You’re building a new gaming PC. When it comes to choosing parts, you opt for the fastest or most powerful components your budget allows. You have your heart set on this graphics card, that CPU, and those storage drives. But when it comes to choosing memory, does opting for the most amount mean better performance?
Not necessarily. You might end up paying a lot extra for something that might simply never be used.
How Much RAM Do I Really Need?
In the past two decades, I’ve owned four custom-built PCs. Each new build, I’ve doubled the memory: 2GB DDR, 4GB DDR2, 8GB DDR3, and 16GB DDR4. With my latest rig, I was tempted to splash out on 32GB, or even 64. But in the end, after a lot of research and soul-searching, I settled for 16GB.
I’m glad I did. It’s more than enough memory for my day-to-day gaming requirements, and I give my PC a lot of heavy lifting to contend with. Despite being over two years’ old, this beast still runs AAA titles smoothly. Even while PhotoShop, 100+ Chrome tabs, and a worryingly-increasing amount of online gaming distribution platforms idle in the background.
But what about your needs? Envision what you want to get out of your PC. Are you a multi-tasker, constantly alt-tabbing between resource-intensive programs? Or a gamer who wants to max out the settings of your lush virtual world without compromising on framerate? Or do you just need a device to fire off a few emails and browse Reddit?
What you need from your computer should determine how much memory you actually need. If you have a specific game in mind, check the minimum specs on the publisher’s website, or wherever you downloaded it from, to get an idea of the amount you need.
A good rule of thumb is: 8GB bare minimum, 16GB for most gaming needs, and 32GB if you want to run multiple high-intensity programs simultaneously. There’s a little more to it than that, but we’ll get onto things like DDR and RAM speeds in a moment.
8GB vs 16GB vs 32GB RAM
Before you start thinking of RAM, it’s important to check which version of Windows you’ll be using. It’s vital you opt for the 64-bit version, as at 32-bit the memory is capped to a paltry 3.2GB; not nearly enough to do very much with. You could have 2TB of RAM stuffed in your PC (the max Windows 10 Pro allows!), it wouldn’t make a difference: 3.2GB is all the machine could use.
Given you’ll be shelling out for a machine with a 64-bit operating system, we’ll start with 8GB RAM. This is ideal if you’re on a lower budget. 4GB is enough to run basic Windows machines, but if you want any sort of performance, don’t go lower than 8. If you wish to have things run smoothly, but aren’t trying to push your machine’s capabilities to the limit, then 8GB is probably more than enough for you.
If, however, you want your PC’s performance to pack a powerful punch, then 16GB might be a little more ideal. For gamers, Call of Duty Modern Warfare’s recommended RAM is 12GB. It’s predicted that CD Projekt Red’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 recommends 16GB. If you’re gearing up your new PC for AAA flagship titles like these, then 16GB is the ideal for high-end gaming.
If you want to push into 32GB territory, you’re most likely someone who wants your PC to be a workhorse for high-end creative endeavours. Think editing video in 4K, 3D modelling, or rendering post-production visual effects. Adobe recommends 32GB for After Effects; Blender the same for optimal usage.
Is 64GB Too Much For Gaming?
If 32GB RAM is more than enough for even the most die-hard of PC taskmasters, hellbent on whipping their workstation to the very limits of its capabilities, then surely 64GB would be ridiculous? Perhaps.
For gamers, 64GB is certainly overkill: 16GB will be fine for new title releases in the near future.
It’s what else is on your PC hoovering up the memory that might require it. Browsers can eat up several gigs, particularly if you have a bunch of tabs open and extensions loaded. Sometimes I use a virtual machine to emulate old versions of Windows to play my nostalgic games of yesteryear: that can take up a gig or two. Running multiple virtual machines—common for developers—can really start to bite deep into the RAM reserves.
All in all: the only reason for me to have 64GB RAM in my PC is if I’m playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare at 4K resolution, processing a 4K video I edited, of a Hollywood-level CGI scene I created, and running a dozen virtual machines to test an industrial-scale app I developed …all at the same time.
