When building or upgrading your PC/laptop how much RAM do you really need? A topic that changes with time and varies by opinion. I hope this article can clear up some confusion to help you understand how much you will need based on how things are now. (Yes I do plan on keeping this article up to date in the future).
-Article Last Updated January 2020-
*Originally Posted March 6, 2016
Before I list out the general guidelines below, I want to explain how I came to these amounts. These are pretty much all from personal experience; having used recent OS’s with some form of the following configurations as well as understanding others usages and working on a wide range of computational tasks myself and noting how much RAM my system was using. These are my opinions and recommendations so you can certainly disagree, but these are what I would recommend to my friends and family.
One thing to keep in mind that the amount of RAM you need is solely based on how much you use. However, akin to having extra place settings for group meals, you need to ensure your computer has enough RAM for the occasional high usage. So, if you are looking at buying a new machine or upgrading, take a moment to assess how much RAM you use by using your task manager or system monitor. If it’s at 80% or higher, you should seriously consider increasing your capacity.
The only worth while RAM is used RAM. It’s wasted money to have RAM that is never used. So review what you do on your computer, what you would like to do on it and what your current needs are. You will want to review the information below with this in mind.
Recommendations By Installed Amount
These recommendations assume you are running a 64-bit OS. It’s 2020 so unless you have a really old PC your hardware and OS should be 64-bit. If you only have a 32bit OS the max memory you can use is 4GB. You can check your OS version (64/32 bit) by following Microsoft’s support article here:
4GB – Obsolete
I no longer recommend anyone use 4GB of RAM. To ensure your PC is viable for the future you should have at least 8GB.
8GB – Bare Minimum
This is the new minimum. Perfect for light to moderate use, it’s enough to give you machine some breathing room that you can open apps without having to close out others to keep things running smoothly. This gives you enough that you can browse the web and do some light multitasking. You can also do light photo editing and basic games (think Minecraft and Candy crush, not modern GTA and Call of Duty)
12GB – Standard
Want to do some photo or video editing? How about play some moderately complex 3D games? 12GB is just enough to let more advanced users do more things. It should also keep your machine snappy for a few years. I would suggest this amount to most folks buying a new machine if they do anything more than use a web browser but don’t check the boxes for 16GB. However 16GB isn’t that much different so if cost is similar it’s fine to opt for more.
16GB – Standard+/Gaming/Content Creation
What difference does 4GB make? Not as much for a moderate user as someone who plays games, creates video, or complex images. Editing video or large photos with many layers requires a lot of RAM. 12 may get you by but 16 is better. The same goes for gaming as well.
>16GB – Professional/4K+ Video Production/Special Use Case
Professionals and enthusiasts need only apply to this amount. This level of RAM is only useful for those with workloads that require it. Sure you can purchase this much, but if you aren’t rendering videos, stitching massive panoramas with hundreds of layers in Photoshop or running a virtual server farm it won’t do you any good. Before investing in this much RAM be sure you understand your needs before hand. There is no need to purchase this amount if you will never use it.
Unsure if you need more RAM? Basically if you have to ask, you don’t need it. Those who need this much RAM understand why they do and how they will be using it. Modern day OS’s are not bloating like they did in the 90’s and 2000’s so buying more RAM doesn’t enhance your machine the way it used to.
Get what you use/need
It all boils down to this single idea. You only have to get what you actually use and need. The gap between recommendations is shrinking. With 12/16GB being almost interchangeable (although if you do more complex tasks 16GB is a must). If you only browse the web and check email, 8GB is fine. If you play a few games and multitask often, look for 12GB. If you create content or play modern games get 16GB. If you need more, you know what you need.