What Is Computer Internal Memory?

If the processor is the computer's brain, the RAM the to-do list for the day. It keeps track of every program and file that the computer has open and active. This memory is volatile, meaning that it loses all data when you turn off the computer. The amount of RAM needed for basic computing changes almost yearly. Once you understand how RAM plays into your computing, it is easier to assess how much you need for daily use.

Pair of computer DDR memory modules
The amount of PINs on a stick of RAM vary depending on the type.
credit: mkos83/iStock/Getty Images

Understanding RAM

RAM stores the information for all the tasks you have open on your computer; it is essential for keeping your operating system and programs running. This includes the information for every active file within each program. Media-heavy tasks and games need more RAM, as they have more data to keep track of during average use. The physical components to RAM are small boards that plug into the motherboard's DIMM sockets. These boards are user-replaceable. In fact, increasing the amount of RAM is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to improve an aging computer.

Memory Other Than RAM

While "internal memory" almost always refers to the computer's RAM, a computer has access to other types of memory. A computer can create virtual memory, which stores inactive tasks to a specific space or file on your hard drive. This frees up the actual RAM without losing your information. The motherboard has access to read-only memory containing all the information it needs to boot up. RAM is also present on video cards. This RAM helps maintain graphics on the screen, and is necessary for high-definition and 3D graphics.

How Much RAM Do You Need?

The easiest way to calculate how much RAM you need is to check the system requirements for the most resource-intensive program you use. For casual users, that might be Windows; outside of that, it's usually a game, video editor or image editor. Whatever that number is, add an extra gigabyte or two. This ensures that you can run your resource hog simultaneously with smaller applications, such as the browser or a mail client, without slowing down your computer. It's better to err on the side of more RAM.

Things to Do Before Updating Your RAM

Before setting out to add 16GB of RAM to your computer, stop and look at the motherboard's maximum supported amount of RAM, as well as your operating system. If you're still using a 32-bit version of Windows, the OS cannot access more than around 3GB of RAM, even if the motherboard supports more. Information about your OS is available in "Properties" section of the Computer folder. Look up your computer information on the manufacturer's website to see what type of RAM the motherboard supports. For Mac users, check Apple's support documentation for your computer model. Macs use the same hardware across the board for each model, so the maximum RAM does not change based on the specific motherboard. The hardware for RAM is system neutral; you do not need special RAM for a Mac. If the computer is still under warranty, be aware that modifying it may void that; best to check your warranty documentation before installing the new RAM.