There was a time when the prescription for speeding up a slow PC was just to add more (or faster) RAM. These days, though, that’s not necessarily the best upgrade to choose first.
Do You Need a RAM Upgrade?
There are certain scenarios in which upgrading the RAM is obviously a good idea. A computer for everyday uses, like web browsing, streaming videos, running Microsoft Office, and playing a game or two, should have at least 8 GB of RAM, in our opinion.
That might come as a surprise, considering many mid- and low-end PCs come with 4 GB. However, they aren’t very responsive and tend to slow down as soon as a background process or three start running.
This is why we recommend at least 8 GB. If you have a laptop with 4 GB, check the manual to see if you can upgrade the RAM yourself. Some laptops have the RAM soldered to the motherboard, in which case, a RAM upgrade isn’t possible.
Meanwhile, gamers who want to play the latest AAA titles are better off with 16 GB of RAM. Going above that really depends on what you want to do with your system. An enthusiast-grade PC you want to use for 4K video editing, for example, would likely need something around 32 GB.
If these situations don’t cover your PC, below are some things to consider before reaching for those new RAM modules.
Check for Bottlenecks
If a shortage of RAM is the source of your issues, you should be able to discover this by checking your system performance. To do so, press Ctrl+Shift+Esc to open Windows 10’s Task Manager, and then click “More details” to open the advanced view. Click the “Performance” tab, and then click “Memory.”
Then, start using your PC as you normally would, while keeping an eye on the task manager.
When you experience a slowdown, check the “In Use” and “Available” sections under the graph that displays the RAM usage. If you frequently have a ton of RAM that’s still available, then RAM is probably not the issue. However, if it’s maxed out during each slowdown, more RAM could improve things.
Is XMP Enabled?
DIY desktop PC builders might not be maximizing the performance capabilities of their current RAM. Most people who build their own PCs have likely done this already. In the motherboard’s BIOS settings, you can activate something called an eXtreme Memory Profile (XMP). If your PC has an AMD processor, you might see DOCP instead.
XMP is an Intel technology that’s, ostensibly, an overclocking tool. However, if you just turn it on in the BIOS without tweaking any of the manual settings, it’ll let the RAM run at the speed for which it’s rated, rather than the slower default.
Check Your Speeds
Upgrading your PC’s RAM isn’t as simple as changing out the storage or graphics card. You have to choose the right type (the version for modern motherboards is DDR4), and its speed has to be compatible with your computer’s motherboard.
Additionally, if you’re keeping one RAM module and adding another, they must have the same speeds. Even then, some people prefer to use two identical RAM sticks instead of mixing and matching, just to be certain. Be sure to check your computer’s RAM speed to determine how big of an upgrade faster RAM will really be.
When it comes to actual speeds, if your PC’s RAM is a lower speed, like 2,400 MHz, upgrading to 3,000 MHz or higher should result in noticeable performance improvements. If you’re already rocking 3,000 MHz, however, the performance boost from faster RAM might not be as noticeable. This will vary depending on your specific PC and how you use it.
Get an SSD Instead
If the bottleneck isn’t your RAM, then you have a few other choices. The number one option is to upgrade to a solid-state drive (SSD) if your PC still has a hard drive. Even if you do increase the RAM, there’s simply no better upgrade for a PC than moving it from a hard drive to an SSD.
Even an older SATA III SSD, like the Samsung 860 Evo, will provide a noticeable increase in response times and general performance. If the motherboard accepts NVMe drives, then the performance improvements will be even more noticeable.
Don’t throw out that old hard drive, either—you can use it as secondary storage if your PC still has room for it. You can also put it in an external hard drive enclosure and use it that way (after copying your personal files and reformatting, of course.)
Look at the CPU and GPU
If you determine that RAM isn’t the issue, and the SSD upgrade is already covered, it might be time to upgrade your CPU or GPU, or, perhaps, to build or buy a new system.
To get a sense of how your CPU is performing, you can go through the same steps we covered above on checking for bottlenecks. This time, look at the CPU utilization in the Task Manager.
Is the CPU maxing out frequently when you have multiple programs open or during a variety of games? Be sure you try a few games and see if this is consistent before you blame the CPU, as some games rely more heavily on the processor, to begin with.
If you haven’t got the money to upgrade your rig, then, for the time being, just be aware of your system’s constraints. Don’t, for example, use too many programs simultaneously—before you play a game, shut down every background process you can. These are just stop-gap measures, but they’ll help.
If the CPU isn’t the issue, then look at the GPU, especially if yours is at the bottom end of a game’s minimum specs. Of course, once you get a new GPU, it might result in a CPU bottleneck, meaning you’ll need to test again.
Another alternative for those tight on cash is to try overclocking the components to squeeze a little more performance out of them. This comes with risks, however, including voiding your warranty, consuming more power, and, potentially, shortening the life of the CPU and GPU.
Still, for an older PC, where your choice is to either overclock or get something new you can’t afford, overclocking is sort of a built-in upgrade, and it might be the best choice.
To RAM or Not to RAM
RAM is a weird component in modern PCs. If you don’t have enough, adding more can have a dramatic impact on your computer’s performance. If, however, your system doesn’t use all its RAM on a regular basis, changing it won’t have the impact you need.
For those who don’t need a RAM upgrade, the better choice might be getting an SSD, upgrading to a new CPU, or installing a new graphics card.