RAM–What “Ewe” Need to Know (pun warning came too late)

image of RAMwhat it is–in real people’s terms
RAM stands for for Random Access Memory. It’s not storage, and it’s not the hard drive. It’s the thing your computer uses to keep track of stuff it’s working on right now or very recently. Your computer can’t start without it; if you don’t have RAM installed, it simply won’t complete the startup process. It actually won’t get very far into the startup process. The computer needs RAM because your operating system runs a lot of its operations from RAM, and it needs to have some things handy all the time, so at bootup, some things get loaded into RAM and stay there until you shut down or reboot. When you start a program, it loads into RAM. It’s what makes “multitasking” possible.

Think of RAM as sticky notes. You use those for short-term storage of something you need to remember. It’s not a permanent record that you would take to get notarized, it’s not the way you’d write a book or a research paper. At some point you will act on what you wrote on a sticky note, and then you can throw the sticky note away. As long as you’re only working on one or two things at any given time, you can get away with just a few sticky notes and just a few places to stick them. And before the end of the day you need to do something with what you wrote on them, because the cleaning crew will come around and throw them all away. That’s what happens to the contents of RAM when you shut down–it’s gone. Not to worry, it’s not where you actually “store” stuff. This is just a holding place for what you are actively using.

But the more complex the project, or the more projects you have going on at any one time, the more sticky notes you’re likely to generate, and the more space you are going to allocate to being able to see them.

differences over time
Once upon a time, when everything was much simpler and we didn’t even need to know this stuff, we could get away with a lot less RAM. Operating systems were simpler and didn’t do as much for us. Just the progression from the old DOS command-driven operating systems to the graphical user interface based systems increased the RAM requirements dramatically. The programs we used were smaller and did less at any moment in time than we call on them to do now; even the ones that were complex back then, like the engineering programs like AutoCAD, didn’t use a fraction of the resources they use now. Since we’re asking our computers to do more for us all at once or in rapid succession, they need more RAM, more sticky notes and places to put the sticky notes.

Back in 1998, we got our first personal computer. The operating system was Windows 98, it had an Intel Pentium II processor running at 333 mHz, it had an 8GB hard drive, and 256 MB of RAM. If none of that made sense to you, or very little sense, that’s okay, the main purpose is to demonstrate the differences in numbers. My most recent Windows computer had Windows 7 Professional, it had an Intel Core i5 processor running at 2.5 GHz. it had a 250 GB hard drive, and 4 GB of RAM that I upgraded to 8 GB. The newer operating systems require more RAM just to run, and that is before you even open up any programs. We expect them to do more, and they do. But because there’s more going on “under the hood” at any given time, the operating system needs to have more stuff handy to pull up and use at any given time. The same holds true with the programs you use. They’re capable of more, they have more options, they’re prettier, and all these things require more RAM to store what they need to offer up all that goodness.

memory vs storage
When someone uses the word “memory,” that means RAM–or at least, it should. Occasionally I will hear someone use the word “memory” when they actually mean “storage,” the place where they park their files when they’re done creating them. Storage is your hard disk drive, or a CD, or an externally connected drive of some kind, and that’s a subject for another post. A little further down the page is the exception to that.

Windows, at boot, can pre-load some programs into RAM so that they don’t take as long to open. Linux operating systems offer this as well, but not Mac OS. That’s one of the things that causes Mac to boot faster, but I’ve found that applications take noticeably longer to load on Mac than they do in Windows, because Windows already has a portion of the most-used programs pre-loaded, or pre-fetched. There is a file that stores the references as to which programs are going to be pre-fetched, and that file can be adjusted, edited, or even emptied out so that nothing gets prefetched. That will improve the boot time, but it will slow down the process of opening programs. It’s a matter of choosing what is more important to each user, but unless your computer has other problems or already doesn’t have enough RAM to operate well, you should be fine just leaving it as it is. The system will “learn” which applications you often use, and it will prefetch only those.

