How Much Memory Do I Need on My Laptop?

How Much Memory Do I Need on My Laptop

How much memory do I need on my laptop? Our usual advice is to simply get as much as you can afford.  But that doesn’t take budget into account.  And when it comes right down to it, there’s no straight-forward answer.  The right amount of RAM for your laptop depends on what you plan to do, and how much you’re willing to spend.  We know it’s easy to get lost in all the jargon and numbers associated with system memory.  So, to help you out, we put together this informative guide to keep you from spending more than you need to on RAM.  By following these simple guidelines you’ll save money on your new laptop.

RAM-Random Access Memory Definition

Random Access Memory (RAM) is the hardware on a laptop that stores data before it’s processed by the CPU.   It consists of dynamic memory chips that can be written and rewritten with data very quickly.  This is also referred to as volatile memory meaning unlike the hard drive, it only holds onto information as long as the laptop is powered.  Once you turn the system off, your information is gone.

RAM is the kind of memory on a laptop that lets you work with data needed to run programs and open files.  Any time your laptop opens a file or loads a program, it does so in RAM.  Even the operating system uses RAM when it’s running.  When you want to run a program like Microsoft Word for instance, the OS pulls the data from long-term storage (the hard drive) to short-term storage (RAM) where it’s accessed quickly for smooth operation.

Storage is Not the Same as RAM

Let’s get on with some useful analogies.  Memory capacity isn’t the same thing as storage capacity.  Even manufacturers sometimes confuse these terms. 

RAM is like the top of a desk; the larger the surface area, the more papers you can spread across the surface to read at once. 

A storage/hard drive, like a solid-state drive (SSD), is like the drawers beneath the desk; it stores the papers you’re not reading at the moment.

You can open dozens of programs at once even with a small bit of RAM.  The problem is that you’ll notice your system begin to slow down after some time.  It’s like putting all the papers you need to read on a desk that’s too small.  It quickly becomes cluttered, thereby slowing your productivity as you go back to the drawers to find and store papers that can’t fit on the surface of the desk.

The best part of having more RAM is you can handle more programs simultaneously.  And your laptop will feel noticeably faster (but only up to a point).  Your goal is to get enough RAM for all the applications you use daily on the laptop you want to get. 

But there’s a catch:  A desk with a giant surface area won’t help your laptop’s performance if you only need to work with two pieces of paper a day.

vRAM is Also not the Same as RAM

Not to be confused with the kind of RAM we’re talking about.  High-end 3D games rely on video RAM.  Graphics memory RAM is a statistic associated with a computer graphics card.  It’s often expressed as GDDR5 and more recently GDDR6.  Whereas standard RAM is often expressed as being of a DDR3 or DDR4 variety on a spec sheet.  DDR4 is the newest and typically the one you want to get when it comes to system memory.

The Simple Guidelines

Said another way, buying more RAM than you need won’t get you any more performance.  So, to help you get just what you need from RAM that way you can spend the rest of your money on other important hardware (like the CPU and graphics card).  Here’s a simple guideline on different RAM capacities and their most common uses:

  2GB    Exclusive to budget designs like Chromebooks and Tablets.
  4GB    Considered entry-level memory, it’s enough to power Windows 10.
  8GB    This is what we recommend for most users.
  16GB    Ideal for professional work, 3D graphics, gaming and intense work.
  32GB and up    This is the tier reserved for Workstation grade laptops and enthusiasts.

 

RAM Requires a Certain Amount of Free Space to Function

Controlled by the OS, some space on the RAM chip is actively used (in-use memory)while the rest is allocated as standby memory for potential operations.  Once RAM has reached capacity, the OS will compensate with swap file, which uses the hard drive in the same way it does RAM. 

But there’s a catch.  This creates a bottleneck.  When a bottleneck happens, your laptop slows down.  Processes that typically take a fraction of a second take much longer to finish.  But why?

Simply, the hard drive isn’t designed to move as quickly as RAM.  It’s true that overall system performance is dependent on the quality of the CPU and graphics card.  But, the amount of RAM you have will directly affect how well you’re able to take advantage of what the CPU and graphics card have to offer.

So, How Much RAM Do I Need?

Depends on what you intend to do with your laptop.  To help you figure out how much RAM you need for your laptop, let’s look at some specific use cases and identify the basic memory demands.

Basic Web Browsing

These days, this is an activity that can be done on practically any computing device with an Internet connection.  Normal browsing behavior includes loading up on multiple browser tabs.  If you’re a heavy Web user, you can get by with a 4GB allotment of RAM.  If the number of tabs you open routinely stretches beyond 30 as you multitask with other programs open, anything less than 12GB of RAM will be a frustrating experience.

Multitasking/Productivity Work

This kind of work gets demanding as you open multiple files in multiple programs.  If you’ll be mostly using your laptop for productivity programs in the Microsoft Suite, you can get a lot done with just 4GB of memory.  To make the most of your multitasking with extremely large files, you won’t go wrong with 8GB.  But if you’re running multiple applications with a ton of tabs open, do yourself a favor and go with 16GB.

Media Consumption

After work, there’s nothing like winding down with an episode of the new Magnum P.I.  and streaming 80’s pop music.  But binging on cat videos in YouTube puts its own stress on RAM.  Fortunately, whether you’re streaming music on Pandora or movies on Netflix, memory usage is pretty much the same.  If you’ll primarily be using your laptop for entertainment, you won’t hate yourself for settling for a system with 4GB of RAM.

