Processor Speed vs RAM: Which Piece of Hardware Significantly Improves Performance?

Processor Speed vs RAM

As you shop for a new laptop, you want a snappy experience for the lifetime of your device. A slow laptop can cost you in the time it takes for the system to boot up, load web pages and run programs. All of which has a significant impact on productivity. Keeping loading and booting times low is a primary concern for any user. While the amount of RAM is undoubtedly an important aspect of the overall performance of a laptop. It’s not the only solution for performance. But when it comes to the processor speed vs RAM debate, what should be your focus?

Processor vs RAM: The Big Difference

The quality of a processor is measured by how fast it’s able to launch programs. While the quality of RAM is measured in the number of programs it’s able to handle at once.

Also known as the CPU (Central Processing Unit), the processor carries out all the functions of your laptop by pulling instructions and data from permanent storage and moving it into the temporary storage, RAM.

But a fast processor won’t mean a hill of beans if the on-board RAM is a limiting factor. Conversely, if you have a sufficient amount of RAM but your processor is slow, you’ll also be challenged with performance issues.

Let’s take a closer look at each component to see the fundamental role they play in the performance of your laptop.

Processing Power

This critical piece of hardware provides the processing power a laptop needs to do work. The newer and more powerful the processor, the faster your laptop will be when it comes to cutting through tasks.

A more powerful CPU helps a laptop think and work faster. The CPU and RAM have a symbiotic relationship in that the power of the processor may be enough to optimize the power of the RAM that’s already in the system.

The power of the processor can also help you maximize your investment in any new RAM you add. Think of a more powerful processor as more hands available for the work you need to do.

How a CPU Works

The CPU is the hardware most responsible for executing instructions by fetching it from memory using its ALU to perform operations, then sorting the result to the system memory.

The faster the CPU can do this, the faster your laptop will be. That’s because it’s the job of the processor to move data from storage, like an SSD to RAM. But if the processor speed is slow, you won’t notice a difference in the performance of your laptop, regardless of how much RAM you add.

This piece of hardware is often referred to as the brains of any computer because its function within a computer system is wide in scope. As it relates to performance, the more cores and the faster the clock speed. The faster the processor will be.

NOTE: We recommend purchasing a laptop with the best and fastest CPU you can afford. It’s way easier to upgrade RAM than it is the CPU.

The Importance of RAM

Random Access Memory (or system memory) is a type of volatile storage where instructions are loaded by the CPU from the laptop’s permanent storage device. Once the instructions are moved, it’s then quickly queued in RAM for execution by the CPU through the fetch-execution cycle.

So, RAM is what a laptop uses to access data quickly. Another example of how RAM works is when you fire up your machine, the operating system gets loaded onto RAM. Similarly, the internet browser, documents, pictures and games all get loaded from your storage drive onto RAM by the CPU when you start them up.

In general, the more RAM your laptop has, the more data it can juggle at any given moment. Think of RAM as the surface area of a table. A large surface area makes work easier to manage than a small surface area.

But take it in perspective – while more RAM is generally better for performance. There are limits to the efficacy of additional RAM. The first is physical: a laptop’s motherboard can only hold a certain amount of RAM. The second limit is processing power: if the CPU power can’t take advantage of additional RAM, it doesn’t matter how much you add. 

Types of RAM

  • DRAM (Dynamic Random-Access Memory)
  • SRAM (Static Random-Access Memory)

The difference between the two lies primarily in the speed and how often they need to refresh. SRAM is faster because it doesn’t need to refresh quite as often as DRAM, which needs to refresh thousands of times per second.

DRAM has access times of about 60 nanoseconds. SRAM, only 10 nanoseconds. But the reason why you’ll find DRAM more often in laptops than SRAM is because the faster speed makes SRAM more expensive.

Equally as important to memory speed is whether the RAM is DDR2, DDR3 or DDR4. DDR4 is the latest generation of system memory and subsequently the fastest. Not only is speed the differentiator, theirs also a physical difference, which means a DDR3 RAM is not interchangeable with a DDR4 memory module.

More RAM or a Faster Processor?

As we said, the processor and system memory have a symbiotic relationship. So, making the right choice between a faster CPU and more RAM lies in how one compliments the other, rather than making an either-or choice. Another factor to keep in mind is the performance capabilities of the motherboard, storage drive and other components.

One way to get the best of both worlds is by pairing the latest Intel processor with Intel Optane memory. Optane is a smart memory technology that complements the standard RAM, while also enhancing long-term storage drive memory. The net effect is incredible system responsiveness when compared to simply adding more memory.

Conversely, 2GB of RAM with a top tier processor wouldn’t have the same performance as the same processor with 16GB of RAM. But if you have a decent amount of RAM (about 8GB these days) and your laptop is slow. You might consider upgrading the processor.

This is easier said than done since swapping a processor can affect so many different aspects of your laptop. You can check how much RAM you’re using in the Task Manager to see whether the CPU or RAM is really the problem.

If you find that you’re not using much RAM, then it’s time to upgrade the CPU (or maybe a better laptop). Adding more RAM may not solve your performance problem.