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Laptop RAM: Component Guide

How much RAM do you need, what kind should you get, and should you have it preinstalled?

by Jeffrey L. Wilson on August 20, 2009


If the CPU is the brain of a notebook, Random Access Memory (or RAM) is its lungs. Outfit your notebook with a significant amount of RAM, and it’ll breathe easy as you plow through applications, documents, multimedia files, and spreadsheets; an insufficient amount will result in sluggish performance that will make you want to kick your notebook to the curb.

Whenever you open a program, view a photo, or listen to an MP3, its data is stored in RAM for speedy retrieval. If you have more data in use than your RAM can store (and this is a common experience), Windows uses a virtual memory file on the hard drive to take up the slack. However, even the fastest hard drive or SSD is a lot slower than the slowest RAM chip, so the more actual RAM you have the better.

The Right Amount of RAM

Choose as much RAM as possible. Accept no less than 2GB on a Vista or Windows 7 system, but 3 to 4GB is preferable. Netbooks, which typically come with Windows XP, will run well with 1GB.

Types and Speeds of RAM

These days, RAM comes in two main varieties: DDR2 and DDR3. DDR2 RAM features speeds ranging from 400 MHz to 800 MHz, while the swifter DDR3 RAM operates at 800 MHz to 1.6 GHz. New notebooks support either DDR2 or DDR3 memory (but not both), and the difference isn’t significant enough to affect your buying decision.

When upgrading, the improved performance comes at a small premium. For example, (a popular online computer supply store) sells Corsair’s 4GB DDR3 kit (consisting of two 2GB sticks) for $90, while a 4GB DDR2 kit (consisting of two 2GB sticks) can go for under $50.

Preinstalled RAM vs. Self Upgrades

Although it’s convenient to pack your notebook with extra RAM while you’re configuring it on a vendor’s site, you can sometimes save money by adding more yourself. For example, at the moment, Lenovo charges $110 to move from 2 to 4GB of RAM on its ThinkPad T400, but buying the notebook with 2GB and replacing it with a 4GB kit of RAM you buy separately costs only $58.99 (, about half as much.

RAM and Your Operating System

If given a choice of operating system with your new notebook, always go for 64-bit Windows 7 or Vista, so you can support 4GB or more of memory. Regular 32-bit operating systems will not recognize more than about 3.5GB of memory. The latest version of Mac OS, Snow Leopard, comes only in 64-bit.

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