Adding memory is one of the easier ways to boost your PC’s performance. There are a few things to check before spending your money, though, so let’s talk about them.
Choosing Your New RAM
As with most things about upgrading your PC, figuring out what you need and then doing some comparison shopping is the hard part. After that, physically installing your new memory is a breeze by comparison. Here are some of the things you’ll need to figure out when making your decision.
How Much RAM Do You Need?
Generally speaking, more RAM is better. That said, the law of diminishing returns applies. Moving from 4 GB to 8 GB of RAM is likely to make a huge difference. Moving from 8 GB to 16 GB still shows some good gains in performance, but not as much. And moving beyond 16 GB is going to be a smaller boost still. Of course, some of that depends on what you use your PC for.
Right now, we generally recommend at least 8 GB of RAM for most people. That’s kind of the sweet spot for how the majority of people use their PCs. If you’re a gamer, or you often multitask lots of bigger programs, you’ll probably want 12-16 GB, if that fits in your budget.
And, if you work with large media files (like projects in Photoshop or Lightroom), you use virtual machines on your PC, or have other specialized needs, you’ll want as much RAM as you can afford (and that your PC can physically accommodate).
How Much RAM Do You Have Now (and In What Configuration)?
It’s easy enough to pop open your Settings app, head to the “About This PC” section, and see how much RAM you have.
That only tells part of the story, though. That 32 GB listed in the screenshot above (yes, it’s a lot—this system is used to run multiple virtual machines at the same time) might be four modules of 8 GB each, or it might be two modules of 16 GB each. That matters when you’re upgrading because memory is typically installed in pairs, and different systems can have different numbers of slots available.
For example, let’s assume we wanted to upgrade that system to even more RAM. We now need to know some additional information. How many total memory slots does the PC have? How many RAM modules are installed? Are there free slots?
For that, you could open up your case and count the number of modules and slots inside, or you could turn to another tool. There are several hardware information tools out there, but our favorite is the free version Speccy (made by Piriform, the makers of CCleaner).
After installing and running Speccy, we just switch to the RAM category on the left, and the right panel shows us gives us the info we need.
Unfortunately, we can now see that we have four total slots available and that all four are taken up with memory modules. Since we have 32 GB total RAM, we can assume that we have four 8 GB modules in place. This means that to get more RAM in the machine, we need to replace some or all of what’s there.
If we had found that only two slots were taken up by two 16 GB RAM modules, we could have simply added another pair of modules—two 8 GB modules for a total of 48 GB, or two more 16 GB modules for a total of 64 GB.
How Much RAM Can Your PC Handle?
The other part of the RAM equation is knowing how much total RAM your computer can support. There are two factors here: the maximum RAM your version of Windows can handle, and the maximum that your motherboard can handle. Whatever is lower is what you’re stuck with, but it’s typically the motherboard that’s the more limiting factor.
The Windows part is easy:
- 32-bit Windows: 32-bit versions of Windows 10 can only handle up to 4 GB of RAM, no matter whether you’re running the Home, Professional, or Enterprise edition. The same holds true for Windows 7.
- 64-bit Windows: 64-bit versions of Windows can handle up to 128 GB for Windows 10 Home, and up to 2 TB for Windows 10 Education, Professional, or Enterprise. On Windows 7, things are a bit different. The Home Basic edition can handle up to 8 GB, Home Premium up to 16 GB, and Professional up to 192 GB.
The second part of the equation (how much your motherboard can handle) depends entirely on the manufacturer, though most modern computers will support at least 8 GB, and more likely 16 GB or more.
You’ll need to check the documentation for your motherboard or PC for the details. If you’re unsure what motherboard you have, you can again turn to Speccy, where the Motherboard category shows you the information you need.
Just hit up Google with your model number and you should find what you’re after.
What Type of RAM Does Your PC Require?
You’re also going to need to determine what type of RAM your computer is capable of using. And there are a few parts to that puzzle, as well.
First up, RAM for desktops usually comes in DIMM modules (the longer stick pictured on top in the image below). RAM for laptops—and some ultra compact desktops—comes in smaller SODIMM modules (the shorter one on the bottom in the image below).