RAM Speeds Explained
You’ve settled on your ideal amount of RAM: great! But there’s more to RAM than picking how much you want. No two sticks of RAM are alike – they could have different speeds, different latencies, different bandwidth, or different transfer rates. While the technical specs of RAM can be daunting, the most important thing to remember is that sticks of RAM will only work together if they’re of the same generation.
Since the early 2000s memory sticks have progressed through four generations: DDR (“Double Data Rate”), DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4. DDR5 is mooted for commercial release at some point in 2020. Keep in mind: these generations are incompatible with each other. You can’t have one stick of DDR4 memory and one stick of DDR3 in the same motherboard. Mainly because the slot shape of each is different, and your motherboard will only support one type.
Unless you’re buying second-hand stock that’s several years old, recent motherboards will most likely support DDR4. But check first! Most manufacturers have this information on their website. (If you’re upgrading your current rig and you don’t know your motherboard model, type msinfo32.exe into Windows 10’s taskbar search box, press return, and seek out “System model”)
Now, check the speed of the RAM – it’ll be in MHz. DDR4’s default maximum speed is 2400MHz, but you can buy DDR4 RAM that goes beyond 4000MHz. Like with CPUs, a higher number means faster processing, so naturally that also results in higher prices. A pair of branded 8GB sticks at 5000MHz currently sell for many, many times more than the same brand at 2400MHz.
But is the difference in performance worth it? There are several benchmark tests around that suggest that, whilst a higher clock speed on your RAM fractionally increases gaming performance, the larger factor is the RAM’s latency. CAS (Column Access Strobe) latency measures the delay time between the RAM receiving information—and then acting on it—in nanoseconds. Having a lower CAS appears to have more of an impact on increased gaming framerates than the clock speed.
When choosing RAM by speed: try to aim for a balance of lower CAS latency to higher MHz speed.
4GB RAM sticks vs 8GB RAM sticks vs 16GB RAM sticks
You now know the amount of RAM you need in GB and the optimum speed (MHz)/latency (CAS) ratio that fits your budget. Now onto the physical sticks themselves. Often, you’ll see RAM come in pairs of sticks. Search for 16GB RAM on most sites and you’ll find that, more often than not, the RAM advertised will come as a pair of 8GB sticks.
So why not just buy a single 16GB stick instead?
The answer is simple: double the sticks means double the pipes. Your CPU and RAM transfer a staggering amount of data through a 64-bit channel. With a single stick, you get one pipeline to funnel this data through. With a pair, you get two. Hence: theoretically double the data transfer. In reality, however, various benchmarks have proven that “dual channel” setups give about a 20% boost over “single channel” rigs.
So, it’s certainly worth buying a pair of sticks, especially as the price will be almost identical. Most motherboards have around 4 slots for RAM, which gives you the option to upgrade your memory later on, should your PC demand it.
Another point about upgrading: if you’re adding RAM, either add another identical stick (if you have the slots available), or replace it with a same-generation RAM stick of a larger value. Whilst it’s technically possible to use sticks of differing speeds, latencies, or voltages, doing so could cause you endless problems. For system stability, and your own sanity, it’s best to ensure your RAM sticks are all the same speed. Again, your motherboard manufacturer should be able to tell you the speeds of RAM it allows.
If you’re a gamer who uses a PC solely as a modern games console (and browser), then you’re likely to need 16GB of RAM. If you’re a content creator, where your PC is more of a workstation for editing high-fidelity video or processing 3D effects, then opt for 32GB (or even 64GB if you’re operating at an industrial level).
When it comes to speed, aim for high clock speed vs. low CAS latency within your budget. Check that the stick will play nice with the motherboard. There are plenty of tools for this. Both the memory and motherboard’s manufacturer’s websites will help you out here.
You’ll need a pair of sticks, each half the RAM you require: keep them identical, unless you want to live in a world of pain. 2x8GB for gaming boosts speeds by a solid 20%. That will leave you with two spare slots (depending on the motherboard) for upgrading in the future.
Finally, enjoy your smooth gaming experience, safe in the knowledge that you chose the precise type of RAM you need.