Random Access Memory, usually shortened to “RAM” or simply “memory,” is one of the most important parts of any computing device. Modern PCs, tablets, and phones typically range from 2GB up to 32GB, though some have even more. More memory is usually better, but you do only need so much. It really depends on what type of device you’re using and, more importantly, what applications you plan to use on that device.
How much RAM do you need? It depends on your needs.
Although memory is an important consideration when buying a smartphone, this guide will focus on desktops and laptops running Windows, MacOS, or Chrome OS. We also have a section dedicated to tablets.
Overview: How much RAM is right?
In a nutshell, here are some simple guidelines that apply to most PC devices.
- 2GB: Mostly used in budget tablet designs. You’ll want more in a laptop or desktop.
- 4GB: Typically installed in budget notebooks. This is fine for basic Windows and Chrome OS usage.
- 8GB: Excellent for Windows and MacOS systems. It’s good for entry-level gaming, too.
- 16GB: This is the sweet spot for desktop users. It’s ideal for professional work and more demanding games.
- 32GB and more: For enthusiasts and purpose-built workstations only. Serious gamers, engineers, professional A/V editors, and similar types need to start here and go higher if needed.
Remember, buying more RAM than you need doesn’t net you any performance benefit — it’s effectively wasted money. Buy what you actually need, and spend the remaining budget on more important components like the CPU or graphics card.
An introduction to RAM
Memory capacity is often confused with the long-term storage offered by a solid-state or mechanical hard drive. Sometimes even manufacturers or retailers will mix up the terms.
A desk is a useful analogy to consider the difference between memory and storage. Think of RAM as the top of the desk. The bigger it is, the more papers you can neatly spread out and read at once. Hard drives are more like the drawers underneath the desk, capable of storing papers you’re currently not using.
The more RAM your system has, the more programs it can handle simultaneously. RAM isn’t the only determining factor — after all, you can technically open dozens of programs at once even with a very small amount of RAM. The problem is that doing so will severely slow your system down.
Think of the desk again. If your desk is too small, it becomes cluttered, and your work will slow as you try to find whatever paper you need at any particular moment. You’ll be forced to frequently dig into the drawers to store what won’t fit on top of the desk and retrieve the papers you need.
While it’s true that a computer with more RAM feels noticeably faster, it’s only up to a point. Having a big desk doesn’t help you if you’re just working with a few pieces of paper. The goal is to have enough RAM — or desk space — for all the applications you use in your life on that particular device.
System RAM shouldn’t be confused with the dedicated memory used by discrete graphic cards. High-end 3D games rely on video RAM, or VRAM, to temporarily store image data, like textures. Most current generation graphics cards use GDDR5, GDDR6, and HBM, or similar.
Meanwhile, system RAM is identified with DDR3 or DDR4, with the number identifying the generation. The newer term DDR5 indicates the latest RAM generation, although compatible devices may not appear in the wild for a while. You can stay up to date on what to expect with our guide to DDR5.
DDR6 is currently in development but not readily available.
If all of this sounds confusing, rest assured that most manufacturers are very good at identifying RAM clearly so consumers know what’s what.
The operating system and the web browser typically consume the most RAM, though some applications and games can use more than everything else combined. There’s not much you can do to make Windows or MacOS use less memory, but more RAM in your computer means that you can open more browser tabs in Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and so on.
In addition, more complex websites use more RAM than others. For example, a simple text news story is relatively light on memory, while something like Gmail or Netflix uses a lot more.
The same goes for offline programs too. A chat program or a game like Minesweeper will use almost no RAM, while a gigantic Excel spreadsheet, a huge Photoshop project, or a graphic-intensive game like Wolfenstein: Youngblood may use gigabytes by themselves.
Outside of games and general browsing, professional applications tend to hog the most RAM. In particular, video editing applications like Adobe Premiere and digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Pro Tools are memory hungry. We’ll get into specifics for tablets, laptops, and desktops below, but 16GB usually does the trick for a desktop application. If you’re using applications like Premiere or Pro Tools, though, it’s a good idea to upgrade to 32GB (similar applications can actually take advantage of all of that RAM).
How much RAM for tablets?
Tablets are not expected to deal with heavy-duty software tasks, so their RAM needs tend to be pretty low — similar to a lot of smartphones.
However, as multi-tab browsers and more complex software continue to make the transition, tablet needs are becoming more and more similar to laptop needs. Current spec options typically range from 2GB to 16GB of RAM, with other considerations like battery life and processor speed often being of greater consideration.
With something like the iPad, which touts 2GB of RAM, its design is more focused on its vibrant display and long battery life. Meanwhile, Apple’s latest 12.9-inch iPad Pro has 6GB of RAM to accommodate the 2-in-1 crowd. Devices like Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 has a default 16GB because it’s more laptop than tablet — even if its fancy hinge lets you convert it into a light and portable tablet.
