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Memory is essential for your computer to function normally. If you don’t have enough RAM, your computer will perform poorly. Sometimes a problem known as a memory leak can result in your computer “running out” of RAM, even if you have a powerful machine.

What is a Memory Leak?

Your computer uses RAM as a temporary space to store and access data. When software requests RAM, the operating system assigns it. Once the software has no more need for this space, it can be released and used by other applications or system processes.

The exchange of RAM between different processes is what keeps your system running smoothly. Sometimes an error can occur where the software or process refuses to release the RAM once it’s done with it. The problem will get worse as the app keeps requesting more and more RAM until your computer runs out.

This is known as a memory leak since it presents as a continually disappearing pool of RAM. This problem can affect apps like web browsers, games, or even parts of the operating system. These problems can occur on Windows and macOS, as well as mobile devices.

How to Spot a Memory Leak (and What to Do)

It’s hard to perfectly spot a memory leak. If your computer struggles with performance, even when seemingly under little or no load, you could be running low on RAM due to a memory leak. Some operating systems will show a pop-up notifying you that you have run out of memory and that you need to close some applications to continue using your computer.

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An app causing the problem may become unresponsive or slow before things progress to that stage. This provides a window of opportunity to solve the problem before everything grinds to a halt.┬áThe easiest way to spot a memory leak is to look at your computer’s memory allocation.

On a Windows PC, you can do this using Task Manager by pressing Ctrl+Shift+Escape, or by right-clicking the Start button and selecting “Task Manager” from the menu. On the “Performance” tab, click the “Memory” column header to sort by the highest allocation. You can free up memory by selecting an app and clicking “End Task” to quit it.

Task Manager in Windows 11

On a Mac, you can do this by running Activity Monitor under Applications > Utilities or by pressing Command+Spacebar then typing “activity monitor” and hitting Enter when the app appears. Select the “Memory” tab, then click the “Memory” column to sort by usage. Select a process, then click the “X” above it to close it and free up memory.

Activity Monitor Memory tab

On a Chromebook, you can use an application like Cog to monitor system resources. It can be difficult to tell how much RAM usage is too much, but software instability and general system performance should give you an idea.

Sometimes the operating system is to blame, and these problems can be a little harder to fix. Your best bet in this instance is to save anything you are working on and restart your computer as you normally would. Both Microsoft and Apple regularly update their operating systems, so make sure you install updates that can fix these sorts of issues.

On iOS/iPadOS and Android, the operating system handles memory allocation. This means you don’t need to worry about individual apps taking more than their fair share, particularly when it comes to iOS and iPadOS since Apple tightly controls how much RAM an application can request. Restarting and updating your device is a good idea if you encounter system-wide performance issues.

RELATED: How to Update an iPhone

Keeping an Eye on System Performance

Modern operating systems don’t need babysitting, but it can be useful to know how to monitor system performance if you suspect things aren’t ticking along quite as they should.

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Read our guide to using the Windows Task Manager and how to troubleshoot your Mac using Activity Monitor for more insight. Good luck!

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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