When building or upgrading your PC/laptop how much RAM do you really need? A topic that changes with time and varies by opinion. I hope this article can clear up some confusion to help you understand how much you will need based on how things are now. (Yes I do plan on keeping this article up to date in the future).
-Article Last Updated July 7, 2017-
*Originally Posted March 6, 2016
(Please consider this update date as part of your consideration for the recommendations below)
I recently questioned how much RAM I need as I was considering maxing out the RAM in my PC, so I went online to search for recommendations. However I found most to be woefully out of date or woefully not thought through with ideas like “RAM is cheap, if you can afford it why not?”. So hopefully this article can help you truly assess what you need based on what you do or hope to do with your PC.
Before I list out the general guidelines below, I want to explain how I came to these amounts. These are pretty much all from personal experience; having used recent OS’s with some form of the following configurations as well as understanding others usages and working on a wide range of computational tasks myself and noting how much RAM my system was using. These are my opinions and recommendations so you can certainly disagree, but these are what I would recommend to my friends and family.
One thing to keep in mind that the amount of RAM you need is solely based on how much you use. However, akin to having extra place settings for group meals, you need to ensure your computer has enough RAM for the occasional high usage. So, if you are looking at buying a new machine or upgrading take a moment to assess how much RAM you use by using your task manager or system monitor. If it’s at 80% or higher, you should seriously consider increasing your capacity.
The only worth while RAM is used RAM. I found this out by recently upgrading to 32GB of RAM myself. Previously I had 16GB but due to purchasing “limited edition” sticks and a fear of discontinuation I upgraded to 32GB because I couldn’t upgrade to 24(the smaller 4GB sticks were gone). I have since used just shy over 16GB a single time, however I do see myself using nearly all of it for working with Virtual Machines. If it were not for this need(or want to work with VM’s where I run multiple at the same time) I certainly would not have needed to upgrade at all. It’s wasted money to have RAM that is never used. So review what you do on your computer, what you would like to do on it and what your current needs are. You will want to review the information below with this in mind.
Recommendations By Installed Amount
These recommendations assume you are running a 64-bit OS. It’s 2017 so unless you have a really old PC your hardware and OS should be 64-bit. If you only have a 32bit OS the max memory you can use is 4GB. You can check your OS version (64/32 bit) by following Microsoft’s support article here:
4GB – Obsolete
I know longer recommend anyone use 4GB of RAM. To ensure your PC is viable for the future you should have at least 8GB.
8GB – Standard/Moderate use (Maximum 64-bit Windows 7 Home Basic will recognize)
This is plenty to keep the majority of PC users happy. I would consider 8GB to be the standard for any user and new PC/laptop purchase. This gives you enough that you can browse the web, do a regular amount of multitasking and give you enough headroom for the curious or ambitious user (amateur photo/video editing and light gaming). Generally without stressing your system to the max, this amount will be enough that you won’t hit it’s ceiling as well as boost your performance. Having 8GB will let your system breath easier especially with the amount of preinstalled bloatware that may or may not be removable on your machine.
A big reason I would avoid even 6GB of RAM is that 8GB RAM is becoming the new recommended and even minimum requirement in PC games. So as many people may want to play some games on their PC, you can safely up your system to 8GB to ensure that current generation games are accessible in the years to come without a need to upgrade except for your graphics card(assuming a decent CPU is in your device). Additionally the extra headroom provides enough space for users to experiment with more advanced tasks and ensure that minimum RAM requirements are always met for whatever they want.
16GB – Gamer or Power User / Heavy or extensive use
(Maximum 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium will recognize)
This starts the level of diminishing returns as if you don’t stress your PC with demanding tasks such as AAA gaming or workstation style tasks you don’t need to have this amount of RAM as it wont do anything for you.
Dedicated gamers and power users should have 16GB of RAM though. Many of the newest PC games that are launching are now coming with 16GB as the recommended required amount so it won’t be long before the majority of games include this. No it’s not the minimum required, but if you are serious about your games, RAM is cheap enough that bumping up to this level is certainly worth it long term(assuming your PC is relatively new) and wont be a huge barrier to entry(unless you go with the newest most expensive standard).
Additionally if you are a power user having the extra RAM allows you to have a number of applications running without instance while working on multiple projects. 16 GB can let you play a game while your code compiles or may actually be what is required if you are say, compiling an OS on your machine or running a couple of virtual machines. Depending on your choice of software and projects, 16GB means your photo/video/audio editing can be done without fear of hitting your OS’s slower swap space. 16GB is also where Windows 7 Home Premium gives way. This means you need Pro installed to access anything greater although according to Microsoft’s documentation here the limitation has been removed for newer 64 bit OS’s. So be mindful of your OS limitations if you exit the 8GB space.
>16GB – Professional/Special use case (64-bit Windows 7 Pro or higher required)
Professionals and enthusiasts need only apply to this amount. This level of RAM is only useful for those with workloads that require it. Sure you can purchase this much, but if you aren’t rendering videos, stitching massive panoramas with hundreds of layers in Photoshop or running a virtual server farm it won’t do you any good. Before investing in this much RAM be sure you understand your needs before hand. There is no need to purchase this amount if you will never use it.
As I stated earlier I upgraded from 16 to 32GB and I have only exceeded 16GB RAM once while playing with a number of VM’s. So although I used more than I had previously, technically I could have changed my workflow by closing unused apps and VM’s to avoid exceeding the previous limit. On the flip side I do plan to dive further into complex tasks and plan to run essentially an entire virtual computer lab on my PC, so I know I will be using this in the future. I mention this just to illustrate that aside from these kinds of special work loads, you won’t need more than 16GB. Basically if you have to ask, you don’t need it. Those who need this much RAM understand why they do and how they will be using it. Modern day OS’s are not bloating like they did in the 90’s and 2000’s so buying more RAM doesn’t enhance your machine the way it used to.
Get what you use/need
It all boils down to this single idea. You only have to get what you actually use and need. Most users will only need 8GB of RAM with gamers and power users dipping into the 16GB territory. Anything else is special use cases or excess and you should have a clear idea of why you need it before making such a purchase to ensure a wise investment. I am sure technology will march on and eventually require these recommendations to change, however for now, these should keep you happy for the foreseeable future of the next few years if not longer.