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Is 8-12 GB the "New Normal" for RAM Size, or Should You Go Bigger?

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With 64-bit operating systems standard these days, and RAM dirt-cheap, upping the memory ceiling on Windows PCs is mostly a matter of choosing 8, 12, 16, or more GB. Find out about some important considerations and the uses to which this RAM will support.

There's no disputing that PC memory is dirt cheap nowadays. You can purchase 8 GB notebook SO-DIMMs right now for under $50 each (204-pin DDR3) and 8 GB desktop modules go for as little as $5 less (240-pin DDR3).

There was a time when the cost of memory and the maximum size of memory modules limited how much you might stuff into your favorite notebook or laptop. And for a long time, 4GB represented an excellent sweet spot in the trade-off between memory capacity and memory cost. But that's just no longer true.

If you look at preconfigured notebook PCs for sale at the moment, you'll immediately notice that 4 GB is standard for low-end notebooks, and 6―8 GB standard for mid-range to high-end notebooks and desktops. In fact, many of the Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge notebooks offer 8 GB as a standard configuration and permit users to install as much as 16 GB of RAM for power users in need of maximum working space.

The top end for desktops, whose larger motherboards often feature more than 2 memory slots quickly jumps to stratospheric levels when systems with 4, 6, or 8 memory slots combine with 4 or 8 GB memory modules. If you do the math, that puts the low end at a mere 16 GB and the top end at a whopping 64 GB.

Right now, in fact, my production Windows 7 desktop includes an Asus P6x58D-E motherboard whose 6 memory slots each feature a 4GB G.Skill DDR3-1333 memory module, for a total of 24 GB of RAM.

Figure 1 SIW.exe shows a 6x4GB memory configuration

I also have a Windows 8 test desktop with an Asus P8Z68-V Pro whose 4 memory slots each incorporates an 8GB G.Skill DDR3-1333 memory module, for a total of 32 GB of RAM.

Figure 2 SIW-x64.exe shows a 4x8GB memory configuration

What's All That Memory Good for?

It's not unreasonable to ask why somebody might want to run a PC with 8, 12, 16 or more GB of RAM. Aside from bragging rights, what does access to that much memory really provide? Aside from the most obvious answer—lots of fast, snappy workspace—the most productivity-enhancing answers include the following:

  • Room for multiple, sizable virtual machines: Because Windows 8 includes Hyper-V, you can not only allocate large memory spaces to VMs but also endow them with more than one CPU per VM. Although Windows Virtual PC (a likely choice for VMs on Windows 7) limits VM memory to 3.625 GB in size (3,712 MB), it doesn't take long to chew up substantial amounts of RAM with two or more such machines active at the same time.
  • Many, many open browser tabs and windows: Until recently, my production PC was a speedy 4 GB QX9650 quad core. Though it was fast enough, I routinely found myself running low on RAM because my work style is to have both Chrome (left-hand screen) and IE (right-hand screen) open, with anywhere from 4 to 12 tabs open in each browser.

    Since I raised the memory ceiling, I haven't had the slightest concern about the number of open browser windows or tabs on my desktop (a quick check in Task Manager right now shows I am using 449 MB for Chrome and 197 MB for IE: a negligible portion of my overall RAM).
  • A plethora of open applications: Right now I have 20.21 of 24.57 GB of RAM available, even though I'm running two instances of Windows Explorer, Outlook and Word 2010, Task Manager, System Information for Windows (SIW.exe, technician's version), and two open RDP sessions (one to my Windows 8 desktop machine, another to my Lenovo T520 notebook PC).

    Even though I've already exceeded my limit for the old 4 GB rig, I can still open a couple of VMs and as many more applications as I might need or want. With 12 GB or more to work with, most users will be able to concentrate on the work at hand, rather than juggling memory resources.
  • Use a RAM Disk to further speed applications: If you have more than enough RAM installed on your system (an amount I define as "at least 4 GB more than peak memory usage for normal work scenarios"), you can allocate some of that memory to a RAM-based disk structure for Windows 7 or Windows 8. Essentially, this involves setting aside a fixed amount of RAM that becomes unavailable for other use, where you can store files or applications to access them at memory speeds.

    Though SSDs are fast, RAM remains as fast as secondary storage gets on a PC. If you have memory to burn, a RAM disk is a good way to burn some. Try one or all of the following products: LTRData's ImDisk (free), DataRAM RAMDisk (free version supports up to 4 GB, licensed version more than 4 GB), or StarWind RAMDisk (up to 1 GB with multiple instances; free). The upside of a RAM disk is extreme speed, but for some of these tools (ImDisk and StarWind RAMDisk) you have to manage RAM disk contents yourself (copy in stuff before use, copy out stuff after use, to preserve and maintain contents). The commercial version of DataRAM RAMDisk automates initialization upon start-up and copies contents during shutdown, which definitely makes it worth its $19-39 licensing fee in my book. For notebook PCs with plenty of RAM, a RAMdisk is an especially good tool because the battery has to keep RAM running whether you use it or not. Using a RAMdisk instead of an SSD or hard drive can even help extend battery life.

For RAM, More Is Really Better!

Given how cheap memory is these days, it's a shame not to stock new machines up with as much as they can accommodate. As is usually the case for available resources, once you have lots of RAM at your disposal, you'll soon figure out interesting ways to use it. And soon, no doubt, you'll clamor for more. And with technology on a continuous upswing, it's just a matter of time before 16 GB memory modules become available for notebooks and desktops. You might just choose to double up at that time, if your desktop or notebook PC will allow it.

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