When you’re shopping for a new laptop or desktop, you’re eventually going to have to figure out how much RAM to buy. The trouble is, it’s not easy to know how much RAM you might actually need, and computer makers are terrible at letting you know. Do you have to buy more RAM to get decent performance out of a computer, perhaps pushing the purchase price beyond your the limits of your budget, or can you get away with whatever is included in the base model? Let’s consider the data.
What RAM does
RAM, short for “random access memory,” is your computer’s short-term memory, as opposed to the long-term memory storage of a hard drive. As such, RAM empowers your computer to multi-task; it’s what allows you to keep multiple windows and apps open at once, and switch between them quickly and efficiently.
The more RAM your computer has, the more capacity it has to run these types of processes without slowing down. That’s not to say RAM is solely responsible for the overall speed of your computer, but it can help you feel like your computer is running well.
The key is figuring out how much RAM you need to enable your machine to do the particular things you need it to do. Memory is expensive, and, like most things in life, there’s no need to waste money on something you don’t need. Still, if you’re buying a device without upgradable RAM (like most Macs and many thin-and-light laptops), you need to consider not only how much RAM you need today, but how much you might need down the road.
Future-proofing versus overspending
In general, if you’re hoping to future-proof your device, it won’t hurt to buy as much RAM as you can comfortably afford. Lower amounts of RAM might suit you today, but as apps and programs become more demanding over time, your computer will start to show its limitations. Not springing for extra RAM up front could leave you antsy for an upgrade in only a few years.
So how much RAM are we talking? For most users doing using their laptops for common tasks — browsing the internet, making video calls, running programs like Excel — 8 GB of RAM will get the job done. You will be able to comfortably browse the web with multiple tabs open, manage your budgeting spreadsheets, and even play some games (although RAM is far from the only consideration when it comes to building a gaming rig).
Remember, though: While 8 GB might fine in 2022, what about 2024? In 2014, 4 GB was more than enough to work with, and was the amount of RAM offered on entry-level MacBooks. But as time goes on, RAM tends to start showing its age long before other computing issues begin to pop up. I have a friend with a 4GB MacBook Air that was perfectly usable, except for the fact that a few too many open Chrome tabs was all it took for it to freeze up, delivering an error stating the computer had literally run out of system memory.
Developers aren’t going to stop adding power and functionality to their apps, and while it would be amazing for them to create programs that are more RAM-efficient, that hasn’t exactly been the trend. As my friend’s poor machine knew all too well, Chrome is famously a memory hog already, and you can probably expect it to continue to take up more of your resources over time. When you’re trying to watch YouTube, such freezes are frustrating; when you rely on your computer for work, they can be a real problem.
So if you can afford it, 16 GB of RAM is not an unreasonable baseline for your 2022 machine. You might not take advantage of all that power right now, especially if you don’t use your computer for intensive tasks. But these are expensive machines that should last us longer than the upgrade cycle of a smartphone, and an extra $US200 ($278) for RAM today is much better than $US1,000+ ($1,388)+ on a new laptop three years from now.
If you can comfortably upgrade to 16 GB of RAM, you might wonder if you should actually go as high as 32 GB, if the option is available. The M1 MacBook Pro tops out at 16 GB, but the M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pros will certainly go higher, and 32 GB of RAM will ensure your laptop or computer will be comfortably running multiples tasks, apps, and windows for years to come.
The advice at any level is the same: Buy as much RAM as you can comfortably afford. After considering your processor, hard drive or SSD, and other computing needs, is there room left in the budget for the jump from 16 GB to 32 GB? For most of us, especially if we aren’t planning to use our computers for intense graphics work or intense gaming, there might not be. Don’t feel bad if your budget doesn’t allow you to make the jump, or if the device you’re eyeing doesn’t offer the possibility. An upgrade to 16 GB will keep things running smoothly for a good while.
Save money buying RAM from a third-party
The advice to buy as much RAM as you can afford is sound, but requires context. If the computer you’re buying does not allow for RAM upgrades past time time of purchase — like most every Mac, damn Apple’s controlling, minimalist aesthetic — then getting as much RAM as you can right away is a higher priority. However, machines that allow you to upgrade later afford you an opportunity to save money while also extending their lifespan.
Buying RAM from computer makers is expensive. Apple charges way too much for its RAM at the time of initial purchase because it can. You can’t upgrade down the line, so what else are you supposed to do? But computer part stores will sell you sticks of RAM for much less.
Self-installing extra RAM used to be common practice for those in the know, even when buying Apple computers. Now, only a handful for Macs still let you upgrade the RAM after the fact. If future-proofing on a budget is something that interests you, look into devices that allow you to upgrade your RAM.
But how much RAM do I need for gaming and graphics work?
The RAM question becomes a bit more complicated when discussing more powerful machines intended for tasks like gaming and graphics work. For high-quality video editing, 3D animation work, and other similar graphics tasks, you’re definitely going to want to upgrade your RAM significantly; 8 GB will not cut it here, and it’s possible 16 GB won’t either. For a task like 8K video editing, you’ll want at least 32 GB, if not 64 GB.
When you start asking more of your machine, there’s also more than standard RAM to worry about. For graphically-intense computing, VRAM (video RAM), the memory for your computer’s graphics processing unit (GPU) is also important. My own MacBook Pro has 16 GB of RAM and 2 GB of VRAM. While that combination is more than fine for standard video editing, if I needed the laptop to be more of a graphical workhorse, I would have upgraded to at least 32 GB of RAM and 4 GB of VRAM.
As for gaming, well, memory requirements vary from title to title, so your needs will also depend on the level of quality you’re looking to experience. 1080p gaming can absolutely get by on 16 GB of RAM (some games even run fine at 8 GB). But as with graphics work, the more intense the game’s graphical requirements, more the hardware you’ll want supporting it. 4K gaming will require a higher amount of RAM and VRAM, especially if you want to bump up all the settings. And then there’s the question of your graphics card, CPU, a solid state drive versus a hard drive, and more. All these parts are important, and it will take time and research to figure out the right balance for your rig.
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