What is RAM?

The one thing that people are asking about more often these days when shopping around for a laptop or computer is RAM. If technical jargon is not something you use in your day to day life or just want your computer to work regardless of what is in the box, then this guide may be helpful to you when choosing the right Laptop, PC or Mac.

One thing you will be told is important is RAM. This name, an abbreviation for “Random Access Memory” doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense on its own so it would be better to explain the function it carries out rather than how it does it technically. So, here we go…

If you have read our What is a computer? guide you’ll have a better grasp on this concept but basically the RAM in a computer is the physical space where a computer processor opens a programme. The more of this space you have the bigger the programme you can operate. So in essence RAM itself does not actually do anything, it is an empty computer chip where your information sits and your processor works to calculate the commands you make and the response you see on your screen. This information stays on this chip as long as there is power available which is why you lose the information if you don’t save it to your hard drive before powering your computer off. Your operating system (windows) opens in this space too hence the delay when you switch your computer on and have to wait as the information is written into this physical space.

Now you might ask how does this apply to your life and why should it be a concern to you?

Well, that all depends on what you use your computer for. Here is a chart that may shed some light on what amount of RAM your programmes use when running on your computer.

This chart displays RAM usage on a machine with 3GB (3000MB) installed.

As you can see your Windows or Apple operating system uses up to 1,000MB or 1GB of RAM just to switch on and allow you to navigate your computer. Otherwise most of the common programmes in everyday use, illustrated above in purple, do not use a lot of resources to operate.

So, as in this chart after the operating system is taken into account, opening a Microsoft Office Word document with 60 pages of text and diagram’s uses roughly 100MB out of a total of the 2,000MB available leaving you with 1,900MB of free space to operate other programmes. This type of use is true for 90% of users as one of the most common tasks a computer is asked to perform is web browsing which at most uses an average of 200MB. This was calculated using Internet Explorer with 5 tabs open. The tabs open accessed in the test were Youtube.com, Skysports.com, Facebook.com, Google news and Wikipedia all together to achieve this figure.

Where you might experience a bottle neck in speed is when the processor is not powerful enough to handle multiple tasks or highly complex tasks quickly enough. It is not a lack of RAM in most cases, as you can see from the chart, but a lack of multi tasking ability as even operating all purple programmes on the chart together from Anti Virus to watching a DVD only uses around 1,300MB of the available RAM.

The heavier graphics programmes like Photoshop and Autocad use a little less than 2000MB of available space to open as a programme but would require more RAM in order to open large files within the programme itself. This is where a higher grade computer is required as the processor is equally as important in this regard and in combination with the RAM in achieving acceptable workflow speeds.

So in essence if you only use your computer for simple tasks then RAM is generally at a level in low to mid range computers to satisfy your requirements. Reasons for wanting more RAM include the use of these heavier programmes and the possible need to future proof – you never know what hobbies or abilities you may discover or learn over the life of your computer.

Ronan Clarke

Harvey Norman
Airside Retail Park,
Swords, Co Dublin


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