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Is more memory or fast memory better?

First-time RAM buyers can get tripped up by densities and speeds

Does “8GB 2666 MT/s RAM” make sense to you? If it looks like alphabet soup, you’re not the only one who feels that way.

If you’ve never installed computer hardware and you’re considering a memory (RAM or DRAM) upgrade, you’re on the right track to fixing a slow desktop or laptop. But your head might spin if you have to choose between 4GB 2400 MT/s, 4GB 2666 MT/s, 8GB 2400 MT/s, and 8GB 2666 MT/s. Even if you know they’re densities and speeds, which option do you need? Here’s how to make that call.

How to read memory specs

An 8GB 2666 MT/s memory module, for example, has a density of 8 gigabytes (GB) and has a speed of 2666 megatransfers per second (MT/s).

This is what that means:

Density, also known as capacity, is the maximum amount of data the module can hold at once.

Speed, also known as frequency, is the amount of commands (megatransfers) that the memory can send to the central processing unit (CPU) in a given period of time, which then gets processed into what you see and do on your computer.

 

Density or speed? Here’s the short answer

When you’re forced to decide, choose density. But (you knew there was going to be a “but”), it’s more of a priority issue, not an either/or situation. Density is the first priority, speed the second.

DDR4 (the latest memory technology, which matters when figuring out compatibility) memory speeds generally range between 2133 MT/s and about 3000 MT/s. DDR3 memory (common in older computers) speeds range from 1066 MT/s to 1866 MT/s. Let’s say, for example, you buy some RAM that’s rated at 3000 MT/s. If your computer’s CPU or motherboard can only run memory at speeds up to, say 2400 MT/s, the system will only run the memory at 2400 MT/s. There are also maximum limits on densities, so you can’t install 64GB of memory in a system that can only support 8GB.
 

How density and speed benefit what you do

Depending on how you use your computer, and what your computer is capable of, you’ll experience the benefits of a memory upgrade differently. Although it’s difficult to separate density from speed and vice versa, here are a few activities and what you would likely notice if you added density or speed.
 

What’s active data?

When you’re using your computer, there are many operations, processes, and commands going on in the background that consume RAM resources. These are what your OS does behind-the-scenes –things that make sure your computer, and the apps on it, function properly. To see what’s currently running on your system, do this:

  • On Microsoft® Windows® systems, press CTRL + Shift + Esc at the same time
  • On Mac® systems, open the Finder app, then click Applications > Utilities > Activity Monitor

Word processing

Going from 2GB to 4GB

  • Less waiting for letters and words to appear as you type
  • Improved multitasking among multiple apps
  •  Less chance of your computer freezing

Going from 4GB to 8GB or more

  • Near-instant responsiveness
  • Seamless multitasking
  • Almost no chance of your computer freezing

Going from 2400 MT/s to 3000 MT/s or more

  • Not many performance gains you’d notice

Verdict:
You don’t need much RAM to make word processing smoother. You only need enough to give your computer extra room above the active data of your operating system (OS).
 

Streaming video

Going from 2GB to 4GB

  • Less waiting for letters and words to appear as you type
  • Improved multitasking among multiple apps
  •  Less chance of your computer freezing

Going from 4GB to 8GB or more

  • Near-instant responsiveness
  • Seamless multitasking
  • Almost no chance of your computer freezing

Going from 2400 MT/s to 3000 MT/s or more

  • Not many performance gains you’d notice

Verdict:
You don’t need much RAM to make word processing smoother. You only need enough to give your computer extra room above the active data of your operating system (OS).
 

Photo editing, video editing, and rendering

Going from 2GB to 4GB

  • Less waiting for letters and words to appear as you type
  • Improved multitasking among multiple apps
  •  Less chance of your computer freezing

Going from 4GB to 8GB or more

  • Near-instant responsiveness
  • Seamless multitasking
  • Almost no chance of your computer freezing

Going from 2400 MT/s to 3000 MT/s or more

  • Not many performance gains you’d notice

Verdict:
You don’t need much RAM to make word processing smoother. You only need enough to give your computer extra room above the active data of your operating system (OS).
 

Web browsing

Going from 2GB to 4GB

  • Less waiting for letters and words to appear as you type
  • Improved multitasking among multiple apps
  •  Less chance of your computer freezing

Going from 4GB to 8GB or more

  • Near-instant responsiveness
  • Seamless multitasking
  • Almost no chance of your computer freezing

Going from 2400 MT/s to 3000 MT/s or more

  • Not many performance gains you’d notice

Verdict:
You don’t need much RAM to make word processing smoother. You only need enough to give your computer extra room above the active data of your operating system (OS).
 

Building spreadsheets

Going from 2GB to 4GB

  • Less waiting for letters and words to appear as you type
  • Improved multitasking among multiple apps
  •  Less chance of your computer freezing

Going from 4GB to 8GB or more

  • Near-instant responsiveness
  • Seamless multitasking
  • Almost no chance of your computer freezing

Going from 2400 MT/s to 3000 MT/s or more

  • Not many performance gains you’d notice

Verdict:
You don’t need much RAM to make word processing smoother. You only need enough to give your computer extra room above the active data of your operating system (OS).
 

Gaming

Going from 2GB to 4GB

  • Less waiting for letters and words to appear as you type
  • Improved multitasking among multiple apps
  •  Less chance of your computer freezing

Going from 4GB to 8GB or more

  • Near-instant responsiveness
  • Seamless multitasking
  • Almost no chance of your computer freezing

Going from 2400 MT/s to 3000 MT/s or more

  • Not many performance gains you’d notice

Verdict:
You don’t need much RAM to make word processing smoother. You only need enough to give your computer extra room above the active data of your operating system (OS).
 

So when is paying more for that extra speed a good idea?

Faster speeds are a way to squeeze every ounce of performance out of memory-intensive workloads, which translates into fewer delays that can potentially cost time and money. These benefits are often imperceptible to a person who casually uses their computer, but, as an extreme example, they’re more noticeable in server deployments that are constantly bombarded with massive memory demands. If you’re a designer, data analyst, videographer, or gamer that uses memory-intensive apps and your margin of error is on a scale of microseconds, then faster memory speeds paired with sufficient density are often worth it.
 

The bottom line

When you’re shopping for RAM and you’ve found some that’s compatible with your desktop or laptop, the range of speeds available probably isn’t significant enough that the naked eye can truly notice a difference – depending on how you use your computer. Unless you intend to use apps that flood your computer with active data, you probably don’t need the fastest memory modules on the market. Focus first on maxing out your system’s memory density, then find the speed that best fits your needs and your budget.