RAM upgrade lets computer handle more tasks at once

May 22 2012 - 10:30am

You may know that RAM (random access memory) is computer memory and that it affects the speed of PCs, laptops and handheld electronic devices. But is there any benefit to upgrading and adding more RAM to your computer?

The amount of RAM in your system is the primary factor in how fast it boots up, launches programs, navigates between them and responds to your inputs. If you have too little RAM for the amount of tasks you ask your system to perform, it will run slowly, freeze or crash.

Upgrading RAM doesn't necessarily make programs run faster; it lets your system handle more tasks simultaneously. Let's imagine your computer is a home office. The hard drive is like a filing cabinet where your data and applications are stored. RAM is the desk in your office.

Every time you launch a program, it's as if you take a file from your filing cabinet and put it on your desk. Larger applications take up more space on your desk. A small desk will quickly run out of space to hold additional files. A larger desk (more RAM) allows your system to run more programs at the same time without performance lag.

When you don't have enough RAM to support all the programs you want to run, your computer will file away what you're not actively using to make room to run the new application. Let's say you're surfing the Internet when you launch Photoshop. Because Photoshop is a large program, it requires a lot of RAM to run.

If your computer doesn't have enough RAM to run both Photoshop and an Internet browser, the system will push the files for the browser out of RAM and onto your hard drive. When you navigate back to your browser, the system has to retrieve the data from the hard drive to re-launch your Web-surfing capability.

This process takes longer than accessing a program that's actively running. If you have enough RAM to run both applications, your system can leave the Internet browser fully functioning while you use Photoshop, allowing you to use both applications.

Every time your system has to dump data from RAM to make room for something else, or go to the hard drive to retrieve data to run a program, it takes time. This leads to a less responsive system. If you instruct your system to launch an application that it can't support, it may crash -- imagine the desk in the office scenario buckling under the weight of too many files.

Most applications instruct your system to automatically launch certain files from their program every time you start your computer. This makes it faster for the program to load when you select it. However, having multiple programs launch to your RAM simultaneously slows your system's boot-up if you don't have enough RAM.

When buying a new computer, few people purchase enough RAM to accommodate their future use. Software writers expect that systems will support progressively larger amounts of RAM in the future, so they often write bulkier programs that require more resources to run. As you install system and program updates, the applications grow larger. Suddenly, the RAM that was more than sufficient when you bought your system is now lacking.

After nearly a decade in the computer-repair business, I've never had anyone complain that his or her computer had too much RAM. The most common grievance: a slow, unresponsive system. RAM is the most noticeable upgrade for the average user. Luckily, it's relatively easy and inexpensive to add more RAM to your computer or laptop, resulting in a good bang for your buck compared to other hardware upgrades.

(Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds on Call, a company based in Redding, Calif., that offers on-site computer and home theater set-up and repair. Contact her at www.callnerds.com/andrea)


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