Memory and Your Computer
by Peter E. Huemer 9/1/98
C.E.O. of User-Friendly Computing

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 One of the most common
  questions about computing
  is whether to upgrade
  components and, if so,
  which ones. There are
  plenty of ways in which you
  can use hardware to boost
  your PC's performance:
  Upgrade to a faster CPU or
  disk, swap out your old
  graphics card for a faster
  one. These solutions
  generally cost at least $100,
  and most cost more. If your
  system is truly, completely
  outdated, we recommend
  that you replace it entirely.
  On the other hand, if it's
  only a year or so old and
  doesn't have quite enough
  zip, one of the best the
  best ways to improve your
  performance is to add more
  memory. It's an easy thing
  to do and it's about the
  cheapest way you can soup
  up the performance of your PC.
  Insufficient memory often
  goes by unnoticed - the
  computer will still continue
  to function, it will just do
  so at a snail's pace, halving
  your productivity and
  raising your blood pressure.
  You've probably worked on
  a machine that was memory
  deficient without even
  knowing it - you click on an
  application, see the
  hourglass, and listen to the
  hard drive whir and grind
  sounds for what seems like
  an eternity. Sound familiar?
  Other deficiency symptoms
  may include being unable to
  open one program
  application without closing
  another, or chronically
  having to restart your
  computer to get the screen
  to unfreeze. This usually
  results in data loss, since
  the information temporarily
  stored in memory not yet
  have been written to the
  hard drive.
  Some of these irritations
  may be temporarily
  addressed simply by simply
  cleaning up your desktop
  and eliminating unnecessary
  applications from startup.
  Giving your computer
  fewer distractions when it
  is trying to pull up an
  application will reduce the
  risk of memory overload.
  However, upgrading your
  system's memory is virtually
  just as simple, and will
  result in a dramatic increase
  in computer performance
  overall. By giving your
  computer the extra memory
  that it's hungry for, you will
  realize an immediate boost
  in productivity in
  multi-tasking and
  environments. According to
  PC Computing, doubling the
 memory in a typical system
  boosts overall managerial
  productivity by 38 percent
  and administrative
  productivity by 16 percent.
  It pays for itself in just over
  a day for managers and in
  about five days for
  administrative workers.
  Best of all, memory prices
  are at an all-time low and
  falling. In the realm of
  computer service, memory
  is one of the most
  cost-effective areas to
What is memory?
  People in the computer
  industry usually use the
  term memory to refer to
  Random Access Memory, or
  RAM. Memory is one of the
  more misleading monikers
  in the computer world.
 Users often confuse the
  terms memory and storage,
  especially when describing
  the amount they have of
  each. Both are measured in
  units of megabytes.
  However, the term memory
  refers to the amount of RAM
  installed in the computer,
  whereas the term storage
  refers to the available
  amount of hard disk
  To clarify this common
  misunderstanding, it may be
  helpful to compare your
  computer to an office that
  contains a desktop and a set
  of file cabinets. The file
  cabinets represent the
  computer's hard disk, which
  provides high-capacity,
  long-term storage. The
  desktop represents
  memory, which offers
  quick and easy access to
  the files you're working on
  at the moment.
 An important difference
  between memory and
  storage is that the
  information stored on a
  hard disk remains intact
  even when the computer is
  turned off. However, any
  data held in memory is
  cleared when the computer
  is turned off. (It's like
  saying that any files left on
  the desktop at closing time
  will be thrown away.) It's
  therefore important to save
  frequently while working on
  a computer. The computer
  memory holds any changes
  you make to a document
  until you save the changes
  to a disk. If anything
  interrupts the computer's
  operation -- such as a
  power outage or system
  error -- any changes made,
  but not saved, are lost
 How does it work?
  RAM is really read write
  memory, which the
  processor can use as a
  scratch pad and modify
  rapidly. It's used for data
  that come and go. A
  computer uses random
  access memory to hold
  temporary instructions and
  data needed to complete
  tasks. This enables the
  computer's Central
  Processing Unit, or CPU, to
  access instructions and data
  stored in memory very
  quickly. An example of this
  is when the CPU loads an
  application program -- such
  as a word processor or page
  layout program -- into
  memory, thereby allowing
  the application program to
  run as quickly as possible. In
  practical terms, this means
  you can get more work
  done with less time spent
  waiting for the computer to
  perform tasks.
  When you enter a command
  from the keyboard or
  mouse, it calls for data to
  be copied from a storage
  device (such as a hard disk
  drive or CD-ROM drive) into
  memory, which can
  provide data to the CPU
  more quickly than storage
  devices. This process is
  analagous to placing various
  electronic files and
  documents you're using on
 the computer into a single
  file folder or directory. By
  doing so, you keep them
  handy and avoid searching
  in several places every time
  you need those documents.
