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How Much RAM Do You Need?

A simple RAM upgrade could make your laptop perform like a champ.


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by Jeffrey L. Wilson on January 4, 2010

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If the CPU is the brain of a notebook, constantly performing complex calculations, RAM is the lungs. Pack in enough memory, and your notebook will breathe easy as you speed through games, spreadsheets, and other applications. A lack of RAM, on the other hand, will make your notebook asthmatic, panting and wheezing as it sluggishly executes tasks. Conventional wisdom would have you cram a notebook with as much RAM as possible, but just how much impact does adding memory have on a notebook’s real-world performance?

The Gear

On our tests, we used a Gateway P-7808u FX running 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium as our base machine. We installed 2GB of Kingston 1.06-GHz DDR3 RAM (two 1GB sticks for $35 each), 3GB of Kingston 1.06-GHz DDR3 RAM (one 2GB stick and 1GB stick for $33 and $59, respectively), and 4GB of Kingston 1.06-GHz DDR3 RAM (two 2GB sticks for $59 each). Note: The 32-bit version of Windows will read about 3GB of RAM.

With each upgrade—2GB, 3GB, and 4GB of RAM—we launched four programs using our application open test: Abode Acrobat Reader, Adobe Photoshop CS4, Firefox 3, and Microsoft Word 2007. We also performed our test while stressing the notebook by compressing a 4.97GB mixed-media folder in the background. Then we ran PCMark Vantage, a synthetic test that gauges a notebook’s performance in Vista. We ran each benchmark three times, and took the average for our results.

Performance

With 2GB of RAM installed, our notebook opened Acrobat Reader in 11 seconds, Photoshop CS4 in 26 seconds, Firefox in 5 seconds, and Word 2007 in 7 seconds. The PCMark Vantage score of 4,274 was nearly 500 points higher than the 3,789 desktop replacement average (most systems in this category contain 4GB of RAM). Surprisingly, bumping up the RAM capacity to 3GB, and then to 4GB didn’t improve the application open times by a significant margin. The PCMark Vantage scores, on the other hand, jumped 415 and 602 points, respectively.

We noticed a bigger performance delta when we ran our stress tests: Application open times slowed to a crawl with 2GB installed; Acrobat Reader took 61 seconds, Firefox took 1 minute and 24 seconds, Word logged 1 minute and 49 seconds, and the Photoshop CS4 file took a painfully long 2 minutes and 24 seconds. With 3GB of RAM, our machine significantly reduced Firefox’s and Word’s open times (55 seconds and 61 seconds, respectively). Across the board, however, 4GB of RAM had the most impact; it reined in the obscenely long load times and cut stress test times nearly in half (or better in some cases). With 4GB installed, our notebook opened Acrobat Reader in 43 seconds, Photoshop CS4 in 1 minute and 43 seconds, Firefox in 40 seconds, and Word in 44 seconds.

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Verdict

Although 2GB of RAM may be good enough for performing such simple everyday tasks as Web-surfing, checking e-mail, and watching video clips, if you need more power for opening large files or heavy-duty multitasking, the extra memory will be worth the splurge.

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