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How to find RAM speed, size and type

If you want to upgrade your PC's RAM, you need to know what you already have and what sticks will work with your setup

A close-up photo of a person installing a stick of RAM onto a motherboard

Memory and storage are perhaps two of the most commonly confused aspects of computer hardware. Both are intrinsic to the smooth running of a computer but out of the two, it’s onboard random access memory (RAM) that will be the most influential in determining how effective any given device is at handling the array of business applications required in modern work life.

Replacing or upgrading RAM is a common way of speeding up a laptop or desktop machine, but it's not as simple as it sounds. Not only does it require a degree of technical knowledge, the type of memory a system uses can variety significantly; RAM speed, RAM size, and RAM configuration type will all need to be considered if you're looking to replace or add to an existing setup.

Before we get to identifying what type your system needs, it's important to understand exactly how RAM effects your system.

What is RAM?

RAM is typically fitted to machines in the form of removable sticks and stores information the computer thinks the user will need in the immediate future, ready for fast and easy access.

RAM is perhaps best illustrated by comparing the makeup of a computer to human anatomy. In this analogy, the central processing unit (CPU), often referred to simply as the ‘processor’, can be seen as the computer’s 'brain', and is at the core of all of a system's capabilities.

Larger pieces of storage hardware like hard drive disks (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs) are most like a person’s long-term memory, allowing users to store data for long periods of time, but under the assumption that they may not need all of it in their current session.

RAM, on the other hand, is most like short-term memory, in that it has a comparatively limited capacity for storage, but does so in a way that increases the processing capacity to handle flows of data through the machine, so that the CPU can process tasks quicker. It’s why having a large amount of RAM is often linked with faster computer performance, as it allows users extra capacity for efficient multitasking, like running Microsoft Teams alongside a Google Chrome browser with multiple tabs open.

RAM is also one of the more easily upgradable components of a computer; RAM sticks can be bought in various capacities and modern motherboards often have slots for multiple RAM sticks making it easy to add more when needed.

How much RAM do I have?

If you're not sure what you're doing, then buying RAM can come across as a little complex. It can come in many different types of speeds, shapes, and sizes, and even if a stick of RAM physically can fit into your machine, chances are it won't function correctly.

How to check RAM on Windows 10 and Windows 11

Unfortunately, Windows doesn't provide much information in this regard, but the process is identical on both Windows 10 and 11.

To see this, you'll want to navigate to the "About" section of your control panel. This can easily be done by typing "RAM" into your Windows 10 search bar and selecting "View RAM info". Another option to get there is by accessing the "System" settings and navigating down the page to "About".

On the About screen you should see information on device name, processor type and speed, installed RAM, device and product ID, whether it’s running a 32-bit or 64-bit operating system, and some miscellaneous data.

Windows 10 system page showing total RAM

If you're using Windows 11, you’ll notice that installed RAM shows two numbers. The first is the total amount of RAM installed on the system, and the second shows ‘usable’ RAM, which indicates how much RAM your apps and processes can utilise at any given time. This latter number will always be slightly lower, as it accounts for some capacity that's always reserved for critical Windows processes.

Important: Given the way it interacts with the system, it’s most efficient to install RAM in multiples of four. That means your total installed RAM should show as 4GB, 8GB, 16GB, and so on. Some older machines may have 2GB of RAM, but given that Windows 11's system requirements suggest at least 4GB to run efficiently, you’ll find that machines come with at least that amount these days.

If you have a number displayed that’s not a multiple of four (for example, 6GB), it’s possible that a RAM stick has failed or is not installed correctly. For example, having an installed RAM of 12GB could indicate that of your four sticks of 4GB of RAM, one has failed.

How to check RAM on Mac OS

On Mac OS, it's an even easier process to check how much RAM you have, although, unlike Windows, it also provides some useful information on what type of RAM you have.

A screenshot of the settings menu in Mac OS showing CPU, RAM, storage and version number

To check, click the Apple symbol at the top left of the screen, and click About this Mac. This will open up a small window showing a breakdown of the system's specs, including how much RAM you have installed. Like on Windows machines, this will be a multiple of four (4GB, 8GB, 16GB etc).

Importantly, Macs also show you the type and speed of the RAM installed. In the example above, the MacBook has 16GB of DDR4 RAM, running at a frequency (sometimes refered to as speed) of 2,400 MHz. These details will be important if you're looking to change, or add to, your existing RAM, which we will go over below.

