RAM explained

So often, customers complain that they need more RAM. Granted this is often true, but usually it’s an easy thing to blame for poor PC performance.

Frustratingly, it is also the first thing a lot of places will sell you – it’s relatively cheap, it’s easy to install, and you’ll see some improvement fairly quickly. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s a waste of money and you have deeper needs than a little bit of RAM.

So what is this stuff anyway? Glad you asked.

RAM is an acronym for Random Access Memory, and it refers to memory in your computer that works a certain way. Picture a car mechanics shop with all of the tools in nice red toolboxes along the walls. The mechanic knows what he’s going to do, grabs a half a dozen particular tools from his red toolboxes, and slides under the car. Beside him on the floor is that small collection of tools.

Those tools are in his equivalent of a computers RAM, he’s predicted what he might need next and put it close by where it’s quick to access.

Imagine he needs a spanner. It takes two seconds to reach over to those few bits on the floor and then he’s back to it in no time. But what if he didn’t bring the spanner and put it on the floor? He’d slide out, go over to the toolbox, look for the right drawer, get the right tool, go back to the car, get on the floor, you see the point…

So two types of storage just happened there – persistent and volatile. Persistent storage (the red toolboxes) is your hard drive, everything that has to stay there until you deliberately delete it gets stored there in an organised fashion, and is manually retrieved on request.

Volatile storage (the few on the floor) is your RAM, it’s a much smaller area where important things are kept close to the work at hand. When something is not important any more it gets sent back to the persistent storage. When something new is expected to become important shortly, it is retrieved from persistent storage and put close to the work.

Now, let’s imagine that the mechanic has a hankie in his pocket, which is what he puts under the tools on the floor under the car. On the small hankie he can only fit two spanners. Two spanners might be all he needs if he’s fixing a bicycle.

In comes a truck with a big complicated diesel engine. The mechanic knows he is going to need a lot of tools, but he can still only fit a two spanners on the hankie. The solution to this problem is obvious – get a bigger rag to put the tools on. Now he can fit five tools, and doesn’t ever need to get out from under the truck. If he didn’t get a bigger rag (more RAM) then he would need to get out and go over to the toolbox a few times while he does the job.

So now you’ll hopefully understand how RAM can help the work get done more efficiently, and see the difference between the long-term persistent storage and short-term volatile storage (hint: it’s called volatile because what is there changes constantly, but the persistent storage doesn’t change just to do a job). You’ve probably also noticed that we know nothing about cars – sorry about that, we’re an IT company…

But all of that doesn’t address the original point, do you need more RAM in your PC?

The answer to that question is unique to your needs, really, but think about it this way – are you trying to work on a bicycle or a diesel engine? If it’s just at home and it’s not a complex 3D game, the answer is “it’s a bicycle”. Certain applications will make more use of RAM than others, and some need more than others, but very little at home will make it work too hard.

So there is no hard and fast rule. For your basic home computer, we would recommend a minimum of 2GB. If you’re running some older games that make good use of graphics, perhaps 3GB.

If you’re looking for modern, immersive gaming or high resolution graphic design and editing, bigger is usually better. Most gaming rigs in the last two years are built with an absolute bare minimum of 4GB, more commonly 8GB, sometimes 16GB. The reason 3D gaming uses so much is due to the sheer size of the actual graphics and textures. Twenty years ago game graphics were far less evolved, the picture of a tree could be as simple as “a brown rectangle with a green circle on the top”. Today gamers demand far more detail, trees often have individually drawn leaves. Grass isn’t just a green blob on the floor, it’s individual blades that sometimes even waft in the breeze. Try drawing a tree with just the rectangle and circle, it’s two seconds. Try drawing it with individual leaves and it will take you a few hours. To bottom line it here, more RAM is better to a point.

Super high end desktops will sometimes even have as much as 32GB of RAM. These machines are usually built for very intense work or multi-tasking with lots of applications.

But for all of that, why isn’t bigger always better?

Lets go back to our mechanic for a moment. He has a whole blanket for his immediate tools, like having 16GB of RAM. He’s working on a bicycle, and needs one shifting spanner and one pair of pliers. That’s it. Two tools. He could use all of the blanket and put out every individual spanner from the toolbox, and every socket wrench, every sized hammer, but at the end of the day he has put it all back again, and didn’t get any benefit at all from having them all out. In fact, he’s wasting time getting them out and putting them back! Maybe if the job was a little bigger and he had a second mechanic to help…

At the end of the day, maybe you do need more RAM or maybe you don’t. We recommend having 4GB generally on a modern machine unless you have a really good reason for more. Of course, things like tiny little tablets or netbooks don’t need as much, and with their super-lite purpose only 1GB or 2GB is usually plenty.

As a guide, this table is the usual theory;

Use Recommended RAM
Netbook / Homework / Facebook 1GB
Office use / Simple Games 2GB to 4GB
3D Gaming / Casual Photoshopping 4GB to 8GB
CAD / 3D Modelling / System Development 8GB+