RAM (random access memory) is a crucial component in a gaming PC. It’s important to know how much RAM you need for gaming, as not having enough memory might cause bottlenecks that can result in lag, longer loading times, and choppy frame rates.
The quality and performance capabilities of RAM are also worth considering. While RAM probably won’t have as big of an impact on gaming performance as other components, upgrading your memory can increase frames per second, help to stabilize frame rates, and improve system responsiveness.
What Does RAM Do?
RAM has the important role of storing data. But unlike a hard drive or SSD (solid-state drive), which store data indefinitely, RAM resets every time the system is rebooted.
Computers need quick access to temporary data in order to run programs and execute tasks. Thus, applications read and write data to RAM, which is orders of magnitudes faster than accessing data off of a storage device. This is also true when gaming, as the many assets that create modern PC games need to be quickly accessible by the system.
When shopping for RAM, you’ll come across a variety of specifications, including capacity, speed, module type, latency, timings, and voltage. Let’s concentrate on the first three, as they are of primary concern when choosing RAM for gaming.
- Capacity: Modern RAM capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB). The higher the capacity, the more data that applications can store in it. This allows more applications to run simultaneously, and demanding applications like games to store larger amounts of temporary data.
- Speed: RAM speed is measured in megahertz (MHz), or millions of cycles per second. RAM with higher speed ratings have higher data transfer rates, meaning that it can respond to read and write requests at a faster rate, improving performance.
- Module type: Computers use a type of RAM called SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory). “Synchronous” DRAM is synchronized with the frequency of the processor. SDRAM has improved over time, offering benefits like lower power consumption, faster transfer rates, and more stable data transmission. DDR4 SDRAM is the current standard for modern-day computers.
When shopping for memory, it’s important to verify that the RAM’s specifications are supported by your system. The wrong type of memory won’t work, while RAM with the wrong specs for your system will underperform.
To help simplify the selection process, let’s look at each factor in more detail.
First Things First: Compatibility
First of all, the type of RAM you select must be compatible with your motherboard and processor. RAM comes in sticks, or memory modules, that snap into the memory slots on the motherboard. RAM that’s incompatible with your system either won’t fit or won’t function properly.
Motherboards in modern computers support DDR4 RAM. DDR4 is not interchangeable with DDR3, the previous generation of SDRAM, so don’t get them confused. If you already have 8GB of DDR3, for example, you cannot replace it with 16GB of DDR4.
To determine what type of memory you need, check your system’s or processor’s documentation, run a system profiling utility, or use an online memory compatibility tool.
The RAM’s form factor — or the physical dimensions and number of pins of the memory stick — also needs to be compatible with your system. This will either be the larger DIMM sticks or smaller SO-DIMM sticks.3 This should be a fairly easy determination:
- DIMM (dual in-line memory module): desktops
- SO-DIMM (small outline dual in-line memory module): laptops, Intel® NUC mini-PCs, and some Mini-ITX small form factor (SFF) motherboards.
Next Considerations: Specifications
Modern PCs support large amounts of RAM, so it’s unlikely that you’ll run up against memory limitations unless you’re upgrading an older gaming PC or gaming laptop. For a point of reference, Windows 10* Home edition supports up to 128GB of RAM, and the latest Intel® Core™ i7 processors4 likewise support 128GB. How much memory your system supports will be listed under the processor’s memory specifications.
Beyond that, how much memory you need largely depends on how you intend to use your computer.
You’ll want to have at least 16GB of RAM for gaming. While 8GB is considered the baseline for playing AAA titles, RAM demands are increasing. Red Dead Redemption 2, for example, recommends 12GB of RAM for optimal performance, while Half-Life: Alyx requires 12GB as a minimum. Having 16GB gives you enough overhead to keep playing new releases in the future.
If you want to do more than just gaming, 32GB is recommended. This will give you the option to live-stream, group-chat on Discord, and have YouTube or Twitch open in the background.
When choosing RAM, look for the right balance between capacity and speed. Slow 32GB RAM is probably not ideal, but neither is 8GB of fast RAM.