What RAM should I buy?

Most manufacturers currently recommend at least 4GB for day-to-day computing. Gaming and other graphic intensive operations require quite a bit more. A high-end laptop, or laptops used for programming and coding, can have 16GB, or even 32GB. Desktops can go even further – in fact, some 64-bit editions of Windows will accommodate up to 6TB of RAM, although it’s likely you would hit your motherboard’s maximum RAM limit long before reaching this number.

Before we go shopping, we need a bit more information. CPUID’s free CPU-Z utility is a great option for gathering this data. Install it on your computer, run it, then go to the Memory tab.

There are a lot of details in this tab that we don’t need to know for our purposes. However, the main things to note are:

  • the number of memory slots your motherboard has (usually two, sometimes one, occasionally four)
  • what type of memory it uses (this is usually something involving the letters DDR)
  • the frequency of the memory (sometimes referred to as RAM speed)

A note on RAM frequency and RAM type

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Although it’s advisable (especially for inexperienced buyers), you don’t necessarily need to stick to the specifications of the RAM already installed on the system – you can shop around as much as you want so long as your motherboard supports it. Motherboards generally support a variety of RAM frequencies and you may find what’s installed is the lowest end of this range.

It's important to note that the exact frequency of the RAM doesn't really matter here, only that your motherboard supports it. RAM frequencies don't operate in the same way as, say, a CPU, so higher numbers don't necessarily mean massive performance boosts. You may be tempted to upgrade your existing 2,400 MHz RAM to something that's listed as 3,600 MHz, but there's very little point.

The type of RAM, on the other hand, absolutely does matter, as motherboards are generally far more restrictive in this regard. It's common to see DDR3, DDR4, and DDR5 RAM types listed online, with each number representing a newer generation of architecture. It's important to check the specs of your motherboard, as support for multiple RAM types, or support for the latest generation of RAM, is fairly uncommon and usually comes at a premium.

Tips for buying RAM

RAM sticks in a motherboard

Make sure you have space: Before you do anything, it's important you check that your system allows for RAM expandability. While most modern PCs and laptops will have an extra slot for adding in more memory, some older machines might not. The same is true for unusual form-factors, as in some devices – such as convertible 2-in-1 devices – the RAM is probably glued to the motherboard, in which case, you’re stuck with it.

Be wary of MacBooks: Many models of MacBook are the same. Recent MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models have the RAM – along with the SSD – soldered to the motherboard, and while some newer iMacs technically offer user-upgradeable RAM, doing so requires extensive teardown of the machine. It's also worth remembering that if you do upgrade the RAM in your Apple machine, it will take specific size and shape, different to what you'd install in a Windows laptop.

Keep things consistent: If you’re using more than one slot, put identical RAM sticks in every slot. That means, unless you are 100% sure what you’re doing, don’t be tempted to buy a single stick of RAM to sit alongside another of a smaller size. This can actually leave you with a less stable computer than you started with. It really is worth investing in a matching pair of identical chips – same speed, same RAM, same brand. This is one of those jobs that is worth doing well. We’d also recommend a top brand like Samsung, Crucial or Kingston, bought from a reputable supplier.

Avoid used RAM: We’d always recommend getting it new, unless it has a cast-iron guarantee, as RAM chips are pretty fragile. Simply touching them at the wrong moment can fry them, and their golden connector pins can be easily damaged with repeated installs.

Check for CAS values if relevant: CAS Latency, often listed as CL or CAS, is a measure of latency, which in simple terms means the time the memory has to wait to deliver data to the CPU. While this won't be too important unless you're building a high-spec PC, it's worth noting that the lower the CAS value, the faster the latency.

Keep it cool: Heat spreaders, too, are worth looking out for. While unlikely to offer a major performance boost to your machine, having this feature can help to reduce how hot the memory get which should prolong the life of your RAM.

Handle RAM with care: RAM is fragile stuff and needs to be handled with the best possible care. That’s why getting it right the first time is so important – retailers are often reticent about taking back RAM, as once it’s been out of the protective bag, it can break if mishandled even slightly.

The good news is, RAM upgrades can bring a sluggish computer back to life, and even make a cheap, low spec computer feel more top-shelf. It’s easy to fit, and you should feel a difference in responsiveness the very next time you turn it on.

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