Next, check the generation of RAM your computer’s motherboard accepts. This information is presented as a DDR version:
- DDR2: This generation was introduced in 2003. Chances are your computer is not using DDR2 memory unless it’s a pretty old system.
- DDR3: This generation was introduced in 2007. It’s much more common in PCs that were built in the last 5-8 years use DDR3, and it’s still a common choice in budget computers today.
- DDR4: This generation was introduced around 2014. It’s found on most brand-new computers, especially those designed for (or built by) gamers and enthusiasts.
Motherboards are designed for a specific generation of RAM, so you’ll need to determine what you need. You can’t just buy the latest DDR4 RAM and stick it in a PC designed for DDR3. In fact, it wouldn’t even physically fit. Note the different position of the notches at the bottom of the memory below. They’re keyed differently so that can’t be inserted into slots not designed for them.
So, the next obvious question. How do you know which generation you need? The answer, of course, is that we’re going to turn to Speccy again. Switch back on the RAM category on the left. On the right, at the bottom, expand the “SPD” entry. And right there, you can see the generation, size, manufacturer, and model number of each RAM module you have installed.
So now we know that this PC uses DDR4 memory.
What About RAM Speed and Latency?
If you go shopping for (or reading about) memory, you’ll also see a couple of other specifications that get talked about a lot: RAM speed and latency (also called timings).
- RAM Speed: This is based on a rather complicated combination of hardware factors, and the relative speed of RAM is specific within a generation. Speeds are usually labeled using either the older standard (in which case you’ll see speeds like PC2/PC3/PC4) or the new standard that also includes a more specific speed rating (in which case a speed would look more like DDR 1600).
- Latency: This deals with how fast the RAM module can access its own hardware. Lower latency means faster data access. Latency timings are presented as a series of four numbers, so you might see something like 5-5-5-15.
The truth, though, is that speed and latency just isn’t all that important. Higher speed and lower latency RAM really isn’t that much faster than the lower speed, higher latency stuff. You’ll find a lot of talk about it from people who like to brag about their systems, but it’s pretty safe to ignore. Even with a high performance gaming machine, it just doesn’t make that much difference—especially since most of gaming is handled by the RAM on discrete graphics cards.
That said, there are a couple of things that are important to keep in mind.
Your motherboard or PC might limit the speed of the RAM it supports, mostly because it was designed for the RAM that was out at the time the motherboard was manufactured. Check your system specs to see what it can handle. It might even be that you can update your BIOS to support higher speed RAM if you want. Check your manufacturer’s website for that.
For latency, it’s best if you use modules that sport the same latency numbers. It’s not critical, especially if you’re adding memory to a system. But if you’re replacing memory, you might as well get all the same kind.
What About Heat Sinks And RGB?
They’re mostly meaningless. RGB LEDs on your RAM looks neat in a desktop case with a window (if you’re into that sort of thing). And flashy heat sinks might be advantageous if you’re planning to overclock your memory. If neither of these things appeal to you, don’t look for those specific features—they’ll only make your memory more expensive.
Can I Upgrade My Laptop’s RAM?
Upgrading RAM in a laptops is a trickier subject than with desktops. Some laptops have an access panel that lets you swap out RAM modules easily. Some have one or two RAM slots available through an access panel, while others are tucked away where you can’t really get to them. Some laptops require that you pretty much disassemble the whole thing to change the RAM. And some laptops don’t have RAM slots at all; their memory is soldered to the motherboard.
To figure out which situation applies to you, you’re going to have to do some research. Check your user manual, hit up the manufacturer web site, or do some quick Googling—odds are pretty good that the question has been answered for your specific model.
How To Upgrade Desktop Memory
Replacing the memory in your desktop is usually pretty straightforward. You’ll need a Philips-head screwdriver to open the case, and that’s about it. Note that these instructions are for a standard ATX tower-style case—if you have a more exotic case design, you may need to work a little harder or position the computer oddly to open it and access its internal components.
Remove all the cables and external accessories from your computer, then move it to a table or desk. Ideally you want a cool, dry work area that isn’t carpeted. If your home is particularly susceptible to static shocks, you might want an anti-static bracelet as well.
