How much RAM do you really need?

Typically, today’s budget PCs come with 4GB of RAM. A mid-range configuration may offer double that, and high-end gaming systems and workstations go as high as 16GB.

And there’s no doubt which way the wind’s blowing: Windows 8 supports up to 128GB of physical memory (assuming you’re running the 64-bit edition), while Windows 8 Pro can go up to 512GB.
Does anyone really need this much RAM? Memory isn’t as expensive as it used to be, but there’s no point paying for gigabytes of RAM from which you’ll receive no material gain.

Does more equal faster?

Many people assume that adding memory makes a PC significantly faster, and in some cases it does. Sticking an extra pair of DIMMs into a motherboard won’t change the speed at which the processor executes code, but it can help in other ways, especially on older systems with 2GB of RAM or less, since adding RAM reduces the need for Windows to rely on “virtual memory”.

Many people assume that adding memory makes a PC significantly faster, and in some cases it does.

Simply put, virtual memory is a file on your hard disk that serves as temporary storage when your PC’s “real” memory is full. Virtual memory makes it possible, for example, to have several heavyweight applications running at once, even if they won’t fit simultaneously in RAM. When you switch from one to another, Windows quickly swaps the relevant data from the disk into real memory, which explains why the virtual memory file is sometimes called a “swap file”. If you’ve set Windows Explorer to show hidden files, you can see the swap file in the root directory of your system disk; depending on which version of Windows you’re using, it will be called pagefile.sys or swapfile.sys.

The process of shuttling data to and from the swap file slows things down, especially if you’re using an old-school mechanical disk. The situation gets worse if you try to open a new program when your memory is full: the disk head ends up “thrashing” back and forth across the disk as it tries to read the new data into memory while simultaneously moving older information into the swap file. The result is a slow and unresponsive PC.

If you’ve ever used Windows XP on a machine from the late 1990s or early 2000s, you’ll almost certainly have sat through your fair share of disk-thrashing sessions. Although contemporary 32-bit PCs were theoretically able to address up to 4GB of RAM, memory was expensive, and even a high-end system may have come with only 256MB installed. A reliance on virtual memory was a fact of life – hence the rule of thumb that you should install as much memory as you can afford.

Diminishing returns

The rule is much less applicable today than it was a decade ago. Today, a new PC will come with multiple gigabytes of RAM, so Windows relies much less on virtual memory. It’s also almost certain to come with a solid-state system drive rather than a mechanical one, making the process of swapping data between RAM and virtual memory much smoother. Since SSDs have no problem reading from one flash memory cell while writing to a different one, they effectively eradicate the problem of “thrashing”.

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