What is Computer memory, and how much is enough?

     Computer memory, otherwise known as RAM (random access memory), is where your computer stores the information it needs to operate.  RAM is considered volatile memory, which means when you turn off your computer, everything stored in RAM is lost.  When you first turn on your computer, it transfers information from the hard disk or floppy disk to RAM.  The first thing transferred is usually the operating system (i.e., Windows, UNIX, Mac OS, etc.); this procedure is referred to as ‘booting’.  Once in RAM, the operating system is then executed (started).  This then allows you to operate your computer.

     Every program you execute (e.g., word processor, spreadsheet, game, etc.), must first be transferred into RAM.  The larger the programs, the more RAM that is needed to store them.  Programs and operating systems are becoming larger as more powerful features are implemented.  When using an operating system like Windows, which allows more than one program in RAM at a time, the computer must have enough RAM to store every program.

     Data for many programs is stored in RAM.  The more data, the more RAM required.  For instance, when using a word processor, more RAM is required to store a book, than a letter.  As the programs become more elaborate, the documents are also more complex.  Word processors with powerful formatting capabilities must store all the information required to keep documents formatted correctly.  Drawing programs must store more data due to higher resolutions and color capabilities.  Increased program size and data size are ultimately proportional.  

     When short of RAM, operating systems like Windows will resort to virtual memory.  Virtual memory is the process of swapping temporarily unneeded parts of programs between your computer’s hard disk and RAM.  This procedure impedes the speed of your computer, due to the fact that a hard disk is much slower than RAM.  Virtual memory allows you to perform tasks on your computer that would otherwise require large amounts of more expensive RAM.

     Approximately seven years ago, 4 Gigabyte of RAM was considered to be a lot.  Now, 8 or even 16 Gigabytes is the norm.  If you are using Windows 10 or 11, 8 Gigabytes should be considered minimal, with 12-16 Gigabytes being optimal in most cases.

     Substantial amounts of RAM, 32 Gigabytes or more, are only needed in certain situations.  If you are using many large programs at the same time, such as a word processor, database, spreadsheet, accounting program, and telecommunications program; you might consider 32 Gigabytes of RAM.  Storing lengthy sound files of CD-quality can easily take up 32 Gigabytes or more.  Video work, including long clips of high quality video and sound, can also take up 32 Gigabytes or more.  Using a computer scanner to scan in an 8 1/2” x 11” page at a high resolution, with millions of colors can easily take up 4-16 Gigabytes of RAM.  If you encounter these situations only on very rare occasions, you’re probably better off allowing your computer to use virtual memory.

     Based on the foregoing examples, a careful analysis of your computer’s actual allocation to the various tasks indicated, will aid in determining how much RAM is needed in a given system.

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