How to Choose RAM: Things to Consider

Firstly, what is RAM?

RAM is short for “random access memory” , which is one of the most fundamental elements of computing. RAM is the super-fast and temporary data storage space that a computer needs to access right now or in the next few moments.

Computers are always loading things in to work on — such as applications and data — and then setting them aside for later. RAM is your computer’s short-term memory. In contrast, a computer’s hard disk or SDD is its long-term memory, where things are stored more or less permanently.

In short, RAM allows you to access multiple programs at once with speed and efficiency.

There are other RAM specifications to note as well:

  • Capacity – The capacity of the memory stick can be vividly compared to the load capacity of a car. The larger the capacity, the more goods (the data to be carried) that the car can carry.
  • Speed (MHz) –Unless you are benchmarking performance you probably will not notice the difference between an 1866 MHz memory module and one that is 1333 MHz. Speed considerations are more important for server workstations that handle larger computing loads.
  • Timings (Latency) – Timing or latency of RAM is represented as four numerals separated by dashes. Typically, lower numbers mean better performance.
  • Multi-Channel Kits – If your motherboard supports multi-channel memory, a matching kit optimizes performance. To accommodate this, RAM can be shopped on the basis of system-specific memory.

In this article, we’ll cover how to choose RAM for your computer. We’ve highlighted four different factors that you should consider when picking memory for your system.

  1. How Much RAM Do You Really Need?
  2. RAM Compatibility Issues to Be Aware Of
  3. RAM Speed/ Frequency
  4. RAM is EASY to Upgrade

How Much RAM Do You Really Need?

The quick answer to this question is: most users will likely need 8GB-16GB of RAM.

But, the real answer is: it depends on what kind of system you’re building.

But how much do you really need and for what? Here are our recommendations, which apply to any operating system or personal computer hardware:

  • 4 GB of RAM: If you’re only browsing the web, working with basic Office applications and maybe dabbling a bit in personal photo editing, you’ll be fine with 4 GB of memory.
  • 8 GB of RAM: Heavy multitaskers or light gamers should choose a computer with 8 GB of RAM.
  • 16+ GB of RAM: Some tasks are inherently computing intensive, such as serious gaming, video editing, and programming. “Enthusiast” users who never want to experience slowdowns will need 16+ GB of RAM to be happy.

Are you building a high-end workstation PC for video editing/graphics design, etc.? Going with at least 16GB (or more, depending on your budget) would be a wise decision.

Are you building a budget-friendly gaming computer? 8GB is a good start for now.

Yes, there are games that are starting to utilize more than 8GB of RAM, but for the most part, 8GB will still get the job done.

RAM Compatibility need to Be Aware Of

Not all RAM is compatible with every system. Here is a list of things to look for when considering a memory kit’s compatibility with your other components:

  • DDR Generation
  • Motherboard DIMM Slots
  • CPU Heatsink Clearance
  • Form Factor

DDR generation is important because older generation DDR memory will not work with motherboards that are built to support newer generation DDR memory and vice versa. You can’t put DDR3 memory in a motherboard that has DDR4 DIMM slots and you can’t put DDR4 memory in a motherboard that has DDR3 DIMM slots.

Speaking of motherboard DIMM slots, it’s also important that you note how many slots your motherboard has. Some smaller form-factor motherboards (micro-ATX and mini-ITX) only come with two DIMM slots. So, obviously, you can’t put a 4x4GB kit of memory in them. You can only have a maximum of two sticks of RAM in that instance. So, make sure you’re not buying more memory sticks than your motherboard can hold.

RAM form-factor is another important thing to consider. There are really only two main RAM form factors:

  1. DIMM: desktop form factor
  2. SO-DIMM: laptop form factor

All you really need to know here is that if you are building a new desktop PC, or upgrading an existing one, you’ll want to make sure you get DIMM form-factor RAM and not SO-DIMM RAM, as desktop motherboards are not compatible with SO-DIMM memory.

RAM Speed

There’s really just two components that determine the performance of a given memory kit: frequency and latency.

RAM frequency is similar to a CPUs frequency. The faster a memory kit’s frequency is, the faster the memory can process data.

Latency, on the other hand, is the time between when a system command is entered and when it is executed. The lower the latency, the faster the memory can move onto the next process.

Latency and frequency are linked together when determining the overall performance of a given kit of memory, but they are not the same thing.

In general, RAM with higher frequencies will play a bigger role in boosting system performance than will a kit with a lower frequency and a lower latency.

However, it’s also important to note that simply buying the fastest kit of memory on the market will not result in an increase in in-game performance. There is a point of diminishing returns where the faster the memory is, the less of a performance boost it will offer in comparison to a lower frequency.

RAM is EASY to Upgrade

Matching your RAM to the quality of your build is also important. You don’t want to put 16GB of RAM in a $500 gaming PC build, as the extra cost of going from 8GB to 16GB is going to mean that you have to downgrade on the components that will have a bigger impact on your in-game performance (like your graphics card and processor).

And, it’s important to remember that RAM is by far the easiest component in your system to upgrade. Because RAM is so easy to upgrade, if you’re working with a tight budget, it makes sense to not go overboard on the amount of memory when choosing components for your system.

Why might you consider a RAM upgrade?

Making a RAM upgrade is a question of performance. If you notice that performance is slower than you would like it to be during a specific time, the Task Manager in Windows is a good way to check whether you are overtaxing your available RAM.

Open the Task Manager in Windows 7 or Windows 8 by pressing ALT + CTL + DEL. Click the Performance tab. The box called Physical Memory (MB) gauges your RAM usage.


A good rule of thumb is that if the Available Memory is less than 25 percent of your Total Memory, a RAM upgrade will provide a tangible performance boost for the end user.

Watch your RAM performance especially when you open a new application. If this occurs slower than you would like, and you notice that usage spikes closer to 100 percent of capacity, then a RAM upgrade might serve you well.

Finding the right RAM upgrade for your system.

First, note that laptop memory and desktop memory are different and not interchangeable! Let this be the first step in selecting the right RAM for your specific computer.

The two components that most affect the type of RAM you should select are your motherboard and your operating system.

The operating system you are running can affect the maximum amount of RAM you can use in your computer. The maximum RAM limit for 32-bit Windows 7 edition is 4 GB. Here are the limits for other Windows 7 editions:

  • Windows 7 Home Basic: 8 GB
  • Windows 7 Home Premium: 16 GB
  • Windows 7 Professional: 192 GB
  • Enterprise: 192 GB
  • Ultimate: 192 GB

For Windows 8.1 32-bit, the limit is 4 GB of RAM. For the other Windows 8 editions:

Your computer’s motherboard will also determine RAM capacity, as it has a limited number of dual in-line memory module slots (DIMM slots) which is where you plug in the RAM. Consult your computer or motherboard manual to find this information.

Additionally, the motherboard determines what kind of RAM you should pick. The most common varieties for desktop PCs include:

  • DDR2 SDRAM (double data rate synchronous dynamic random-access memory) – Commonly found in computers made after 2003.
  • DDR3 SDRAM (double data rate type three synchronous dynamic random-access memory) – Found in computers made after 2007.
  • DDR4 SDRAM (double data rate fourth generation synchronous dynamic random-access memory) – The newest generation of RAM that is found in the latest PC builds.

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