Remove the screws on the back holding the access panel in place. You’re going to remove the access panel from the left side of the PC (assuming you’re looking at the front). On some cases, you’ll need to remove the whole cover. Then set the case on it’s side with the internals exposed.
At this point you should be looking down at the motherboard. The RAM should be easy to spot. It will be two or more modules sticking up from slots that are usually near the CPU, but more toward the front of the computer.
To remove the existing RAM, look for the plastic tabs at either end of the RAM slots. Simply press these tabs down (away from the RAM) until they click. The module should pop up slightly, and it’s ready to be pulled out. Repeat this step with all the modules you want to remove.
Then, just lift each module straight up and out of the slot.
Before you plug the new RAM in, take a look at the slots. Remember how we said RAM is installed in pairs? Where you install it matters. On the motherboard in the image below, the paired slots are different colors—black for one pair, and gray for the other pair. If you’re installing fewer modules than the motherboard holds (or you have two mismatched pairs—like two 8 GB modules and two 4 GB modules), you’ll need to install pairs in matching slots.
Note: Some motherboards use different indicators for slot pairs. Check your specifications if you’re unsure.
To install the new RAM align the electrical contacts with the memory slot, making sure the notch in the connector is positioned correctly—they can only fit in in one orientation. Then press the memory module into place gently until you hear the plastic tabs on either end of the slot click into place, securing the module.
If you unplugged any of the power or data cords on your machine to get better access to the RAM slots, plug them back in now.
Replace the access panel and screw it back down on the rear of the machine. You’re done! Take your machine back to its usual spot and plug everything back in.
How To Upgrade Laptop Memory
Before you start, you need to determine where the RAM DIMM or DIMMs are on your laptop, and how you’ll reach them. The bigger your laptop is, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to access the memory without disassembling it completely. The smaller and lighter your laptop is, the more likely it is that the memory is soldered to the motherboard and can’t be changed at all. Ultralight laptops almost never have user-accessible memory.
Most laptops that allow user-accessible memory upgrades to do so either through a small access panel on the bottom of the case, or by performing some level of disassembly (sometimes by removing the entire bottom, sometimes by removing the keyboard, sometimes a combination). Consult your laptop’s user manual or do some web searches to find information for your model.
Before you start, turn off your laptop and remove all cables, accessories, and batteries.
My ThinkPad T450s is pretty middle-of-the-road here: it requires me to remove the battery, take out eight different screws, and pop off the metal bottom to access the RAM. Other designs only require you to remove a single screw, then take off a sectional cover. I only have access to one DIMM slot, the other is soldered to the motherboard.
To insert a new DIMM, I have to remove the one that’s already in the slot. To do this, I gently pull the two tabs locking down the DIMM on either side. The RAM DIMM springs up at a diagonal angle.
In this position, simply grip the card gently and pull it out of the slot. Be careful not to touch the electrical contacts, and set the module aside.
To insert the new module, go in at the same angle. (You’ll have to eyeball it if you didn’t have to remove one). The module should sit in the slot evenly, with no electrical contacts still visible. Next, push down on the module until it’s parallel with the housing. The pressure should make the clips clamp down on the module automatically, locking it into place. Repeat these steps with the second module if you’re installing more than one at a time.
Then, you put everything back together. With the battery back in place, you’re ready to start your laptop and make sure the operating system recognizes the new RAM.
Checking Your RAM Installation
When you’re finished installing the RAM, you want to make sure it’s working correctly. Depending on your PC, the BIOS may display the amount of memory on the initial boot up screen. If you don’t see that, you can load into your PC’s BIOS or just let your operating system start and then check out the amount of recognized RAM there. In Windows 10, you can just head to Settings > System > About.
If your PC is showing less RAM than it should, there are a few possible explanations.
The first is that you made a mistake during installation and one or more modules aren’t fully seated. To solve this, simply go back and double-check that all the modules are fully inserted into their slots.
The next possibility is that the RAM isn’t compatible with your motherboard (perhaps the wrong generation), or you installed a module that has a capacity higher than its slot allows. You need to go back to the compatibility checks and make sure you’re using the correct RAM.
And finally, if all else fails, it’s possible that you have a bad memory module, which will need to be replaced.
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