RAM: How Much Do We Really Need?

How Much Do We Really Need

In the last twenty years, things have changed so much in RAM and computing that once cutting-edge technical specifications like Fast Page Mode RAM, EDO RAM and SDRAM are now history. Things are now much easier with the existing DDR2, DDR3 and DDR4 systems, and this has more to do with long-term memory, pricing trends and future compatibility along with fundamental performance over other systems.

Despite that, the persistent question ‘How much RAM do I need?’ remains and, to be honest, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But, essentially, to understand the exact amount of RAM you’d need, you need to start with the basic elements of the question, i.e. RAM.

So, what exactly is it?

RAM consists of dynamic memory chips which can be written and rewritten with data almost instantly (thanks to the ‘Random’ part in Random Access Memory). Now, unlike the hard drive in your system that stores data forever, RAM loses all stored data when it is powered down. Being able to pull up data from long-term storage on your hard drive to short-term storage in RAM lets you work seamlessly with programs you want to use. Now the question remains, how much RAM do you actually need to make memory access quick enough for smooth operation?

This flow of data between the disk and the RAM is controlled by the computer, and this process requires some amount of free space to operate smoothly. Be it for multi-tasking or gaming, you always need plenty of space for in-use memory, as well as standby memory and also keep some space reserved for potential operations. You need to keep a lot of plates spinning at once and it uses a lot of processing power. What happens when this limit is touched or breached?

As you reach the limit of RAM that you can hold, your computer will compensate with a file swap and put some of the data onto your storage drive. It will try to use this swap file in the same way it does RAM, constantly reading and writing data during operation. But since the memory in your storage drives isn’t designed to move data rapidly as that of the DRAM, the operation would be done much slower. This is where RAM is crucial in ensuring smooth operation of your system. Yes, there are several other factors like graphics capabilities and processor calibrations that largely influence system performance, but with a slower RAM a bottleneck will occur that jams your system and ultimately lead to poorer performance.

Now that you know what RAM is and how crucial it is to system health, we return to the question: how much RAM do you need? You need to be reasonable about the purpose of your RAM itself. Here are some identification of basic memory requirements that you may have with RAM:

  1. Creating office files
  2. Web browsing
  3. Movie streaming
  4. Photo editing
  5. Gaming

All of the above are common uses for RAM, all of which have different hardware requirements and memory demands. I have broken each section down to help you make the most of your RAM.

Creating Office Documents:

People often think that creating and editing documents is a low-resource task for your system, but they often miss that this can become very demanding when you have to open, create and store multiple files in multiple programs. According to a test that included Microsoft’s Office Suite, it was observed that large files across multiple programs will greatly stress your memory.

For smaller files like Word, Excel, PDF and PowerPoint presentations, the memory used was 5GB with around 7GB in use on standby. But, when the number of documents were multiplied to 1000+ pages, with multiple sheets, the memory used was in the range of 3,900MB, while standby memory reached 10GB.

Takeaway: If you’re looking to do a bit of lightweight work on Office, 4GB of memory will manage things easily, and most low end PCs come with double that these days. But, if you want to handle a more professional workload that requires multitasking with large files, making sure you have at least 8GB might be an order.

Going Places on the Web:

There are certain browsers that are known memory hogs. While basic web browsing can be done with pretty much any operating system that’s connected to the web, it’s when you’re using multiple browser tabs that you use most of your memory. For Google’s Chrome browser, the initial 10-tab test (a list of the 10 most popular websites were opened and new tabs of the same websites were opened in batches of 10), the memory consumed was more than 3,333MB with 3,963MB in standby.

Takeaway: These days, 8GB or more of memory on PCs is standard even for low end. You’ll use a large portion of that for web browsing, but even with multiple browsers and a lot of tabs, you’ll rarely need more than 8 to avoid hitting page files.

Movie Streaming

Thanks to the trend of movie binging and music streaming every day, it puts more stress on your device’s memory. If you look at both audio and video streaming, from cute little baby videos to high definition movies, here’s the overall memory report. While regular browsing, multiple audio streams, multiple videos, didn’t change the scenarios much from the regular browsing; it is the Spotify or YouTube that uses less than 3GB of memory (2,747MB and 2,532MB, respectively). Now if you add Netflix or Hulu to the simultaneous stream, it will subject your 4GB of memory to some serious tug of war.

Takeaway: As said before, it all depends on the primary purpose of your device. If you’re using it primarily for media streaming, a basic 8GB should do the trick! Video streaming is more reliant on CPU and GPU capabilities. Certain streaming services even require newer architectures that support newer DRM standards to do higher resolution streaming, and any device capable of streaming in 4k will likely already have enough memory. Most cases of 1080p streaming can even be done with 4GB still, but web browsing and other stuff alongside streaming may make that too tight.

Photo and Video Editing:

RAM Required for graphics Designer

Photo and video editing involves manipulating heavyweight files and usually requires specialist software. While initial testing showed no real impact on memory usage from actual usage, cropped photos that performed complex edits with multiple layers had some major slowdown. As a general rule, Photoshop can use a lot of memory and puts a lot of memory in standby. With more than 2.5GB of RAM usage in Windows, 3GB on Mac, it used 5GB to just opening the program and leave it running. Just opening 10 photos can require upto 6.5MB of your memory and the subsequent sets of in-use memory ranges from 5,049MB to 6,511MB. 

Takeaway: The bottom line for Photoshop CC usage is 2.5GB, but we would recommend a minimum of 8GB of memory to regularly edit photos. If you work with a lot of layers of manipulations (masking layers especially) you’ll want to move to 16GB. 8 will still work fine, but you may experience slowdowns when you get a deavy document. 16GB will also allow you to increase your edit history smoothly.

For video editing and rendering, you should have at least 16GB. Above that may or may not be useful, depending on what version of what editor you are using. It’s best to research your specific use case there.

Heavyweight Gaming:

Gaming laptops have impressive graphics and processing hardware. Surprisingly, this doesn’t come with very heavy memory requirements. Most games will run just fine at 8GB (or less) of memory. The speed of the memory, until recently, had little impact. That may come as a surprise to some, who remember the old days of memory speed and timings being of utmost importance, but with most modern games, you wouldn’t even notice a difference running in single channel (half effective speed).

This changes with a few factors, though. First would be if you’re running a lower end or mid range system with an on die GPU as the primary GPU- either AMD APUs or Intel iGPUs. These use system memory as video memory. This means the speed of your system memory is effectively the speed of the video memory in such a system, and make a drastic difference in frame rate.

For higher-end systems with dedicated GPUs, it’s mostly not a concern, however with some newer technologies like AMD’s ‘infinity fabric’ in Ryzen CPUs which facilitates communication between CPU dies, you may want to consider faster memory.

Takeaway: If you’re a multi-tasker and like to watch YouTube or use other relevant services, 8GB of RAM may fall short, but 16GB RAM is the best option for such an occasion.

The Bottom Line:

Now that you’ve learned things, it’s time you take control of your system memory to give yourself a more positive user experience. It’s easy to get new PC components and gain more RAM at an affordable price, if you’re not running a system with soldered memory. Mobile users can opt for light usage with 8GB of RAM and is adequate for the majority of people—but if you’re a gamer, or a photo editing professional, you should go with 16GB on a mid range system. When you upgrade, make sure to keep the dual or quad channel nature of your system in mind, mixing a couple of random sticks may leave you at half or quarter speed.

That’s it for talking about RAM.