When building a new gaming PC, it’s all too easy to get carried away trying to optimize every single spec — I call it the spec Olympics.
But the truth of the matter is, gaming is a very particular computational task, one that doesn’t strictly need the latest, greatest tech to run smoothly.
This is particularly true when it comes to RAM, or, for the uninitiated, the fast-access memory of your computer. RAM requirements account for a large portion of debates surrounding new builds… just how much of it do you need?
Well, the operative word in that question is “you”!
While we typically don’t need to spend our life savings bolstering the memory of your build for some seamless gaming experiences, if you plan on pushing your computer particularly hard with intensive multitasking, extra RAM might be worth the investment.
What Is RAM?
You can think of RAM as your computer’s short-term memory and counterpart of the HDD or SSD long-term storage. It handles operations in the moment, while storage facilities simply handle saved data.
RAM is what we call volatile memory, meaning any data held remains intact for as long as the computer is running, but as soon as you shut your system down, it essentially goes offline and all short-term data is lost.
As it’s so essential to all operations on your computer, RAM has to be close by for fast access, but when operations exceed your RAM, your system outsources memory duties to your HDD or SSD, leading to a sluggish system and a suboptimal gaming experience.
How Much RAM Do I Really Need For Gaming?
For a discrete gaming build that won’t be used for much else, you really don’t need all that much muscle in the memory department. I’d recommend going no further than 16 GB of DDR4 memory.
This will run all current AAA titles like a dream, and there’s really no indication that you’ll need more RAM for future AAA games, so anything more will be overkill.
It’s only when you want your computer to juggle a bunch of operations simultaneously that you should consider bumping your system up to 32 GB DDR4 RAM.
For instance, let’s say you want to keep your graphics settings cranked whilst hoarding tabs, chatting to friends on Discord, and listening to music, 16 GB will likely become something of a bottleneck.
Generally speaking, you should never choose RAM willy-nilly, rather, you should calculate how much you’ll need for all your intended applications, then purchase enough to cover the estimated demands plus a little extra, as it’s always good to have some headroom.
For some people, even 16 GB DDR4 will be a little over the top if they rarely play any demanding titles, but 8 GB DDR4 is widely considered the bare minimum system requirement for a relatively smooth gaming experience.
Jump to 16 GB if you need a little more oomph to cover the more intensive AAA titles out there, and bring in the 32 GB big guns if you plan on engaging in some next-level multitasking.
A Note On Windows Version
Before we dive deeper into this RAM exposé, it’s essential that you understand how RAM interacts with certain operating systems. The 32-bit variant is incredibly limiting when it comes to memory.
No matter how much RAM you stuff into your system, it imposes a 3.2 cap, meaning anything exceeding that will be wasted tech.
The 64-bit version, on the other hand, imposes no such cap, meaning you’re free to arm your build with as much RAM as you think you’ll need.
RAM Showdown: 8 GB Vs. 16 GB Vs. 32 GB
Okay, so we’ve established some general rules for deciding how much RAM is enough for gaming, but now it’s time to break down the specifics of each of your three likely options.
Obviously 8 GB RAM isn’t considered a lot, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. Modest sticks of RAM are much more affordable than their beefy counterparts, which is amazing if you’re building on a budget.
8 GB is all you ‘’’ll need to play most games smoothly on medium to high-quality settings, so long as there aren’t any intensive programs running in the background.
For newer, more demanding titles, game developers usually advise a minimum of 16 GB, so if you really want an immersive gaming experience no matter what you’re playing, then 16 GB is definitely the way to go.
To give you an idea of current gaming demands, CD Projekt Red advises installing 16 GB for Cyberpunk 2077, Activision suggests installing 12 GB for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, and Bungee recommends 16 GB for Halo Infinite.
16 GB is a perfectly acceptable amount. In fact, it’s more than acceptable, but if you’re looking for truly competitive-grade blemishless gameplay, then 32 GB is nonnegotiable.
It’ll cost you extra, but, on the bright side, you’ll be fully future proofed for the most demanding games down the line, meaning you won’t have to fork out for an upgrade when they hit the shelves.
If you’re building an “everything station” rather than just a gaming station, and you plan on running all kinds of intensive programs, 32 GB will ensure an uninhibited workflow — we’re talking 4K video editing, rendering, and 3D modeling.
What About 64 GB? Is It Overkill For Gaming?
64 GB is undoubtedly overkill for gaming. Actually, scratch that; 64 GB is overkill for pretty much any all-singing-all-dancing system designed to shoulder the most demanding applications imaginable.
The only time you’d ever come close to utilizing the full 64 GB cache is if you were processing an impossibly detailed, professional-grade 4K video, playing a game like Cyberpunk 2077 with dimed settings, launching a DAW to record some tunes, running a multitude of virtual machines, and collecting tabs like they were Pokémon cards.
Needless to say, this isn’t a particularly realistic scenario, so I wouldn’t concern yourself with anything beyond 32 GB, especially if all you want to do is have fun playing some games. Having said that, there is one exception you might want to consider.
The Exception To The 64 GB Rule
Certain GPUs arrive with HBM2 memory facilities, and in English, that means that it’s capable of siphoning excess system RAM to bolster graphics potential, so you may well actually use the majority of your RAM when playing particularly intensive titles.
