Updated May 2022
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Buying guide for best RAM

Whether you’re building a gaming PC or you’re just looking for an upgrade, your computer’s RAM plays a major factor in its speed.

RAM is the short-term memory of your computer that enables it to quickly respond to requests, and it comes in “sticks” that plug into ports in your computer. There’s no such thing as too much memory, but the latest options can be quite expensive. Ideally, your RAM should be more than capable of handling your everyday tasks so it serves you as well today as it will in four years. Memory-intensive tasks include 3D modeling, editing videos, or playing AAA video games, while word processing and browsing the internet are less taxing on your computer’s memory.

In addition to choosing the right capacity, you also need to consider what types of RAM your computer is compatible with as well as factors like transfer speed and RGB lighting.

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RAM is found on a range of devices, from smartphones to gaming consoles, but it’s only possible to upgrade the RAM of a desktop or laptop computer.

How to buy the best RAM

What is RAM?

RAM stands for “random access memory” and serves as the short-term memory of your computer. While your internal drive contains data like applications, documents, and your operating system, your RAM quickly accesses the data on your drive to respond to requests and stores data you may need in the short term.

Memory plays the biggest role in your computer’s speed, followed by your CPU, which does the “thinking” of your computer and is responsible for launching applications quickly. More RAM is generally better, but it can become expensive at higher capacities and may be more than you need.

Choosing the right RAM capacity

If you’ve never purchased RAM before, your options can be intimidating. However, by finding out what type of memory is compatible with your computer and how much memory you need for your day-to-day tasks, you’ll have a good idea of what to look for.

RAM traditionally comes in capacities of 2GB, 4GB, 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB. The larger the capacity, the more data your computer can handle at once.

For everyday tasks like web browsing, 4 to 8GB will get you by. However, at this capacity your computer may become sluggish when you have several browser tabs or applications open at once.

For gaming, digital illustration, and video editing, 16GB offers plenty of speed and multitasking capability. However, as programs become more demanding, you may need to upgrade after a few years.

For 3D modeling, rendering, and other professional tasks, consider 32GB to keep your computer running smoothly for years to come.

If you play a lot of video games or use video editing software, take note of whether your graphics processing unit is a discrete GPU (a separate unit) or integrated GPU. Discrete GPUs usually have their own dedicated memory, and as a result you don’t need as much RAM.

Form factor and compatibility

RAM sticks are not interchangeable. The motherboard of your computer has a specific type of slot for memory. Most computers have what are known as DIMM slots, which can vary in width and number of pins.

Most computers use double data rate RAM, which typically comes in the form of DDR4 RAM. Motherboards that accept DDR3 RAM are not compatible with DDR4 due to the pin arrangement. This letter-and-number combination indicates the generation of RAM.

Before you purchase a RAM stick for your computer, make note of what modules your computer is compatible with. If you have a laptop, RAM may be soldered in and therefore impossible to upgrade. In addition, operating systems have maximum memory limits.

Note that most Apple computers and laptops either have RAM soldered into the motherboard or are extremely challenging to replace.

In many cases, RAM plays a bigger role in speed and performance than CPU.

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What features do RAM sticks have?

Transfer speeds

How fast RAM can send data is measured in megatransfers. The number at the end of the name of a module indicates the number of megatransfers per second — a DDR4 3200 RAM stick would perform up to 3,200 megatransfers per second. While a higher transfer speed is better, you’re more likely to notice the difference in capacity.

RGB lighting

If you have a gaming PC with a transparent case, RGB lighting can illuminate your computer for a dazzling effect. Some models have customizable lighting to match your color scheme. Of course, if you have a traditional case with no transparent side, you should avoid paying extra for RGB lighting you’ll never see.

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DID YOU KNOW?
Some RAM modules can be overclocked, which pushes them to higher speeds for increased performance. However, this must be done carefully and may require additional software.
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How to install RAM

Fortunately, installing RAM (and removing your old module if necessary) is fairly straightforward.

Installing RAM in a desktop computer

First, make sure your computer is powered off and open the case. Unplug all cables from the computer and touch a metal surface inside the case to discharge any static. If you don’t already have an old RAM module in place, check the manual of your motherboard to see what slot to put it in.

Open the clips on both ends of the slot, remove the old stick if necessary, and insert the new stick into the slot. RAM sticks can only be inserted one way — look for the notch along the bottom edge and match it with the raised portion of the slot. Close the clips to secure the stick in place.

Finally, close your computer case and turn your computer back on.

Installing RAM in a laptop computer

Installing RAM in a laptop is quite similar to installing it in a desktop.

Follow the above steps, but when you insert the new stick, insert it into the slot pins-first at an angle, then press the whole module into place. Close the back panel and power your laptop back on.

How much does RAM cost?

Inexpensive

RAM sticks vary significantly in price, usually in proportion to their capacity. For $25 to $50, you can expect to find a selection of 8GB sticks, which may come as two 4GB sticks. This is an affordable option for those looking to boost the speed of an older computer that has become sluggish.

Mid-range

Memory sticks for $50 to $100 usually have 16GB capacities and may have RGB lights and flashy designs, making them well-suited to gaming PCs.

Expensive

For $100 to $200 are RAM sticks with 32GB capacities and stylish designs for high-end gaming PCs. For those who rely heavily on their computers for complex tasks, this investment is often worthwhile.

Data that RAM holds is only stored temporarily, while the storage of your computer generally holds data until you delete it.

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Tips

  • Don’t mix brands when installing multiple sticks. Doing so can lead to crashes and can even damage your RAM or motherboard.
  • If you have two RAM slots, your total memory is the combined capacity of both sticks. This means there’s essentially no difference between two 16GB sticks and one 32GB stick.
  • Expect your operating system to use memory while idle. Most Windows operating systems will use up between 1 and 3GB of RAM to run.
  • Use Task Manager to see how much memory is being consumed by the processes your computer is running. You can gauge whether you need to upgrade your RAM by opening an application or two you would usually use, then opening Task Manager (on Windows) to see how much memory is available. In general, if 75% of your memory is being used, upgrading is a good idea.
  • Avoid a bottleneck by checking the balance of your components. If either your CPU or GPU aren’t able to keep up, you may not get much extra speed out of a new RAM stick. Low RAM can also cause a bottleneck, in which case an upgrade can make a significant difference.
  • If your computer is running slowly, restarting can refresh RAM. This clears any stored data and ends processes that may have been causing the slowdown.
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Especially when it comes to gaming, memory needs are increasing over time as software becomes more resource-intensive.

FAQ

Q. Will upgrading RAM increase the power needs of my computer?

A. It generally will, but the difference in wattage is usually minimal. The biggest factor in power usage is the number of modules — adding a second stick in an available port will increase power usage by a noticeable amount.

Q. How do I find out how much RAM my computer has?

A. On an Apple computer, click the “Apple” icon from the top menu and select “About this Mac.” Next to “Memory,” you should see the capacity and type of RAM you have. On a Windows 10 computer, go to “About your PC” from the Start menu. Click on “Device specifications,” and you should see information about your RAM.

Q. What do I do with my old RAM modules?

A. To prevent e-waste by throwing old computer parts in the trash, you should either sell your RAM if it’s not too old or recycle it at an electronics recycling center.

 

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