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How's Your Memory? (And How Much Do You Need?)

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Your desktop computer died and you realize that it's time to get a new one, maybe even a laptop, because of all the traveling you do. So you go into a computer store to see what's available—and it's then you realize that you have some key decisions to make. What brand, what model, whether it is a PC or Mac, etc.

But there's another decision to make that's confusing to most computer shoppers—especially for those of you who buy a new one only every four or five years.

How much memory do you need? (Because it seems to be related to cost.) That brings up more questions: What is computer memory anyway? What does it do? And how do you know how much YOU need? (Or how much for your wife, or teenage son who lives online?)

And didn't they used to call it "RAM"? They still do, but in all computer ads, it's simply called memory.

If you need a little guidance, here's what you need to know about memory/RAM before you go shopping.

The quick and dirty on memory.

Put simply, the more memory you have in your computer, the more you're able to do—the more computer functions it can handle simultaneously. As computer programs (and computer games) became more sophisticated, computers needed more memory to handle all the information.

"Two, four, six, eight..."

The term "memory" comes from "Random Access Memory," which is shortened to "RAM." Whatever you call it, how much do you need? It comes in gigabytes (GB) ranging from 2, 4, 6 to 32 and more.

Twenty years ago, 2GB was impressive. Not anymore. Still, how much do you need?

  • If you have a computer mostly for convenience—light Internet browsing, watching YouTube, writing Word documents—you're fine with 2 GB of RAM.
  • If you run multiple programs at once (spreadsheets, etc.) and keep dozens of browser Windows open at once, you might want 4 to 6 GB of RAM installed.
  • If you are a "power user" who plays online games heavily, or if you do digital video editing, you could need 8 to 12 GB, or more.

Memory and computer performance.

Memory capacity alone doesn't affect computer performance. For instance, if one program uses 200 MB of memory, it won't matter if you have 2 GB or 8 GB of memory. However, if you have 10 windows or programs open, each using 200 MB, then you might notice some slowness or other problems.

What memory can and cannot do.

More memory doesn't make your computer operate faster, although it could feel like it. Only a more powerful internal computer chip (the "processor") can do that. But more memory will allow you to do more things at once without problems—your computer can handle it better and you can work and play more efficiently.

You can run different programs simultaneously—giving you the ability to jump back and forth between programs or operations. It's called "multitasking." That's how a high school student can write an English essay, check his grades online, listen to online music through headphones and watch YouTube videos all at once, while his parents watch and wonder.

More memory doesn't help increase the amount of files or programs your computer can have loaded, either. That's what your computer's hard drive or internal storage space is for.

When memory was RAM.

Back in the 1980s when personal computers were first being introduced to everyone, there were several computer terms that everyone had to know: ROM, DOS, and RAM. They sound like three characters from a nursery rhyme, but they were at the heart of computer basics:

  • RAM—Random Access Memory.
  • ROM—Read-Only Memory, and it too was/is measured in gigabytes. Today, it's simply called the hard drive.
  • DOS—Disk Operating System, and it is history. Microsoft Windows took its place, thank goodness.

What are you doing?

Here's what to keep in mind: The more you want to do on your computer, the more memory you might need from the start. Less memory (2 GB) means a lower overall computer cost, maybe just $300 to $400 for a basic but genuine computer you can use to shop, work and watch cat videos. More memory (8 GB) will come at a higher cost ($500 to $700), but in a slicker computer to do more impressive, or important, things with.

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