Your Laptop Memory (RAM) Buyer's Guide

Select the proper type and amount of RAM for a laptop

Close up of computer ram
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Laptops are somewhat more limited in the amount of memory that can be installed in them. Access to that memory may also be difficult, depending on architecture, which can limit plans for a future upgrade. In fact, some systems come with a fixed amount of memory that cannot be changed or upgraded.

How Much Memory Is Enough?

The rule of thumb that you should use for all computer systems for determining if it has enough memory is to look at the requirements of the software you intend to run. Look at both the minimum and recommended requirements. Typically you want to have more RAM than the highest minimum and ideally at least as much as the highest recommended amount.

If you're not sure what is the best type of RAM for your computer, our guide to the different types of RAM can help.

You also want to take into account your computer's operating system. Some operating systems use more memory than others. For instance, a Chromebook running Chrome OS runs smoothly on just 2GB of memory because it is highly optimized, but it can certainly benefit from having 4GB.

Many laptops also use integrated graphics controllers that require a portion of the system RAM for the graphics. This can reduce the amount of available system RAM by 64MB to as much as 1GB, depending on the graphics controller. If the system is using an integrated graphics controller, consider a step up in RAM to account for this usage.

Types of Memory

Memory technology changes regularly as computer architectures advance. Faster CPUs require faster memory with bigger bandwidths. The speed of the memory can have an impact on the system's performance. When comparing laptops, be sure to check both of these pieces of information to determine how they may impact performance.

There are two ways that the memory speeds can be designated. The first is by the memory type and its clock rating, such as DDR3 1333MHz. The other method is by listing the type along with the bandwidth. The same DDR3 1333MHz memory would be listed as PC3-10600 memory. Below is a listing in order of fastest to slowest memory types for DDR3 and the upcoming DDR4 formats:

  • DDR4 3200 / PC4-25600
  • DDR4 2666 / PC4-21300
  • DDR4 2133 / PC4-17000
  • DDR3 1600 / PC3-12800
  • DDR3 1333 / PC3-10600
  • DDR3 1066 / PC3-8500
  • DDR3 800 / PC3-6400

It is fairly easy to determine the bandwidth or the clock speed if the memory you're looking at only lists one of these values:

  • If you have the clock speed, multiply it by 8.
  • If you have the bandwidth, divide that value by 8.

Sometimes these numbers are rounded so they will not always be exactly what you calculated.

Laptop Memory Limitations

Laptops generally have two slots available for memory modules, compared to four or more in desktop systems. As such, they are more limited in the amount of memory that can be installed. Some brands and models of laptops, such as ultraportable styles, have a fixed memory size that cannot be upgraded.

A laptop will require a specific type of memory, such as one of those in the list above. If your laptop is designed to use DDR3 memory, for example, you can't pop in DDR4 memory and expect it to perform. The same is true for the speed and bandwidth requirements of the system; always make sure you know the proper memory type your system accepts before purchasing a memory upgrade.

Also, a computer will have a maximum amount of RAM it can accept that is not based on the physical number of slots. For example, you may be able to purchase two 16GB memory modules, that 32GB total may be over the maximum allowed by your system.

All of these limitations will be listed in the specifications of any laptop, so be sure to take note of them.

What to Consider When Shopping

First, find out what the maximum possible memory of the system is. This is listed by most of the manufacturers and will tell you what upgrade potential the system has.

Next, look at memory configuration. For example, a laptop that has 8GB of memory can be configured as either a single 8GB module or two 4GB modules. A system configured with a single memory module has a second memory slot open, one that you can use to expand in the future by adding a second memory module.

Upgrading memory in a system with both memory slots filled with memory modules comes with a few additional considerations. A laptop with two 4GB modules (totaling 8GB of system memory) requires you to replace at least one module with a larger capacity module.

For example, replacing one of the 4GB modules with a new 8GB module would give you a total of 12GB (leaving you with the unused original 4GB module you replaced). However, it is far better to upgrade both 4GB memory modules at the same time to ensure the fastest performance. Memory modules are usually paired to work with each other in a dual-channel mode, and having two modules of differing capacities will not work as efficiently as would a matched pair.

Optimal Memory Upgrades

It is best to use memory modules with matching capacities, speeds, and are both from the same manufacturer. An even better choice would be to buy a matched pair of modules in a set when upgrading memory.

Installing Memory Yourself

Many laptops have a small panel on the underside of the system where you can access its memory module slots. Other systems may require you to remove the entire bottom cover. In these cases, it is possible to purchase a memory upgrade and install it yourself without much trouble.

A system that doesn't have an access panel or other means for getting inside the computer relatively easily is likely one in which the memory cannot be upgraded. In these cases, the laptop may still be opened by an authorized technician with specialized tools to upgrade the memory. Of course, this comes with additional costs.

If you anticipate you will need more memory in your new laptop soon after buying, or you intend to keep it for a long time, it is generally wiser to invest a bit more at the time of purchase for a model preconfigured with the larger memory.