virtual memory
This is the one of the exceptions I mentioned up in the memory vs. storage paragraph. Your computer’s operating system has the capacity to use a portion of the hard disk drive like RAM. Your computer has a portion of the hard drive set aside for this purpose. If your RAM gets filled up with all the stuff you’re working on, then your computer will shift some of the pages of stuff from RAM into that portion. It’s called a page file, or virtual memory. You can manually adjust the size of this file, but with today’s operating systems, there’s really no need to do that. First off, today’s hard drives are big enough that reducing the size of that file just isn’t necessary to save space on the drive, and that’s really the only reason you’d want to consider doing that. And increasing the size is very likely unnecessary, because the size is set pretty large by default. And even if you are pretty sure you have plenty of RAM, you still want to keep a decent-sized “swap file” (another term for page file), because even though your programs are supposed to release any of the RAM they were using when they were open and in active use, they don’t always, and so that portion of RAM will not be available until you reboot. If you were to reduce the size of this file, you would be limiting the amount of additional RAM available to the system and programs; if that file fills up along with RAM being filled up, the operating system will try and shift stuff back and forth hunting for space to hold stuff you’re working on, and you will hear a long, drawn-out flurry of hard drive activity and you won’t be able to do anything. You may see the spinning hourglass, or the spinning circle, or the spinning beach ball, or whatever your “I’m too busy to help you” icon is. We call that “thrashing,” and in addition to being annoying and frustrating, it puts wear and tear on a hard drive.

using flash drive as ram
Starting with Windows 7, Microsoft introduced Ready Boost, which allows you to use a flash drive (otherwise known as a pen drive or thumb drive) or a memory card like a camera’s SD card as extra RAM. Certain hard drives, called Solid State Drives, can’t make use of this technology, though, because they are already fast enough that there isn’t any advantage to using it. Your drive or card should have at least 1 GB capacity if you’re going to use it this way, but you don’t have to use the whole thing as RAM. You can, but you don’t have to. When you insert the drive or card into its slot, Windows will “mount” or initialize the device, and assign it a drive letter. Your main drive, your hard drive, is C:\, if you have an installed CD or DVD drive, it’s probably D:\, and your inserted device will be something after that, depending on what else you have installed, but in your window where you see your drives, there will also be some sort of description. If you right-click on that drive and select Properties, if that device can be used as RAM, you will see a tab called ReadyBoost. In that tab you can choose to never use that device as RAM, to use that device ONLY as ram, or to just “use” the device as RAM without completely dedicating it to that purpose.  It’s pretty handy as an emergency measure, but RAM is so inexpensive that if you find yourself using it more than twice, it would probably be worth buying more RAM.

RAM is the least expensive upgrade you can do for your computer, and one of the most effective. However, buying the wrong RAM takes you in exactly the wrong direction. There are several ways to find out what RAM you need. For Macs, it’s in the System Information. For Windows, go to Start>right click on Computer (or My Computer) and select Properties. Most of the RAM vendors can tell you what you are likely to need if you know a few things about the computer, and those things are going to be listed along with instructions on how to find what you need. Crucial (http://www.crucial.com) has a Memory Advisor Tool that will scan your computer, tell you what your computer CAN use, what it IS using, and what RAM you could use to improve performance. This is a safe tool to use, I trust this company completely. Note: as of 10/2/2013, Crucial is not a sponsor of this site, I am receiving no compensation from them. Most RAM vendors offer a lifetime warranty on their memory, although if the product performs well for over a year, and then fails, even though the vendor would replace it (with proof of purchase, of course), by that time you would probably want to upgrade it again anyway.  Call it “need creep,” over time we find that what worked fine a year ago is suddenly inadequate.

why does it come with a lifetime warranty?
For the most part, you’ll know pretty quickly if you got a bad stick of RAM. Either the operating system won’t recognize it, or the computer won’t boot with it in its slot, but will boot when you remove it, or something bizarre happens that can’t be explained. Yes, I know that covers a lot of ground. I’ve had RAM go bad and do all of those things, and the bizarre thing that happened was the file manager quit working. Scared me to death, I thought I was about to lose everything on my hard drive.

You want to hang onto the sales receipt for your RAM, because if it goes bad it will almost certainly be replaced at no cost. Yes, sometimes RAM just “goes bad.”

the bottom line–what you need to know
When you are shopping for RAM, more is always better. RAM is very inexpensive as computer components go, so put as much in as you can afford, and as much as your system will hold. The tool I pointed you to at Crucial will map out how many slots you have, what size (capacity) can go in the total slots, what you have in there right now, and a recommended upgrade.  Of course they will always recommend maxxing it out; so do I. You will never, ever have too much RAM in your system. If you are running Windows XP 32-bit–and at this point, you really should NOT be doing that–you will be limited to using 3 GB in your system. But if you have purchased a computer in the past five or six years, max it out. Get the highest capacity sticks  available for your system, and get as many of them as your system will hold. It will make a ton of difference in performance.

Any questions?

photo credit: Davis Mosans

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