Will AAA Games Ever Require 64 GB RAM?
Although it seems a long way off, it stands to reason that one day in the future, there could well be a game that requires a minimum of 32 GB RAM, with the developer’s recommendation for optimal play being 64 GB.
It sounds insane to us present-day game nuts, but not so long ago, people would have scoffed at the idea of an individual game requiring 16 GB of RAM.
Typically new RAM technology is released, and then the games arrive, and with DDR5 about to take the world by storm, it seems likely that developers will be searching for ways to utilize the extra power available to consumers.
RAM Isn’t All About Capacity
The most essential factor to consider when choosing RAM is of course capacity, but memory isn’t the only performance factor to weigh up before dedicating yourself to a purchase.
You should also be thinking about latency, speed, bandwidth, and transfer rates which I know sounds like a lot of specialist language to process all at once, but it’s not as complicated as you might think.
Simply choosing sticks belonging to the same RAM generation will take care of most of these seemingly disparate aspects.
The generation of RAM is expressed with the “DDR” prefix followed by a number. Since the very early noughties, we’ve progressed through 5 generations: Double Date Rate (DDR), DDR2, DDR3, DDR4, and DDR5, the most recent iteration.
No newer generation is backwards compatible with the last, so you cannot mix and match sticks and develop a multigenerational memory facility.
It’s not just that the technologies don’t play nice with one another; the sticks have divergent slot shapes, so your motherboard will only be capable of physically receiving a single generation of sticks.
While DDR5 is on the rise, it’s still to reach ubiquity, and DDR3 and below are all but defunct, so you’ll probably be dealing with DDR4 for your build, but it’s always best to double-check your mobo before you purchase any RAM. You can do so by typing…
… into the Windows 10 taskbar, then locate the “System Model” tab.
What’s The Deal With RAM Speed?
RAM speed is given in MHz, with each generation having a minimum threshold. For DDR4, that threshold is 2400 MHz, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick to 2400 MHz, as DDR4 permits excess beyond the 4000 MHz mark.
Much like a CPU or GPU, the higher the MHz, the more efficient the processing power of a stick of RAM; however, the faster sticks can cost a pretty penny, and the real-world impact is almost negligible.
There has been a multitude of RAM bench tests published online, and as far as anyone can tell, RAM with higher clock speeds will increase gaming performance, but not in a particularly perceivable way.
According to these tests, latency score is a far more important metric to keep an eye on.
Latency: What Is It & What Does It Have To Do With RAM?
Latency in gaming refers to the duration it takes for two components or processes to communicate with one another. This sounds a lot like something the clock speed would account for, but there’s a slight difference…
Imagine that you see your friend across the street. You have something to tell them, so you shout “Hey!” to get their attention, walk over, and relay the message. Subsequently, they react to what you have told them.
The latency in this situation would be the time it took for you to flag your friend down, reach them, and relay the message, while the clock speed would determine how fast they reacted to your statement, and as it turns out, the former is far more impactful when it comes to increasing frame rate than the latter.
Now, that’s not to say you should forget all about clock speed, as it does have an impact, so it’s best to strike a balance between pace and latency — High speed, low latency offers the best of both worlds.
Double Up Or Go Solo?
You’ve no doubt noticed that most sticks of RAM are sold in pairs, despite there being individual sticks with symmetrical specs available.
For instance, if you search for 32 GB RAM, the majority will arrive as a set of two 16 GB sticks, but why is this the case? Well, put simply… two sticks are always better than one.
Even if an individual stick has the same specs as a pair of sticks combined, it won’t perform as well, as there will only ever be one physical pipeline connecting it to the rest of your computer.
With two cards, you get two pipelines, effectively increasing the bandwidth of communication between your RAM and other essential elements such as your CPU.
However, bear in mind that you won’t get a 100% performance increase when you go double, but you will see around a 20% boost, so a dual-channel setup is still well worth thinking about.
What’s more, you can expect that percentage to increase slightly with each stick you add. For example, if your motherboard has 4 slots for RAM, you could introduce another pair and open up twice as many pipelines for data transportation.
A Note On Upgrading
While we’re on the topic of upgrading your RAM setup, it’s worth noting that, while it is technically possible to combine sticks of differing latencies and speeds, it can often cause a lot of stability issues.
So, unless you’re a very experienced builder who knows exactly what they’re doing, it’s best to source sticks with symmetrical specs to the ones you already have locked and loaded in your motherboard.
And one more thing before we part ways, your motherboard won’t only impose generational restrictions, but speed restrictions as well, so before you fork out a small fortune for the fastest sticks in town, check the mobo manufacturer’s site for speed capacities specs.
For most, 16 GB RAM split out into two 8GB DDR4 sticks is all they’ll need, as it supports gameplay without breaking a sweat, and it gives you a little bit of wiggle room in terms of graphics settings and multitasking.
However, for the really intensive workflows, it’s best to jump straight to 32 GB.
And don’t forget about clock speed and latency of RAM. A high clock speed is a nice-to-have, but a low latency has more of a real-world impact. Try not to neglect either, as super-low latency won’t help much if a stick has an incredibly laggy clock.
With these factors in mind, you’re sure to find the perfect RAM configuration for you and your system, ensuring only the best, most immersive experiences await you!
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