How Much RAM Do I Need for My Home Computer?

By Chris Blank

If you're in the market for a new computer, the truism "more is better" applies to the amount of RAM, or random access memory installed. However, your computer probably has a limit to its RAM capacity. Budget may also be a concern. Determining the ideal amount of RAM for your computer depends on your computer's operating system, as well as how you use your computer.

Definition and Function

RAM allows your computer to process the data generated and accessed by the Central Processing Unit, or CPU. If you place more demands on your computer than your RAM can handle alone, your computer "borrows" space from the hard drive to use as "virtual memory," which can slow your computer's performance. The more RAM you have, the less likely your computer will require virtual memory to operate. Unlike data stored on your hard drive, data disappears from RAM whenever you shut down your computer.

RAM for Various Users

If all you do is send and receive email messages and surf the Internet, you need less RAM than someone who uses photo- and video-editing programs or who performs a lot of multitasking. For casual users, 1 GB of RAM may be enough; however, if you are a student or a business professional you will need at least 2 GB of RAM to obtain satisfactory performance from your computer. Serious gamers should opt for at least 4 GB of RAM.

Windows Recommendations

The minimum RAM for most current versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system is 512 MB; 1 GB of RAM is more realistic. However, for older versions like Windows 98, 16 MB RAM is the bare minimum; 32 MB RAM is required to run many basic applications. 384 MB of RAM is plenty for Windows 98; more than 1 GB is a waste of money. For Windows XP, 2 GB of RAM is good. If your machine can handle it, 4 GB of RAM is better. Windows Vista needs at leat 2 GB of RAM to run properly; 4 GB or even 8 GB of RAM will greatly improve your computer's performance. Computers running Windows 7, the current version of Windows as of March 2011, should have 2 GB of RAM; 4 GB or 8 GB of RAM is not excessive.

Mac and Linux OS Recommendations

As of March 2011, the current Mac OS is Snow Leopard, which requires a minimum of 1 GB of RAM, according to the Apple website. You should be fine with 1 GB of RAM if your computer runs the older Tiger OS, according to OEM PC World. If you are a multitasker or run sophisticated software, 2 GB to 4 GB of RAM is a good investment. Consistent high page in/out counts and low free space indicators are a sign that you need more RAM. For Linux, 512 MB is minimal, 1 GB to 2 GB of RAM is optimal, according to Kingston Technology.