Ultimately, this gives us a guideline for choosing tablet RAM:
- 2GB is OK for lightweight users.
- 4GB is a better fit in most tablet cases.
- 8GB if you plan to use a tablet as your primary PC.
Remember, tablets are generally complementary devices that reside between your smartphone and your PC. If you’re leaning more toward a laptop replacement, buy a tablet configuration with the RAM you’d need for any other desktop or laptop.
How much RAM for laptops?
Most laptops come with 8GB of RAM, with entry-level offerings sporting 4GB and top-tier machines packing 16GB — even up to 32GB for the most powerful gaming notebooks. As previously mentioned, tablet and laptop needs are converging, but most users feel comfortable running more complex programs on laptops, which means RAM has a more important role here.
For something like a Chromebook, which mostly relies on cloud-based apps and provides very little storage space, you won’t need much in the way of RAM. We recommend opting for 4GB of RAM when buying a Chromebook, especially since you can now use the Google Play Store to download Android apps directly on your machine.
For Windows and MacBooks, however, you should think about bumping that number up to a standard 8GB. Most of the best laptops come with 8GB for good reason. If you are doing a lot of graphic design work or are planning on dabbling in some higher-end gaming, you may want to consider increasing that to 16GB.
You’d only need to go past that if you perform certain tasks, like editing huge video or photo files — the kind of thing you’d normally do on a desktop. Most people don’t use a laptop for such tasks, but if you do, buying enough RAM is crucial. It’s more difficult to upgrade RAM in a laptop (or, in some recent models, impossible) compared to a desktop, so buying what you need at the start is paramount.
How much RAM for desktops?
In 2020, RAM is far more affordable than it’s ever been, making bountiful RAM a no brainer for current builds. Large and fast DDR4 kits that used to cost hundreds can now be had for as little as $50 for a 16GB kit. We list some of our top recommended kits that money can buy in a separate article.
People tend to keep their desktop computers around longer than tablets or laptops, so planning for the future is worthwhile. 16GB is a good place to start. While you may be able to get away with less, when you’re only saving $30 or so, it’s worth future proofing yourself with 16GB.
An upgrade to 32GB is a good idea for enthusiasts and the average workstation user. Serious workstation users may go further than 32GB but be prepared for higher costs if you want speed or fancy features like RGB lighting. Anything beyond that is the realm of extreme specialty rigs equipped to handle huge datasets, staggeringly large video files, or niche programs designed for researchers, corporations, or government.
Gamers could opt for 32GB if they so choose, but the benefit will be limited, even on high-end systems. Opt for speed over capacity unless you really need it.
RAM speed vs. capacity
While you won’t see any performance improvement by adding more RAM to your system if you already have what you need, the same cannot be said when it comes to RAM speed. Right now, DDR4 is the standard across desktops, laptops, and tablets. Each DDR generation has a range of speeds, with DDR4 starting with DDR4-1600 and ending with DDR4-3200. The number at the end notes the memory’s speed. The benefit of faster memory is simple: More cycles per second means the module can read and write data faster.
It’s not as simple as buying RAM sticks with a higher number, though. DDR4 memory modules are all rated to run at 2133MHz, and it doesn’t matter what modules you buy or what they’re rated for, they’ll run at 2133MHz out of the box. That presents a problem if you, say, bought memory rated for 3200MHz. The speed your RAM is rated for is just that: A rating. That means the manufacturer has verified that the modules work at that speed, but it doesn’t mean they run at that speed out of the box.
Enter Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP). Instead of shipping at a faster speed, faster memory modules come with a profile on-board, and you can easily activate the profile through your motherboard’s BIOS. To be clear, we’re not talking about overclocking your memory past the recommend speed (it’s possible, though the performance benefits aren’t always worth the effort). We’re just referring to activating the speed your memory is rated for. It’s free performance, so it’s worth taking.
You need to make sure that your motherboard actually supports the memory speed your modules are rated for and that it supports XMP (most modern motherboards do). As for the performance benefit of faster memory, it really depends. Different applications react differently to faster memory, and there even differences between Intel and AMD. However, if you bought faster RAM sticks or plan to buy them, you’ll want to enable the XMP profile in your BIOS to get the most out of your purchase.
Upgrading can be easy and inexpensive
While RAM isn’t all that expensive, remember it’s the easiest component to upgrade in a desktop PC — laptops too in many cases. Buying a generous amount is wise, but don’t go crazy. There’s not much reason for a gamer to exceed 32GB for now, and no reason to exceed 16GB if all you want to do is watch Netflix.
If your system does eventually become restricted by RAM, you can just add more. This is a good idea even if you don’t feel comfortable upgrading yourself, as the charge for installing RAM at your local PC store should hover around $40 to $60.