How much RAM do you need

7 min read

RAM, or ‘Random Access Memory,’ is essentially an un-writable memory your computer uses for computational power. We tend to focus on a device’s CPU to decipher how much processing power it has, but RAM is just as critical. It gives your CPU and other hardware features (like the GPU) necessary memory allocation to do what needs to be done.

In 2021, computers have a wide range of RAM. Some have 4GB, and others can be purchased off the shelf with up to 16GB. Many pro-level machines are easily configurable with up to 64GB RAM. A default level of RAM is around 8GB, but is 8GB RAM enough?

You might be wondering ‘how much RAM do i need,’ and that’s fair. It’s never an easy decision to make. Here we’ll discuss how much is enough, how to get more RAM, and discuss the best ways to manage your Mac’s performance.

What is RAM and how does it work?

As we noted above, RAM means ‘Random Access Memory,’ but what does that mean? 

RAM acts like temporary memory space only your computer can access. You can’t save files or folders to it. The RAM on your device is there so your CPU or GPU can run programs or games. The data on your RAM can be written and rewritten quickly, and the data is only meant to be held on your RAM while a task is being performed.

Think of RAM as though it were your computer’s work bench in a shop; it’s where it places all its necessary tools, and works on projects. If you were playing a game or running some intensive program, your computer will be writing, rewriting, and overwriting data on your computer’s RAM the entire time. When you end the program or game, your RAM is cleared of the data associated with the game.

RAM is also used when you do anything on-device, like navigate to folders or files. This is why computers with less RAM feel sluggish; your computer has less room to process your commands, so even the simplest task take a while. It’s like a craftsman with a small work bench! To do another task, they have to first clear their small desk or bench instead of just working on the new project at a different spot on their work bench.

How to check your RAM

When you need to know how to see how much RAM you have, it can feel daunting. But it’s not! The most basic way to do it through your Mac’s menu. Here’s how:

  1. On your Mac’s menu bar, click the Apple logo
  2. Select About this Mac
  3. Make sure ‘overview’ is selected

Check RAM memory on a Mac

Where you see the term ‘Memory’ is the amount of RAM you have on your computer. As we can see below, this Mac has 16GB RAM.

(Keep in mind RAM is not how much memory you have to save files. To find that, repeat the first two steps above, then navigate to the ‘Storage’ heading. This tells you how much writable space you have for apps, files, folders and other things.)

This is a basic way to check your RAM – and that’s fine! It tells you in short order how much RAM you have on your device. But there’s a better way to check and manage your RAM’s use. 

An app named iStat Menus is a great way to monitor your Mac’s performance is real time, including your RAM use. It helps answer that age-old question ‘how much memory do i need’ without all the guess work.

iStat Menus lives in your Mac’s menu bar, with widgets that quickly tell you how your Mac is performing. Each widget has a drop-down menu with more data, including things like which apps are using the most computational power on your Mac. 

Check memory in iStat Menus monitor

One of those menus has a ‘Memory’ section which quickly tells you exactly how much RAM is being used, and how much is free. This is the best way to check on your computer if its performance feels sluggish. 

How much RAM do you need in 2021?

Before buying a computer in 2021, checking the level of RAM is critical. Some very basic apps take up a lot more RAM than you might think! (Looking at you, Google Chrome…)

Here are some recommendations for how much RAM to look for in 2021 when buying a new computer:

  • 2GB: If you find a computer with 2GB RAM or less, pass it up. This will be terribly slow. You may be able to do simple things like email or browse the internet, but the performance will be lacking.
  • 4GB: This is a basic level of RAM offered by most computer manufacturers. It’s suitable for basic computer usage – internet, email, basic app usage – but won’t be able to do much more than that. We would advise this for a child, but not  professional.
  • 8GB: Now we’re talkin’! If you were thinking ‘how much RAM do i need for gaming,’ this is a starting point. This level of RAM will be a great starting point for most users, and leave them with enough RAM to multitask on any platform.
  • 16GB: This is when things start getting good. Keep in mind modern MacBook Pros start with 16GB RAM – but 16GB RAM is the upgrade option for a MacBook Air. This is an important way to distinguish the difference between 8GB and 16GB RAM for a Mac user. It’s suitable for just about any task, including gaming and other process-heavy apps.
  • 32GB or more: An iMac Pro starts at 32GB RAM, and can be configured with up to 256GB RAM. This much RAM is for industry professionals who need a ton of computational power. Video producers, musicians, and others will demand this much. Gamers just want it!

Keep in mind RAM is typically offered on 2x increments (2GB, 4GB, 8GB, etc.), but you can find other levels. Some computers have 6GB RAM, for instance. 

Here are some RAM recommendations for common use-cases:

  • Media streaming: We’d advise 4GB to be the base level RAM you should get. Browsers are intensive, and some sites (Netflix, etc.) have their own processes that ask more of your RAM. Keep in mind if you have a computer with 4GB RAM, media streaming will be about all you can do.
  • Web Browsing: 4GB is enough, but 8GB is better, especially with the modern web being so process-heavy and the fact you’ll likely be dipping and diving through multiple tabs that need to be reopened often.
  • Office productivity: 8GB is the lowest you should go. Depending on your job, normal ‘office’ tasks are better on a machine with 16GB or more.
  • Photo editing: Oddly enough, this will depend on the type of editing you do, and the app you use. Photoshop, for instance, is quite process heavy. A great lightweight editor like CameraBag Pro – not so much. We’d advise 8GB is basic if you’re using a good lightweight editor, but 16GB is preferred.
  • Gaming: Gamers always want as much RAM as possible, so the sky’s the limit. We suggest an absolute minimum 16GB RAM, but scale it up as far as you can if you’re going to be doing a lot of gaming.

How to get more RAM

Most PCs can have actual RAM added to the machine. Macs – not so much. A few years ago, Apple made it impossible to upgrade RAM after purchase. It’s important to buy as much RAM as you can when purchasing a Mac in 2021. There’s simply no way to ‘add’ Ram after a purchase, which has left many professionals and hardware enthusiasts upset.

But you can manage your RAM wisely! One amazing app for this purpose is CleanMyMac X, which has a metric ton of uses. We’ll focus on its memory management, though.

Like iStat Menus, CleanMyMac X lives in the menu bar. It’s drop-down menu has widgets that show you how your Mac is performing. The ‘Memory’ section sows how much RAM is being used, and its ‘clean up’ option frees up your RAM as much as possible. The little ‘i’ button shows you which applications are using your RAM most.

If you need more physical RAM, modern Mac users will probably need to buy a new computer, unfortunately. PC users have it better on this front; they can upgrade their RAM more often.

This is why a good system management app is critical. Both iStat Menus and CleanMyMac X do a great job of monitoring your Mac’s performance, and we really like CleanMyMac X’s ability to quickly clean up your RAM’s used space. It’s incredibly handy when you feel your machine getting sluggish.

Both of these great apps are available for free as part of a seven-day trial of Setapp, the world’s best suite of productivity apps for your Mac. In addition to these apps, you’ll gain immediate and unlimited access to dozens of others in Setapp’s catalog.

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