How to Upgrade Your PC's RAM

RAM stick
A little more RAM can improve your computer's performance.

One of the frustrating things about owning a computer is that, sooner or later, it can't keep up with the demands of your software. There are dozens of jokes about a customer buying the fastest machine on the market only to find out that it's been left behind by the time he gets home. But there's some good news: you can help your computer keep up with the times by upgrading its random access memory (RAM). And better yet, it's one of the simpler modifications you can make to your computer that doesn't void your warranty!

Before we dive into the guide, it helps to understand RAM. The acronym stands for random access memory. It helps to imagine RAM as if it's laid out like a big grid -- kind of like the board on a game of Battleship. Each box in the grid represents a memory cell, and each cell can store information. You can access any cell within RAM if you know what row and column it's in.


Information in RAM memory cells can be overwritten or erased. That's one of the ways it's different from read-only memory (ROM). Your computer's ROM is hardwired into your machine's circuitry. It contains the information that allows your computer to perform basic functions like initiating the operating system or activating hardware.

RAM helps your computer run applications. Your computer stores temporary information within the memory cells and refers to the data as it runs applications. If the information isn't in your computer's RAM, the computer has to refer to its hard drive. This is slower than pulling information from RAM. So if your computer doesn't have enough RAM to run multiple applications or even one big program, it may feel like it's just crawling along.

Every computer has a maximum amount of RAM it can handle. Once you hit that limit, you've gone as far as you can go with your hardware. But unless you've customized your machine, chances are your computer has plenty of capacity for more RAM.


Before You Upgrade Your RAM

The first step to upgrading your RAM involves gathering a little information. First, you need to know how much RAM your computer has already.

If you're using Windows XP, all you have to do is click the Start button on the taskbar. Then, click on the My Computer option in the menu. You'll need to choose the "View System Information" option (sometimes listed as Properties). Or you can choose the Control Panel option and click on the System icon. Either way, this will bring up a box with several tabs. Under the General tab you'll see information about your computer and operating system, including how much RAM is installed.


If you're running the Windows Vista operating system, follow these directions: Click the Start button, then choose Control Panel from the menu. Your next choice is System and Maintenance followed by System once again. There you'll see a category called Memory (RAM), which displays your computer's RAM.

What if you're using a Mac? Apple has made it easy to find out how much RAM you have in your computer. Click on the Apple icon in the top left corner of the screen. Choose the option that says About This Computer (it may say About This Macintosh). You'll see a line that says Total Memory. This is how much RAM your Mac currently has.

Once you know how much memory your computer has, you need to find out how much it can handle. There are hundreds of different computers on the market and not all of them have the same features and limitations. It'd be impossible to list all of them here. Fortunately, there are some resources on the Web that keep track of this information. We recommend using:

These resources will not only tell you how much RAM your machine can handle, they'll tell you what kind of RAM you can install. There are almost as many different kinds of RAM chips as there are computer models. You have to match the right RAM to your machine.


Upgrading the RAM in Your PC

Installing RAM stick
Upgrading your PC's RAM isn't very difficult for most computers.

You've done your homework. You know how much RAM you have, how much your computer can handle and the kind of RAM chip you need to buy for your machine. Next, you'll need to purchase the RAM and grab a couple of tools. In most cases, you'll just need a small screwdriver. When in doubt, consult your PC's user manual.

Before you make any modifications, make sure your computer is powered off and unplugged. If you're upgrading a laptop, it's a good idea to eject the battery before getting started. Open your PC's case with your screwdriver and locate the section on your computer's motherboard that contains the RAM. Consult your user's manual if you need help. Some laptops even have a specific panel you can remove to change out RAM modules.


Before touching any components inside your computer, you need to discharge any static electricity you've built up. The elements inside your computer are very sensitive to electricity -- if you were to hit them with a quick zap from your fingertips you could damage them. But it's simple to discharge static electricity -- you just need to touch something metal before continuing.

If you're replacing RAM modules, you'll need to remove the ones currently in your PC. Many PCs use clips to hold RAM into place. If this is the case, gently lift the clips and remove the RAM modules, and then set them aside.

Next, take your new RAM out of its envelope. Be careful not to touch any of the metal connectors or circuitry on the module. Line up the module with the slot in your computer. Most PCs have a notch that will guide you so that you don't install the module incorrectly. Gently press the module into place. Once you've seated the module, you can close the clips, replace the cover of the PC and you're ready to go. Don't forget to replace the battery if you're working with a laptop. Plug in the PC, turn it on and check your system's RAM. If the updated information is correct, you're set! If not, you may need to restart again. If you still have problems, you should turn off the machine, unplug it, open it up and check to be sure the module is properly seated.

That's all there is to it. With more RAM, your PC will be able to run more applications at the same time without consulting your PC's hard drive. While you haven't increased your computer's processing speed, you've reduced the amount of time it needs to check for specific data. It's an easy and relatively inexpensive way to get more life out of your PC.

Learn more about computers and upgrades from the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

Can I upgrade my PC RAM to 16GB?
Yes, you can upgrade your PC RAM to 16GB.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Apple. "iMac: Memory specifications and upgrades." March 17, 2009. (May 6, 2009)
  • Apple. "Macbook: How to install memory." March 17, 2009. (May 6, 2009)
  • Computer Memory Upgrade. "Installing Laptop Memory." 2003. (May 4, 2009)
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  • Kingston Technology Company. (May 5, 2009)
  • Microsoft. "Find out how much RAM your computer has." (May 5, 2009)
  • Pash, Adam. "Hack Attack: How to install RAM." Lifehacker. Nov. 22, 2005. (May 5, 2009)
  • Rosenthal, Morris. "How to upgrade a laptop computer - Upgrading Laptops or Notebooks." 2008. (May 5, 2009)
  • Steers, Kirk. "How to Upgrade Your PC's RAM." PCWorld. Feb. 27, 2007. (May 4, 2009)
  • Walker, Andy. "How to Add RAM." Jan 1, 2008. (May 5, 2009)