DDR4 RAM speeds begin at around 1600MHz, but these speeds are considered slow by today’s standards. The latest processors are capable of supporting speeds around 3000MHz without overclocking. (For instance, the Intel® Core™ i9-10900X processor supports 2933MHz at stock specifications.)
For gaming, there are advantages to running RAM with high rated speeds. Although it won’t have as profound of an effect as upgrading the processor or graphics card, faster RAM can improve game performance and frame rates.
Performance improvements will vary from game to game5. Some games will see a sizable improvement in frame rates. Others will hardly be affected. Additionally, the performance increase will vary depending on the system configuration. It’s worth checking the benchmarks for average frames-per-second to see if it will make a big enough impact for you to upgrade.
In addition to improving the frame rate, faster RAM can improve frame times, or the steadiness of the frame rate. This will be represented as the 1% and 0.1% low values in the benchmarks.
Outside of frame rates, faster RAM can also improve other areas of a game’s performance, such as shortening load times.
If you decide to purchase faster RAM, you’ll have to take steps to enable its optimal settings. Otherwise, the RAM will be limited to the stock memory specifications supported by your processor. The easiest way to do this is with an Intel® Extreme Memory Profile (Intel® XMP) profile.
Intel® XMP profiles are included in most high-performance memory sticks. They contain predefined memory settings that have been tested and certified for stability. When an Intel® XMP profile is selected in the BIOS of a supported motherboard, the memory’s voltages, timings, and frequency are adjusted, enhancing performance. Read more about getting the most from your RAM here.
How Much RAM?
RAM is typically purchased in sets of two or four modules. Before buying a kit, check to see how many memory slots your motherboard has. Desktops typically have four slots. Laptops, including laptops for gaming, typically have two RAM slots, allowing two modules to be installed. Enthusiast-class PCs and workstations may have eight or more, while the number of slots on unique setups like NUCs and SFFs will vary.
If you’re planning on upgrading the RAM in a laptop, make sure the RAM is accessible and not soldered onto the motherboard. Some laptop RAM isn’t intended to be swapped out.
If you’re planning on upgrading a desktop, figure out how many sticks of RAM you want to install. You don’t necessarily need to fill up all four slots. Installing two sticks of higher capacity memory leaves two slots open for expansion in the future. For instance, 16GB + 16GB for a total of 32GB (with the ability to upgrade to 64GB), opposed to 8GB + 8GB + 8GB + 8GB.
Many modern computers feature dual-channel memory. This allows the system to read and write to two sticks of memory simultaneously, increasing the available bandwidth. To take advantage of dual-channel memory, memory sticks must be installed in pairs.
On motherboards with only two memory slots, dual-channel mode will usually be automatically enabled. When using two sticks in a motherboard with four slots, however, the memory must be installed in the same channel. Sometimes the appropriate slots will be side by side. Other times they will be staggered. Sometimes the slots will be color-coded. Check your motherboard documentation for specific instructions.
Also, keep in mind that it’s important for every stick of memory to have the same speed, capacity, and timings for ideal performance. Avoid mixing and matching different module specifications if possible.
Aesthetics and Cooling
Memory heat sinks can make your setup look more attractive. However, they are optional and often purely aesthetic. While RAM generates heat like any other component, it doesn’t tend to run excessively hot unless frequently operating at high speeds. Feel free to skip the heat sink if you’re not planning on seriously overclocking your RAM, but make sure your memory is exposed to proper airflow.
Memory modules with RGB lighting can also add an element of customization and can improve your system’s visual appeal. Just be sure that the RGB memory sticks you select are compatible with your specific motherboard brand.
What’s Right for You?
Ultimately, how much RAM you need for gaming will depend on your budget and use case. Before making a purchase, make sure the RAM’s specifications align with your unique needs.
It’s important to balance RAM with the rest of your system’s components, as they will all play a role in determining the overall level of performance. To learn more about balancing the components in your system, check out our guide to a balanced PC.