When you first visit a computer store for your first computer, whether it’s your first gaming computer or you’ve never had one, one of the selling points companies go for is listing the amount of RAM a computer has. But since you’re here you might not have any idea what significance that plays in the grand scheme of things. What does it do? Is it better to have 4 GB of RAM or 16 GB of RAM? Do I need a lot? It asks a lot of questions the little anocrym just isn’t equipped to handle.

Like it was mentioned, RAM is an acronym, three letters that stand for “Random Access Memory.” RAM serves as a physical component, physical hardware, that helps your computer store data for a short time. By installing additional RAM, you actively increase the amount of information the computer can handle, thereby, upping the performance of the computer, generally speaking.

Here’s the rub: the above definition is one you may have heard and don’t worry, the definition isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. As soon as someone hears the above definition, they feel like grabbing as much RAM as possible and, luckily, you’ll find out why that isn’t the best idea and sometimes not needed at all.

So, let’s break down what RAM can do in more detail and give you the scoop on its function.

What RAM Does and Why Your Computer Needs RAM

Let’s start with an analogy. Imagine you’re looking for a pen, a special pen, your pen that you can’t live without. You have no idea where you left it, nor do you know where to start. What do you do? You start by checking everywhere. No rhyme or rhythm. Obviously that would take forever. Well, that’s what it’s like for your hard drive (or SSD) would feel like if that didn’t have RAM to back them up.

RAM, as it was mentioned, stores information, but it doesn’t stick around forever. Think of someone with short term memory. RAM stores information that needs to be accessed quickly, not only shaving the time for a program to start, but also helping it run along. Your hard drive can read and write, too, but your RAM just does it so much faster, hence the need for dedicated sticks of RAM. Now, with that in mind, stick RAM into the analogy above. You’re looking for your pen (you’re the hard drive) and your RAM taps you on the shoulder and says, “Check inside the drawer over there, buddy.” And what do you know, it’s there.

To make RAM look better, it’s a godsend when it comes to multitasking. If you remember from above, it helps your computer handle memory better. If you’re handling two, three or even four programs at a time and you have very little RAM, you could be working on a time scale of a century just to do anything.

Once you shutdown your computer, that RAM flushes the information out. However, by putting your computer into hibernate, you avoid that problem. Instead, the information is copied over to your hard drive for safekeeping and then copied back into your RAM when you wake your computer up.

How Much RAM Do You Need?

How much RAM do you actually need? That question invites a lot of variables which, in turn, provide dozens of answers. It isn’t a simple one word answer, but rather, an overview of what your system needs. If you went and installed, say, 64 GB of RAM into your system when you only need 16, well, you just have a really expensive bill then; 48 GB of your RAM is going to waste.

You have to first consider what you use your computer for. Are you using your rig for heavy gaming? Then you’ll be crying yourself to sleep when you realize you only have 2 GB when you need 8, at a minimum, for that game you want. You’ll want to consider your operating system, too. If it takes 2 GB to run your OS, when you play your game, you’ll have 6 GB to work with.

If you use your computer for simply browsing and YouTube, you don’t need a lot and in many cases, anywhere from 2 to 4 GB will do just fine. Don’t bother installing RAM, again, it’ll just get wasted because Facebook and YouTube or even Microsoft Word just don’t take up a lot of resources.

The rest of your computer also comes into play when deciding on how much RAM you need, like your processor and your graphics card, for example. If you have a processor that’s on the low-end and it’s slow, it isn’t going to work well with a lot of RAM, especially RAM with higher speeds. In fact, in many cases, if you have, say, 8 GB of memory, but a terrible GPU (graphics card), then your computer will feel a much bigger impact by buying a new GPU or a new CPU. Consider the weakest component of your computer before you buy more RAM.

The last thing you want to do is fall into the trap of “if I want to go fast, I need more RAM.” You have no idea how many people make that decision only to realize that 32 GB of RAM working with a low-end graphics card and low-end processor isn’t giving them the gaming experience they wanted. Getting the most out of RAM requires the right speeds and the right components taking advantage of it. Imagine an empty cup is the limit of what your computer can handle. If you pour too much water, it overflows, just like having too much RAM would do. Pour just enough and you can safely drink your water.

DDR This and DDR That

You might have heard this acronym thrown around a lot in tech articles and guides, “DDR.” There’s DDR2, DDR3, DDR4 and DDR5, even DDR6. Otherwise known as “Double Data Rate.” A stick of RAM has clock cycles, and since describing them can enter the territory of tech jargon you probably won’t understand, so let’s keep it simple: faster clock cycles means the faster a stick of RAM will work, in turn, giving you a far smoother experience.

You can find a stick of RAM’s clock speed by checking out the number after its DDR generation, like DDR4-2666, which means it runs 2.666 billion cycles every second. Second. Not minute, every second.

Most modern computers you buy at the store, as of the writing of this article, are usually running DDR3. However, DDR4 is quickly replacing it. And forget about DDR2. You’ll be hard pressed to find any device running with DDR2; it’s outdated by several generations. Don’t bother with DDR2 unless you’re building some kind of retro system.

The generation of your RAM also comes into play when you decide to buy more. If your system handles DDR3, then you need to use DDR3 or upgrade your system to handle DDR4, which requires a whole new motherboard. You also have to consider the clock speed, the clock cycle, of your RAM. Not every stick of RAM is created equally which means if you buy a stick of RAM that’s the same generation, but with a slower clock speed, you’ll hinder your system. It will run with the lowest speed, not mix the two and come up with a medium.

Pooling it all Together

Understanding RAM can be daunting for some. Did you look at the wall of text up above? The tiny bit of hardware is simple in its design, almost like a ruler, but it can pack a good punch in the right circumstances.

So, to recap, RAM is a storage for short term information, making the load times of programs work faster, for example. It can be good for multitasking and gaming with the right components working with it, like a GPU and CPU that can handle its clock speed. And no, more RAM does not mean a faster computer.