More RAM? Or maybe a new Computer?

Well, my sister asked me today which is better, getting more RAM, or just getting a new computer. I’ll do my best to explain.

Your CPU is directly responsible for the speed at which a computer program runs. If programs load slow, take a long time to do certain tasks, and your computer seems generally clunky, It COULD be that purchasing a new computer with a faster CPU would help speed things up.

Now, it gets complicated when you factor in costs of memory and disk access. Generally, when a program needs to access information, it first loads it from the disk and then stores it in memory. From there, it fetches it again from memory until the information is processed and then, usually, saves it back to the disk. Fetching information from the disk is very slow, and from memory is still quite slow, when compared to the speed that the processor is running and doing work at. This is true even for your older CPU. If a program is running slow, it is very important to determine if it is slow because the CPU is busy doing work, or if it is slow and the CPU is idle waiting for information to load.

The equation is further complicated by how computers manage memory. As long as the programs you have running don’t take up all of your memory, your CPU can access the information it has loaded into memory without any delay. If, on the other hand, you load a lot of programs at once, or one program takes up a lot of memory, your computer takes some of the memory that isn’t being used at the moment and saves it onto the disk. When you switch back to the program you weren’t using for a while that had been swapped out, your computer has to load the stored memory from the disk back into memory before it can access it. This additional load requirement for memory access causes delays in program execution. In some cases, you might be attempting to load multiple programs that together, require more memory than you have. The computer would be forced to constantly swap memory back and forth from the disk in order to provide each program that which is request. This process is called swapping and can render a computer almost unusable.

In order to answer the question, it is important to figure out which scenario best fits your computers symptoms. If you are using Windows XP, you can right click on the task bar and choose task manager. Under the “Performance” tab, you’ll be able to find information on how much memory is being used and how fast your processor is running. When you notice your computer going slow, take a look at how much CPU usage is being reported. Also, notice how much virtual memory is being used, and how much physical memory you have. If you you have a higher value under the “commit charge” setting than you have physical memory, you may find that purchasing more memory increases the speed of your computer. If however, you see a high CPU load, but notice you have plenty of memory left, it may be time to go ahead and upgrade your computer.

In short, a new computer system will probably make things seem faster regardless. It’ll have a little faster processor, possibly more memory, and probably a better disk drive. If your problem is specifically related to memory however, you may find that spending $40 on another bit of memory makes all the difference you need.

Additional Notes:

  1. Here is some additional information on the task manager
  2. You have to make sure you CAN add more memory to your computer.
  3. CPUs can sometimes be upgraded too depending on what you currently have and what model of motherboard you have.
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5 Responses to More RAM? Or maybe a new Computer?

  1. Anders says:

    Or maybe you have to clean up all those programs you have installed (or maybe came preinstalled), that thinks that they HAVE to to be loaded each time Windows boots.

    They can have a big impact on system performance / CPU usage / memory usage.

    I have “saved” a couple of computers / Windows installations by cleaning up such programs.

  2. Dennis says:

    Anders is right. You can use the same procedure above to see how much memory is available, clean up unused programs, then repeat and see if the available memory has increased enough that it makes a difference in whatever was running slow.

  3. bokkun says:

    one thing that helps enormously on windows computers, is to do a complete re-install of the operating system (for me this is required about once a year). Assuming your hardware vendor was kind enough to provide you with the “system discs”, and you have access to all your drivers and software, this process can generally be finished in a day or so, and you computer will be restored to its pristine, brand new, state that it was in when you bought it. Kinda what “Anders” said, only to the extreme.

    Important: “brand-new” means all your documents will dissapear as well, so it would be wise to backup all your pictures, music, email, etc. to an “external hdd” before you even think about putting in that windows disk. Microsoft has little regard for your precious linux partitons as well, so be extra careful if you dual-boot.

  4. Nice Article Dennis. You done a great job explaining it.

    You’re correct that it does come down to what’s happening to the computer. If you use the task manager and notice that your ram is gone just after starting your computer, then buying more ram can help. But if the computer is old, buying more ram is just not going to do anything.

    Also many of today’s software is a lot more resource intensive then years ago. They need more CPU power, more RAM, and more Disk space just to work.

    I would expect that if you computer is more than 3 years old, then it’s probably better to buy a new one, if not, then getting more ram can never hurt!

    Take care,

    p.s. You can also check out my squidoo lens to get information speeding up your computer by do a little spring cleaning on it.
    Computer Speed Test Lens

  5. Good post. I have seen it on my computer too. An increase of memory is always good and improves the performance of other computer or laptop!
    As came to this site, I saw this website below which also deals with the subject!

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