Around these parts, we encourage you to upgrade your existing computer rather than buy a new one. It’s easier on your wallet and helps reduce the amount of e-waste. But as is often the case, saving money can require a bit of knowledge.
You’ve narrowed down the source of your PC’s sluggishness to RAM, but what do you do about it? Should you increase the amount of RAM, or would you be better off with faster RAM? Unfortunately, that question isn’t as straightforward as it seems.
Why You Need RAM
You need to have enough RAM to meet your general requirements. However, if you’re not sure what RAM is, our quick guide to RAM is here to bring you up to speed.
In short, think of RAM as short-term memory that your computer processor uses to store files it needs to access quickly and often. Utilizing this space allows your machine to respond instantly rather than taking several seconds. This may not sound like much, but it’s often a wait of only a few seconds that makes a PC feel old and underpowered.
When your computer struggles to open the programs you wish to run, you probably need more RAM. That slowdown comes from your PC having to unload tasks from fast RAM onto your hard drive. This general storage area has plenty of space, but its speeds are much slower.
You may have low RAM if you’re using an older PC that came with enough memory several years ago but no longer meets the demands of today. You’re also likely to run out of RAM if you buy a cheaper laptop that doesn’t come with all that much. These devices tend to be fast initially, but as software changes and programs use more memory, there isn’t any room for future growth.
The Difference Between Capacity and Speed
We measure RAM capacity in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB). Terabytes (TB) are technically possible, but RAM stick of that capacity don’t exist yet. Increasing your RAM size reduces the likelihood of needing to use your hard drive for these temporary files. But once you have enough RAM to meet your needs, you reach a point where adding more may not be the best way to get the speed improvements you’re looking for. Instead, you may benefit more from buying RAM that’s faster than the RAM you already have, even if it’s the same amount.
There are a couple of metrics that determine your RAM’s speed. Frequency affects maximum bandwidth, which is how much data can travel to and from your memory stick at a time. Latency affects how quickly RAM can respond to a request.
Frequency is measured in megahertz (MHz), and you want a bigger number. For example, DDR4 RAM has frequencies between 1600MHz and 3600MHz, while the latest version of RAM, DDR5, has a frequency range between 3200MHz and 8400MHz. Whereas RAM latency appears as a series of numbers (such as 16-18-18), and you want these to be lower.
Once your capacity needs are met, increasing frequency and reducing latency may yield a more noticeable result than packing in more RAM. As for how much of a difference you will notice, well, that depends.
How Much (Or How Fast) RAM Do You Need?
The question of how much RAM you need, or how fast your RAM should be, changes as our computing demands evolve. Where just a few years ago, many guides stated that more than 16GB RAM was enough for most tasks, nowadays, more people than ever are switching to 32GB RAM, especially if you’re into gaming, video editing, programming, or otherwise.
However, we’re not suggesting that everyone go out and upgrade to 32GB RAM immediately. For most people—the vast majority—16GB RAM is still plenty enough, even if you’re gaming. And if you’re not bothered by gaming and just need a machine for word processing, email checking, and watching YouTube, you’ll get away with even less.
The difficulties arise if you want to run the latest games alongside several other programs, perhaps recording your gameplay, streaming to Twitch, chatting on Discord, and so on, increasing the demand on your machine. If that sounds like you, it could be that upgrading to 32GB is a good option, especially if you do run out of or nearly run out of memory frequently.
Another RAM speed limitation to consider is your motherboard. Your motherboard is another limiting factor in RAM speed. If you buy 3600MHz RAM, but your motherboard only supports 3200MHz, that is the speed it will be limited to.
Linking to your motherboard are the RAM generations. Upgrading from 3200MHz DDR4 RAM to 3600MHz DDR4 isn’t going to deliver a noticeable upgrade for most people, but upgrading from DDR4 RAM to DDR5 RAM will. Of course, you’ll have to upgrade your whole motherboard to make the change, but that upgrade will deliver noticeably fast performance on your machine.
Furthermore, a significant RAM upgrade will also deliver noticeable performance boosts. For example, if you’re using a computer with 4GB RAM that is constantly running out of memory and you upgrade to 16GB RAM, you will notice the difference.
When it comes to speed, it’s a similar story. Upgrading your RAM speed from 1300MHz to 3600MHz will make a noticeable difference.
How Should You Buy or Upgrade RAM?
Are you trying to upgrade your RAM or starting a new machine from scratch? Unfortunately, the first option comes with more limits.
For starters, is your RAM soldered? This is common in many thin and light laptops, and if that’s the case, you can’t upgrade the RAM. Sorry.
If not, how many RAM slots does your machine have? This will determine how much RAM you can use. DDR2 sticks max out at 8GB (though 2GB and 4GB are most common). DDR3 sticks can go up to 16GB. You need two DDR3 RAM sticks if you want 32GB RAM.
But if your machine can handle DDR4 RAM, the maximum single stick capacity is 64GB, while DDR5 RAM ramps that up to a whopping 512GB. Our guide to DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4 has more information if you’re not sure what type of RAM you have.
So when there’s only one RAM stick in a machine with enough slots for two, try adding a second stick rather than replacing your existing one. Dual-channel platforms can offer some benefits depending on the type of strain your computer is under.
Yet, if you’re starting from scratch and debating between one 8GB stick versus two 4GB sticks, go with the former. That leaves you the option to add a second stick to reach 16GB in the future, rather than having to replace the two you have. Moreover, the difference between one and two sticks isn’t so great that you’re likely to regret (or even notice) going with one.
If you want to upgrade your RAM, but all of your slots are already at their maximum capacity, then your only choice is to buy faster sticks.
Is RAM Capacity or RAM Speed More Important?
The amount of RAM you have is more important to a point. After that, you start experiencing diminishing returns. Going over 16GB isn’t really necessary yet unless you’re a more demanding user (though it is fast become the standard acceptable minimum!).
If that sounds like you, there isn’t a clear catch-all answer. In some instances, more RAM makes better sense. In other cases, you will see better results going with a higher frequency and less latency. You may also notice a difference depending on which operating system you run. Switching from one to another may be all the upgrade your computer needs.