What Is Computer and Laptop RAM?

Random-access memory, or RAM, has a direct impact on your computer experience. Learn what RAM is and whether your computer has enough.

What Does RAM Do in a PC?

  • Random-access memory, or RAM, is one of the most important parts of your computer. It provides high-speed, short-term memory for your computer’s CPU.

  • The amount of computer memory you need depends on what you use your computer for, but 12 GB of RAM is a good general minimum standard.

  • Upgrading to a new Intel-based computer, laptop, or other type of PC with the latest RAM technologies can give you improved capacities and speeds and a better overall experience.



What Is RAM?

RAM is a common computing acronym that stands for random-access memory. Sometimes it’s called PC memory or just memory. In essence, RAM is your computer or laptop’s short-term memory. It’s where the data is stored that your computer processor needs to run your applications and open your files.

Inside your computer, RAM typically comes in the form of a rectangular flat circuit board with memory chips attached, also referred to as a memory module. Computers typically come with at least two RAM modules with room to add more, if needed. These RAM modules are critical components that work hand in hand with your computer’s central processing unit (CPU) and must be working optimally for you to have a good experience.

How Computer and Laptop RAM Works

Anytime you play a game from your computer’s hard drive or stream a movie from the internet, your computer loads the data that the CPU, or processor, needs for those applications into the RAM. The CPU then uses this memory to perform the complex tasks required to deliver your desired experience.

That’s why RAM needs to be fast—faster than the long-term storage offered by your computer’s disk drive. The speed of your RAM determines how quickly data flows in and out of your CPU. If your RAM is too slow, you’ll spend a lot of time looking at the spinning wheel cursor.

You can think of RAM like your own short-term memory, which helps to store the immediate data you need for tasks like remembering your shopping list as you walk through the grocery store. If you were to lose your short-term memory, you wouldn’t be able to remember anything for more than a few seconds. But having more short-term memory would allow you to do additional simultaneous tasks, and those tasks can be more complicated.

Similarly, the higher the RAM memory capacity of your computer, the more quickly your CPU can complete its work, and the smoother your experience will be. RAM also allows you to use demanding applications, such as video editing software, and enables you to open larger files. We’ll cover how much RAM you likely need later in this article.

How Is RAM Different than Hard Drive Memory?

It’s important to distinguish between RAM (short-term memory) and the long-term data storage on your computer’s disk drive, also known as the hard drive. Disk drives—whether they are traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) or newer solid-state drives (SSDs)—are used for long-term data and file storage. RAM only holds the data you need for the apps and files that are currently open. When you close an app or shut down your computer, the data is cleared out of the RAM. That’s why it’s important to save your work to your disk drive before quitting!

Why Is RAM Important?

If you ask your computer to perform a task, such as opening a photo to edit, and you don’t have enough available RAM, your computer has to begin shuffling data around in order to open the file. Imagine someone asked you to gather up a bunch of tennis balls left on a court, but there were more than you could easily carry in your hands. You would have to start shuffling the balls around and stashing them in pockets or in your arms in order to move them all at once. Similarly, if your computer doesn’t have enough RAM, it has to move data between your slower hard drive and your RAM and your processor, which causes everything to slow down.

How Much RAM Do You Need?

The amount of RAM your computer needs depends on what you’re using your computer for. If you use it only to watch videos and respond to emails, as little as 4 GB can get you by. But if you want to edit photos or play video games, you should start with at least 12 GB of RAM, and go up from there.

If you want an experience without compromises, you need at least 32 GB of RAM. This would allow you to run powerful apps, like Photoshop, as well as play the latest games with a good frames-per-second (FPS) rate. Demanding computer users will need 64 GB and above to unlock the full potential of their games and apps.

A good rule of thumb is to look at the RAM recommendations for the applications you use most often and then compare the total amount needed to the amount of RAM your computer currently has.

How to Determine How Much RAM You Have

There are many ways to see how much RAM your computer currently has and how much RAM your computer is using. Both pieces of information are important. The fastest way to find information about your computer’s RAM is to access system information using the computer’s Task Manager.

To open the Task Manager, you can use the search bar in or near your computer’s Start menu. Or you can press the Control, Alt, and Delete keys simultaneously on your keyboard, then click on Task Manager. In the Task Manager window, locate and click on the Performance tab, then on Memory. The Memory view will tell you how much RAM you have in total, how much you’re using currently, and how many memory slots your computer has and is using, as well as additional usage information. It’s important that you have a large amount of available RAM. If your RAM usage is running between 80 and 100 percent for a sustained period, your computer doesn’t have enough memory capacity.

How to Know If It’s Time to Upgrade

Beyond looking at how much of your RAM capacity you’re using, there are a number of signs that may indicate your RAM is not up to the tasks that you demand of it:

  • You see that your PC is using more than 80 percent of its RAM very frequently.
  • Files open very slowly, especially large files.
  • Your computer frequently crashes and/or your apps often freeze.
  • Apps and websites open very slowly.
  • Opening multiple apps causes a big drop in performance.
  • You receive a message that your PC doesn’t meet the minimum requirements while trying to install an app.

If you experience several of these on an ongoing basis, it may be a sign that it’s time to upgrade your RAM or upgrade your computer to one that has the capabilities you need.

Which to Upgrade: RAM or Computer?

One of the most cost-effective ways to improve your productivity and enjoyment while using a computer is by upgrading your RAM. Many computers—even many laptops—have expandable RAM slots, and experienced users can purchase and install individual RAM modules to expand existing computer memory. You can also have a professional do this for you.

In the long run, though, upgrading isn’t really optional. The software we all rely on is continuously being updated, adding more and more demands on your computer’s hardware. Additionally, the technical standards for RAM are continually changing, so after a certain amount of time, your upgrade options and PC won’t be able to keep up.

Before deciding to upgrade your RAM, you may want to consider how well your current computer is supporting your needs overall and if it might be time to purchase a new one. You can explore our tips articles to learn what to look for in a new computer before you start shopping.

Purchasing a new desktop, laptop, or other PC powered by an Intel® processor will ensure that you have the right RAM capacity at the right speed for an amazing experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

RAM stands for random-access memory. RAM is used as short-term memory storage for a computer’s central processing unit (CPU).

Anytime you play a game from your computer’s hard drive or stream a movie from the internet, all of the data that your computer’s processor needs to play the game or watch the movie is stored in RAM. This is so that your processor can get to it quickly. Once you’re done and you close the application, the processor doesn’t need quick access to that data anymore, so it replaces the old data with the new data to support the next task you give it.

The more RAM a computer has, the more data it can usually manage at any given moment. This will make your apps operate more smoothly and allow for better multitasking. It will also allow you to use memory-intensive apps and video games.

The hard drive (or disk drive) and RAM both provide memory to store data. The disk drive stores all your computer’s memory for the long term. RAM only holds the data your apps need when they’re open. RAM is faster but has less capacity than the hard drive.

The processor, also known as the CPU, provides the instructions and processing power the computer needs to do its work. RAM provides the shorter-term memory the CPU needs to open files and move data around as it responds to the tasks given to it by your apps.

Both RAM and the CPU work synchronously and complementarily to ensure that your computer’s performance fits your needs and you have a good experience when using your device.