’s free performance! If you choose between Intel and AMD memory modules, you’ll notice that there are speed differences there too.

RAM-Heavy Applications

Your operating system and web browsers typically consume the most amount of RAM. But some applications and games can use even more than everything else combined. You can tweak your OS to use less memory. But more RAM will allow you to open more browser tabs in your favorite Web browser.

Additionally, more complex websites use more RAM than others. For example, looking at a simple text-based news story on a news site like The Great Lake won’t use as much memory as reading an email message from Gmail. Or using an app on your laptop like Netflix to catch up on your favorite episodes.

It’s the same story with offline programs. A chat program or a game like Minesweeper uses almost no RAM, which is why we recommend $200 laptops for them. But a gigantic Excel spreadsheet, a huge Photoshop project or a graphics-intensive game like Wolfenstein uses gigabytes of RAM.

Professional applications are also huge RAM hogs. Specifically, video editing software like Adobe Premier and DAWs (digital audio workstations) like Pro Tools. Applications like Premier Pro Tools are memory hungry as well and can take full advantage of 32GB of RAM.

How Much RAM Do You Need for Gaming?

Circling back to the topic of gaming, considering the quality of modern AAA PC games like Red Dead Redemption 2, 16GB of RAM is not a bad place to start. Even though such games only require an 8GB minimum, 16GB is often recommended for optimal game play. All the few games will take advantage of 16GB of RAM. Plus, the extra capacity gives you some wiggle room to run other applications like Twitch in the background while you’re playing.

For the majority of gamers, 16GB is enough. But if you plan on streaming or running multiple applications while your games are running. 32GB will give you a bit more room. While you won’t notice any performance benefits between 16 and 32GB solely in games, you’ll want to prioritize the speed of the RAM in a laptop if you’re mostly interested in gaming.

A Low-Cost Alternative to More RAM

If your current laptop allows it, that is, if it has an ATX motherboard with two or more RAM slots available. You can grab yourself an additional, low-cost 8GB RAM stick (or sticks) to drop in alongside your existing system memory.

Keep in mind that a system with three sticks installed may not clock as high as a dual-DIMM setup. But if your applications can make use of the extra memory. Then having twice as much RAM at your disposal will be far more beneficial than only having half as much, which can cause your system to run slower.

Again, moving up to more RAM with the fastest setup possible doesn’t necessarily mean massive or even substantial performance gains. Unless you’re gaming with integrated graphics or using intense programs that can use the headroom.