Put very simply, RAM is ultra quick memory used to run programs – it is far quicker than the memory used in a hard drive. If a computer does not have enough RAM, Windows is forced to use part of the much slower hard drive instead – making the whole computer equally slow.
RAM is sometimes called a ‘stick’ of memory because it comes on a long thin strip – it is sold in sizes measured in GB or MB. Hard drives use cheap but slow memory to store your data e.g. a 500GB drive costs around $60 whereas RAM uses far more expensive memory. Common sizes are 512MB (half a GB), 1GB and 2GB. The same $60 might only buy 4GB of RAM but fortunately that is the maximum that most people need.
How To Tell If You Need More RAM – As a general guide, a typical home PC using XP needs a minimum of 1GB of RAM to run well whereas Vista and Windows 7 both need a minimum of 2GB. To check more precisely we need to know 2 things to work out if lack of RAM is slowing a computer down: how much RAM we actually have and how much of that RAM is being used – if all of it is used up and none is free then we definitely need to add more RAM.
To find this out – first open as many programs as you would normally have open at the same time e.g. web browser, email program etc. to give a better idea of your typical RAM usage. Now open Task Manager by right clicking on an empty part of the taskbar (at the bottom of the screen) and selecting ‘Task Manager’.
When Task Manager opens up click on the ‘Performance’ tab to see the RAM information. Task Manager looks different in XP and Vista/7 so we will look at them separately – first XP:
XP – Under ‘Physical Memory’ the Total figure tells you how much RAM the computer has in it but annoyingly it is measured in Kilobytes (K) – to keep it simple, lets say 1million K equals 1GB. In our example we have about 2million K which therefore equals 2GB of RAM. (Roughly half a million K would be 0.5GB etc).
Also underneath ‘Physical Memory’ the Available figure tells you how much RAM you have left i.e. not being used and still available to the computer. In our example it is around 1million K left which equals 1GB – loads of memory free. As only half our RAM is being used we do not need to add any more.
If your computer has no RAM left available (or less than 0.25GB) then you do need to add more but how much? Look under the ‘Commit Charge’ section and you will see the Peak figure which tells you the maximum amount of memory the computer has used since it was switched on – your computer needs to have a total RAM of at least that figure with plenty of room to spare.
E.g. if your Total in Physical Memory was 0.5GB (total you have) and your Peak in Commit Charge was 0.7GB (total you need as a minimum) then you should add at least another 0.5GB of RAM to your computer so that in future you have a total of 1GB of RAM – enough to cope with peaks in usage. Your computer should be noticeably quicker as a result.
Vista and Windows 7 – an example Task Manager is below:
Under ‘Physical Memory’ the Total figure tells you how much RAM the computer has in MB – in our example we have about 2000 MB which equals 2GB of RAM. (Roughly 1000MB would be 1GB etc).
Also underneath ‘Physical Memory’ the Available figure tells you how much RAM you have left i.e. not being used and still available to the computer. In our example it is around 950MB left which nearly equals 1GB – loads of memory free. As only half our RAM is being used we do not need to add any more.
If your computer has no RAM left available (or less than 0.5GB) then you do need to add more. RAM for modern Vista and 7 computers is so cheap at the moment that the following is a good guideline: add a 2GB stick of RAM if possible - if you only had 0.5GB or 1GB before you will end up with 2.5Gb or 3GB – a nice place to be for Vista and 7.
See our article for other ways to speed up a slow computer.