  RAM is used by your
  computer to store all data
  that has to be processed by
  the CPU. Since the data
  contained in documents,
  spreadsheets, graphics, or
  any type of file
  must be stored in RAM
  before the processor can
  manipulate that data, the
  amount of available RAM
  affects how quickly your
  computer can perform
  tasks. Therefore, you can
  never have too much RAM.
  How much do I really need?
  These days no matter how
  much memory your computer
  has it never seems quite
  enough. Not long ago, it was
  unheard of for a personal
  computer to have more than
  1 or 2 megabytes of memory.
  Today, you need at least 4
  megabytes of memory just to
  boot up a system. And the
  popular applications in
  today's law or home office,
  such as Windows 95 / NT, MS
  Office 97, Corel's
  WordPerfect Suite 8,
  Netscape Communicator, and
  Internet Explorer are larger
  and more memory-hungry
  than ever. Even the old
  standby CD-ROM-based legal
  research products, such
  Mathew Bender and Westlaw,
  are recommending more
  memory. Some applications
  that are now emerging in the
  law office, such as Dragon
  Dictate and Amicus Team,
  may require a minimum of
  32MB RAM or more.
  Perhaps you already know
  what it's like to work on a
  system that doesn't have
  quite enough memory. Things
  run a little more slowly at
  times, memory errors can
  occur more frequently, and
  sometimes you can't launch an
  application or a file without
  first closing or quitting
  another. On a system with
  sufficient memory, however,
  you can easily engage in
  multiple tasks at once -- such
  as printing one document
  while working on another --
  and you can keep multiple
  applications open
  simultaneously, and error free.
  Memory used to be a simple
  matter. A computer came
  with a set amount of
  memory, and software
  designers stayed within those
  limits. But today, new
  applications are pushing the
  limits on memory
  requirements. Even so,
  software companies often
  keep their memory
  recommendations low in
  order to make their software
  applications look lean, which
  doesn't really help the people
  who use those programs. The
  amount of memory required
  is determined by the
  requirements of the
  application programs. The
  fact is, every user's needs are
  different. People use their
  computers in different ways
  to accomplish different tasks.
  Some people demand the
  maximum their system can
  deliver. Other people need
  So how much memory will
  you *really* need to run
  Windows 95? Don't believe
  anyone who says you can run
  Windows 95 in 4 MB. On that
  minimalist machine, you can
  probably load Windows 95, a
  copy of 32-bit Notepad, and
  the Dilbert screen saver. If
  you want to do anything more
  - and especially if you even
  want to think about sharing
  data with the help of OLE -
  you'll need the extra 4MB.
  The Windows '95 operating
  system therefore needs a
  bare minimum of 8 MB RAM,
  and is noticeably better with
  16 or 32 MB. Upgrading from
  16 MB to 32MB on a Pentium
  will result in a very
  noticeable improvement in
  performance with virtually
  any operating system.
  Ultimately, you can figure out
  how much memory you really
  need. Independent laboratory
  tests have proven that most
  operating systems and
  applications are tuned to
  specific memory
  requirements. That means
  there's an optimum amount of
  memory for the way you use
  your computer. By factoring
  in a few key items, you can
  easily and accurately
  determine your specific
  memory requirements. When
  figuring your memory
  requirements, consider three
  things - the optimum memory
  configuration of your
  operating system, your usage
  patterns and your hardware.
  To eliminate the guesswork in
  determining a specific
  amount of memory for your
  operating system, baselines
  have been identified for each
  of the major operating
  systems and dozens of the
  most popular business
  applications. Upgrading to the
  baseline for your particular
  operating system is the best
  place to start. However, if
  you are using multiple
  applications in networked or
  Internet environments,
  consider upgrading beyond
  the baseline
  Different people use different
  combinations of applications,
  and while some people use a
  given application to its fullest
  potential, others might only
  use a few functions. It all
  depends on what kinds of
  tasks you're trying to
  accomplish - like
  administrative, number
  crunching or design tasks for
  example. But there is an easy
  rule of thumb: look at the
  size of the files you most
  commonly use and allow for 3
  to 5 times that size in RAM. If
  your files are typically about
  4 megabytes, you should have
  and additional 12 to 20
  megabytes of memory.
  Understanding typical usage
  patterns is the first step to
  determining memory
  requirements for all types of
  workers. Typically,
  administrators and service
  professionals rely on a core
  group of applications like
  word processing, fax and
  e-mail communications and
  simple spreadsheets to get
  their jobs done. Executives
  and analysts use a greater
  variety of applications and
  typically keep more than
  three programs running at one
  time. Engineers and designers
  with expertise in
  page-layout, illustration or 3D
  modeling require powerful
  systems with greater memory
  The peripherals attached to
  your system can also be key
  indicators of additional
  memory demand. CD-ROM
  drives, scanners and graphics
  accelerators are all indicators
  that memory-intensive
  applications are at work.

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