Sunday 25 September 2011

How Much RAM Do You Need to Make a Good Computer?

"How many gigs of RAM do you need to make a good computer?" This is a good question, but the answer is determined by a number of factors. What are you using the system for? How many processes do you plan on running simultaneously?

Let’s take a look at a few factors that can help determine whether or not your system needs a RAM upgrade.

The Gamer:

Modern games take a lot of power to deliver ultra-realistic graphics to the screen. These games often require a significant amount of RAM and processing power to calculate many different aspects of the game environment, but the most important component is the video card. Without a decent video card, all the RAM and processing power in the world will do little to improve the look and feel of the game itself. You should always consider upgrades on a case-by-case basis, and make each upgrade with the idea in mind of handling anything you could throw at it for the next one or two years.

So, if your game has poor frame rates, or seems unresponsive from time to time, switch out of the game’s window and take a quick look at the system monitor. Is the processor running at 80% capacity or above? If so, this is a sign that your CPU could be having difficulty keeping up with the game, itself. The same goes for RAM. See how much RAM is being utilized by the program, and gauge whether or not an upgrade will really help. If both of these levels look fine to you, the GPU (graphics processing unit) may be the source of your bottleneck.

Most gamers can get along fine running on 4-8 GB of RAM. Anything more could be overkill, unless you’re running multiple background processes that are RAM intensive, such as a virtual machine. Again, this optimal number varies from game to game and gamer to gamer.

The Video Editor:

Video editing, especially in high definition, requires a lot more RAM than most operations. While editing, large amounts of video data is stored in the system’s memory, making it easily accessible while you scan through the video and make various changes. During video editing, take a close look at the system monitor and how much RAM is being utilized. Does it look like you’re coming close to reaching capacity? If so, a RAM upgrade might be in order.

When it comes to video editing, the best rule of thumb when building a system is to just get as much as you can afford at the time. While 8-12 GB of RAM seems like a lot, the video you edit today will probably pale in comparison to the size and resolution of the projects you’ll be editing a year from now.

Video editing can require a lot from your system, especially during encoding processes. With the right CPU, a video editor should shoot for as much RAM as they can purchase, but generally anywhere from 6-12 GB of RAM is usually sufficient, depending on the length, compression ratio, and resolution of your largest video project, in addition to the software you intend to edit and encode with. Larger video projects like feature-length films can require multiple computers encoding in a cluster, with the primary video editing station handling just the editing tasks. This is an advanced setup, and if you’re at this level, you’re probably not reading this post.

The Workstation:

Depending on your job, you probably have a few office documents open at any given time, and perhaps a browser or some proprietary software that access your company’s main database. Chances are, you can accomplish most of your tasks with a minimal amount of RAM. Still, during the busiest part of your day, take a moment and check the system monitor to see how much CPU and RAM is being used. If you’re coming close to capacity, an upgrade could be in order. It’s best to do this when you notice some sluggishness. If everything is running just fine, it can be difficult to justify an upgrade to IT.

Many companies have an IT department that is tasked with providing workers with exactly what they need to get their job done, and not much else. If your workstation is running sluggishly due to a lack of RAM, everyone in your department doing the same tasks is probably experiencing the same situation. In this case, an upgrade request to IT is probably warranted.

In general, workstations running office software rarely have any problems running off of anywhere from 2-4 GB of RAM. That isn’t true in all cases, especially when proprietary software comes into play.

The Average User:

The average user uses their system to browse the Web, watch YouTube videos, and play Angry Birds. For these usage cases, the RAM that comes included with your system is usually enough. Building a custom computer for this person? Here is an equation that has worked for me in the past, and could work for you when determining how much RAM to recommend for their system:

R = O + G + 1

R = GB of RAM
O = Operating system recommended RAM.
G = Recommended amount of RAM listed by the application used with the highest system resource requirements.

If you meet or beat that equation, you’re probably doing pretty well. One example of this would be a Windows 7 system running Adobe Photoshop. Windows 7 recommends 1 GB of RAM, as does Adobe Photoshop. Plugging these figures into the equation, you get 3 GB of RAM, so installing 4 GB should do everything that person needs, unless they take up video editing or play Command and Conquer.

What About RAM Limits?

Windows, and several derivatives of Mac OS X and Linux, have what’s considered to be a maximum amount of RAM that they support. In the case of Windows, a 32-bit installation can only support 4 GB of RAM. In reality, it may only recognize 3 GB. Installing 8 GB of RAM in a system running a 32-bit version of Windows XP, Vista, or 7 won’t do much to improve the performance at all.

In a 64-bit system, this RAM ceiling is raised to 192 GB for Ultimate, Enterprise, and Professional users. Home Premium is capped at 16 GB with Home Basic at 8 GB.

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