With the price of upgrading system RAM extremely low these days, people are always asking me whether it's really worth it to upgrade beyond 4GB; today we'll answer that question for everybody.
More RAM Means Better Multi-Tasking
First, let's take a moment to clarify what exactly more RAM can (and can't) do for you. The biggest benefit of upgrading your PC's memory is better multi-tasking, especially for those of us using RAM-hogging applications like Photoshop, Outlook or Firefox 5 minutes after we've opened it. Having a lot of memory means that you can quickly switch back and forth between the different applications without Windows writing the process memory out to the pagefile. (The pagefile performs much the same purpose as RAM, but the data is stored on your much slower hard drive.)
To put it another way, your RAM generally does not make your PC faster, it just allows it to do more things at once. If your single application uses 200 MB of RAM, it won't matter if you've got 2 or 8GB of total system memory, but if you've got 10 windows open using 200 MB each, then you are probably going to benefit from an upgrade.
What Applications Actually Use 4GB+ of RAM?
It's true, very few applications are going to use large chunks of your system memory, but there are some applications that will benefit greatly from an upgrade—image editing applications like Photoshop, video/audio editing applications, or virtual machines like VirtualBox or VMware will use as much RAM as you can spare. On my desktop with 8GB of RAM, I'm able to run all of the above at the same time, without showing any signs of slowdown when switching from one application to another.
More RAM Will Not Make Single Tasks Faster
Other than the specific applications that hog your RAM, if you think bumping your RAM from 3GB to 8GB is going to increase the speed of a regular application-like a video game—you should think again. The only thing that additional RAM does is allow your computer to do more things at once, not actually make it faster. So if you normally have a few dozen windows open before you launch your video game, you'll see some speed improvement by upgrading, or you could just close a few apps.
How Do You Know When to Upgrade?
If you are running with 2GB or less RAM in your system, you could probably benefit from an upgrade unless you barely use your PC or run a single application at a time—it should be easy to open up Task Manager and check whether your memory usage is reaching the limit. If you consider yourself a power user, you'll want to consider upgrading your PC to 3 or 4GB of RAM. So what if you already have 3GB+ installed? Should you drop the cash for 6 or even 8GB of RAM?
To really analyse whether your PC is using the memory properly or paging to the disk, the best tool is the Resource Monitor included in Windows 7 or Vista—it gives you a quick view at exactly what resources are being used, and what they are being used for. The key thing to pay attention to is the Hard Faults/sec graph, which tells you how many times an application attempted to read memory that Windows was forced to push into the pagefile because of a lack of memory.
What About 32-bit vs 64-bit?
So you've upgraded your PC with 8GB of system RAM, only to find out that Windows doesn't see all of it. The reason is simple: 32-bit versions of Windows XP, 7, or Vista cannot use more than 4GB of system RAM—at least not without an ugly and unsupported hack. If you want to actually use all of that RAM that you installed, you'll need to install a 64-bit version of Windows.
The Bottom Line
Let's break it down into a couple of bullet points for easier digestion:
- If you are a regular user, just light browsing, IM, or YouTube, you are probably just fine with 2GB of RAM—but check Resource Monitor if you aren't sure.
- If you consider yourself a power user but don't use Photoshop or virtual machines, you should probably have 3-4GB of RAM installed.
- If you are a power user with virtual machines or your do heavy audio/video/image editing, you should consider upgrading with as much RAM as you can afford—just keep in mind that you'll need a 64-bit version of Windows to take advantage of it all.
Want some actual proof? The well-known PC building site Tom's Hardware ran a bunch of tests on machines with different RAM configurations, and ZDNet ran through a number of tests with the same conclusion—unsurprisingly, most people just don't need 8GB of RAM at this point. Still, we wouldn't call Lifehacker readers "most people", so be sure to examine your needs and upgrade appropriately.
What about you? Have you already upgraded your PC beyond 4GB, and has it helped your performance? Share your thoughts in the comments.