How Much RAM Do I Need for Gaming?

And when we’re not catching up with Thomas Magnum, there’s always gaming.  Gaming prowess often demands an impressive graphics card and CPU.  Low-end games like Minecraft and even Overwatch don’t require a dedicated graphics card, however.  4GB from pretty much any entry-level laptop with a discrete graphics card-on the other hand-will get you playing midrange games like Dragon Ball Fighter Z

Most new titles can get by with just 8GB of RAM.  But if you’re into hardcore AAA titles that make the most of current hardware, 16GB hits the sweet spot every time for titles like Forza Horizon 3.  But suppose you’re a professional gamer who likes to do things like pull up YouTube, chat with friends, and stream to Twitch while gaming?  You should probably opt for 32GB of memory.

You Need 12GB of RAM for Photo Editing

Most photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop CC are memory hogs and will put as much memory in standby as they can get.  If you work with up to 30 images at one time, we recommend 12GB of memory for smooth performance and better photo handling (but definitely no less than 8GB if you regularly work with photos).

Video Editing

The most important component for video editing or rendering is the graphics card.  You want one with a good clock frequency.  8GB is a bare minimum for video manipulation and that’s only if you’re okay with closing down other programs that might consume a lot of memory.  For editing 1080p and 4K projects, you’ll do well with 16GB with a few programs open in the background.  If you edit a lot of images with Photoshop, 32GB or more will let you edit 8K footage in 10bit with lots of RAM-hogging programs like After Effects and Cinema 4D open all at once.

How Much Memory Do I Need on My Laptop for College?

As college graduates we can tell you that a laptop is essential to your success at the University level.  4GB has long been the golden standard.  But today, mainstream computing is edging into the 8GB territory.

Still, different students have different needs depending on the degree program.  It’s useful for you to think about RAM as the amount of main memory that computer programs have available to use.  More RAM won’t make your laptop run faster.  But it will allow you to run more programs at the same time. 

Our recommendation is to get at least 8GB of RAM for college.  16GB is good for video editing.  But we think that it would be wise to future proof your laptop by purchasing as much RAM as you can afford to get you through all 4 years of college.  Why?  Because the further along you go in your studies the more memory you’ll need to run programs and apps as they get more complex.

BUT BE SMART.  You’re a college student, so you want to save money where you can (don’t buy a Mercedes when a Civic will do).  Check with your college IT department.  If you already know what you’re going to major in, check in with your department for the minimum system requirements.

SSD or MHD

A helpmate to your available RAM is the storage capacity.  Back in the day, most laptops came equipped with a mechanical hard disk drive (MHD).  Now, you can get a laptop with up to a 1TB MHD capacity.  But these things have their issues:

MHDs store information on a spinning disk.  A small metal arm with a read/write head stretches out over a round, rotating platter (like a record player) that spins at 5,400 rotations per minute (RPM) or 7,200 RPM.  This technology has been available since the 1950s and is inherently limited. 

Today, with laptops becoming thinner, solid-state drives (SSDs) are becoming the norm.  An SSD is a series of Flash memory chips that move data around inside the silicon.  If your laptop travels with you a lot, this is the hard drive you want to get.  As you can imagine, no moving parts means the information in your laptop stands a better chance of surviving as your laptop gets jostled around.

If you’re on a tight budget, MHDs provide more capacity for less money.  But, they’re noisy and mechanical parts means stuff will break making it much easier to lose important information. 

SSDs have no moving parts, making them way safer to store information on.  And, since these are flash chips, you don’t get the fragmentation you do with MHDs.  Also, if you have the need for speed, laptops with SSDs boot up within seconds, with fast performance while consuming less power.  And recently, you can get them with a 1TB storage capacity on higher end laptops.

How Much SSD Do I Need?

128GB is the smallest common SSD capacity and its great in a pinch.  But we recommend at least 256GB.  And if you do storage heavy work like playing games or work with a lot of media files, you’ll need at least 512GB.

Whatever you decide, keep in mind that an operating system like Windows 10 alone will take up 20GB of space not to mention all the other programs your laptop needs for you to get work done.  If your SSD is ever more than 75% full, performance begins to suffer.

Also, mainstream SSDs use the same SATA interface as mechanical hard drives, which has a bandwidth of about 550 megabytes per second, 4x that of MHDs.  But the PCIe-NVMe standard are 1.5 to 3x faster than the SATA equivelants and 4 to 5x faster on the high-end.

CAUTION: eMMC (Embedded MultiMedia Card) are sometimes touted as “solid state” or “Flash” storage.  Don’t be fooled.  They’re not the same as true SSD.  They’re made to be cheap and use similar components as an SD card or USB stick.  They can be found in cheap systems like Chromebooks and other budget laptops with a 32GB or 64GB capacity.

Final Thoughts

The biggest RAM hog on average on any laptop is the OS.  There’s not much you can do to make this program use less memory.  Also, other programs like the ones used by professionals and gamers tend to use more RAM depending on their complexity.  As you approach the limits of RAM, you’ll feel the impact on user experience up until you can’t do anything.  Which means that at long last, our advice remains steadfastly:  Get as much RAM as you can afford.  Because even if a particular program only calls for 2GB of RAM, you’ll need more to actually use it.