Having insufficient random access memory (RAM) can definitely cause a computer to freeze or run slowly. RAM is a type of computer memory that temporarily stores information that the computer’s processor needs to access quickly. When you don’t have enough RAM, the computer has to constantly swap data between RAM and the hard drive, which really slows things down.
What is RAM and how does it work?
RAM, or random access memory, is a type of volatile computer memory that stores data and machine code currently being used by the system’s processor. Unlike other storage devices like hard drives and solid state drives, RAM is not used for long-term storage of programs and files. Instead, RAM temporarily stores data that the CPU needs in real time in order for programs to run smoothly.
For example, when you open a web browser, the program code and any websites you visit get loaded from the hard drive into RAM. As you browse from page to page, this data stays in RAM so that it can be accessed quickly without having to be reloaded every time you click a link. Any unsaved work is also stored in RAM until you save it to permanent storage.
RAM works by taking the data from the hard drive and encoding it into tiny electric charges stored by silicon chips on the RAM module. When the CPU needs to access this data again, it reads these electric charges to get the binary 1s and 0s that make up data. This process of encoding and decoding data happens extremely quickly thanks to RAM’s integration with the CPU via the memory bus.
How does insufficient RAM cause freezing and crashing?
If your computer runs out of available RAM, it will start to page (or swap) data between the RAM and hard disk. This is a slow process that can cause severe lag and make applications unresponsive. Excessive paging can lead to complete system freezes and crashes.
Specifically, here is what happens when RAM becomes insufficient:
- Active programs and data start taking up all available RAM.
- The operating system looks for inactive data in RAM to delete and make space.
- If there is no inactive data to delete, the OS starts paging least recently used data to the hard disk.
- The page file on the hard disk fills up as more data is paged from RAM.
- Paging data back and forth from the hard disk to RAM creates a bottleneck and causes system lag.
- The system eventually freezes as the paging process overwhelms the CPU and RAM.
- A complete crash occurs if critical OS files get paged out of RAM.
Essentially, your computer needs a certain minimum amount of RAM to run all active applications and processes efficiently. When RAM fills up, performance degrades quickly leading to freezing and crashing. Upgrading RAM is the only way to resolve this issue.
How much RAM do you need?
The amount of RAM you need depends on your operating system, the applications and programs you run, and your multitasking habits.
Here are some general RAM requirements:
- Windows 10: Microsoft recommends a minimum of 4GB RAM, but 8-16GB is optimal for gaming and heavy multitasking.
- MacOS: Apple recommends a minimum of 4GB RAM for Macs, but 8GB or more is better for an optimal experience.
- Chromebooks: 2-4GB of RAM is sufficient for most Chromebook users. Power users may benefit from 8GB.
- Gaming computers: Most modern games require at least 8GB RAM. 16-32GB is recommended for top gaming performance.
Of course, these are just general guidelines. The more programs you tend to run simultaneously, the more RAM you need for smooth performance. For example, keeping dozens of browser tabs open while also running productivity apps and other software will require more RAM than doing basic tasks like web browsing and word processing.
Signs you need more RAM
Here are some common signs that indicate your system may need more RAM:
- – Programs freeze, crash or run very slowly
- – Opening files and launching programs takes a long time
- – Web pages load slowly and browser responds slowly
- – Games run slowly or stutter despite meeting other requirements
- – Hard drive light is constantly active as system pages memory
- – “Out of memory” error messages
- – OS gives warning that system is low on memory
- – Check RAM usage in Task Manager and it’s mostly used up
If you notice these symptoms, your system is likely struggling with insufficient RAM. Try closing some programs and tabs to free up memory. If the problems persist, consider upgrading your RAM.
Should you upgrade RAM or CPU?
If your computer is slow and unresponsive, should you upgrade the RAM or CPU first? Here are some guidelines:
- If you’re frequently maxing out your RAM usage, upgrade RAM first.
- If CPU usage is consistently around 100% and RAM usage is normal, upgrade the CPU first.
- If both RAM and CPU are topping out, focus on RAM first then do CPU.
- Getting more RAM is cheaper than upgrading the CPU.
- Extra RAM also lets you keep more programs and browser tabs open.
- Faster CPU speeds only help with processor-intensive tasks like video editing.
In most cases, extra RAM will provide the biggest general performance boost for your dollar by reducing paging and allowing programs to run smoothly. Upgrading an older CPU may help for specific intensive tasks. But for general system responsiveness under normal workloads, RAM is typically the best upgrade option.
Adding more RAM
Installing more RAM in a desktop PC is a straightforward upgrade. Laptops may make RAM upgrades more challenging. Here are some tips:
- Check how many RAM slots your computer has and how much current RAM is installed.
- Buy DDR4 SODIMM RAM modules compatible with your computer.
- Power down, open the case, and plug modules into spare slots.
- For laptops, check service manual for how to access RAM compartment.
- Run a memory test after installing to check for errors.
- Re-enable dual channel or triple channel mode in BIOS if applicable.
It’s wise to match the speed and timings of your existing RAM modules if possible. Go for reputable brands like Crucial, Kingston, or Corsair. Avoid no-name discount RAM as it may be unreliable. With desktops, aim to fill all RAM slots evenly for best performance.
How to check RAM usage
To check how much RAM your system is using:
- Windows: Open Task Manager > Performance tab. Check Memory section.
- Mac: Open Activity Monitor > Memory tab. Check Memory Used.
- Linux: Open System Monitor > Processes tab. Sort by Memory.
- Chromebook: Open Settings > Device > Memory section.
This will show total RAM installed versus current RAM usage by all processes. Consistently seeing usage around 90-100% indicates you need more RAM.
Tips for conserving RAM
To minimize RAM usage if upgrading is not an option:
- Close browser tabs and programs you aren’t using.
- Set browser tabs to suspend after being inactive.
- Uninstall software and features you don’t really need.
- Use lighter weight apps – ex. lightweight text editor vs heavyweight IDE.
- Increase virtual memory size in Settings as temporary help.
- Disable visual effects and transparency in System Preferences.
- Check for memory leaks – apps using RAM and not releasing it.
Keep an eye on RAM usage when multitasking and try to balance need for performance vs available memory.
Insufficient RAM is one of the most common causes of computer freezes, crashes, and slow performance. When active processes fill up your available memory, paging data to disk leads to lag and unresponsiveness. Upgrading to the recommended amount of RAM – at least 8GB for modern systems – can significantly improve speed and stability. Checking your current RAM usage in Task Manager or similar utilities can reveal if you need more memory. While adding RAM may not help every performance issue, it should be one of the first upgrades to consider when experiencing system problems.