What is RAM? How your computer’s memory keeps all your programs running smoothly

business professional working late on laptop
It’s important to understand how RAM affects your computer’s performance.

  • RAM, or Random Access Memory, is the part of your computer that keeps programs running in the background.
  • When your RAM is working properly, you’ll be able to switch between programs quickly and freely.
  • How much RAM your computer needs will depend on what you use it for.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

RAM, or Random Access Memory, isn’t just a cool Daft Punk album. It’s an important part of any computer, phones included. Without it, even switching browser tabs could take ages.

Here’s everything to know about what RAM is and how it works, what the different types of RAM are, and how much memory your computer needs.

What is RAM?

RAM is the part of your device that functions like its short-term memory. It keeps track of what programs are running in the background and what they’re doing, so when you focus on them again, they can get right back to work.

This goes for browser tabs, too. You can switch between browser tabs quickly because your computer’s memory keeps them ready to use.

The benefit of RAM is that it keeps your computer fast, and makes multitasking convenient. Because of RAM, your computer doesn’t have to lean on its slower hard drive to perform basic functions. Without it, we’d be living in a less instantaneous world.

computer ram sticks
An assortment of RAM sticks from various manufacturers.

But RAM, much like our own short-term memory, is limited. If you’re making it keep track of more things than it can handle, it’ll start to “forget” whatever it deems low priority. And if you don’t have enough of it, your computer can slow to a crawl.

When talking about RAM, there are a few different terms you should know.

Common RAM terminology

DDR

DDR stands for “double data rate,” and in essence, refers to how fast your RAM is. DDR4 is the most common type of RAM sold today, but older computer models may have DDR3 or DDR2.

The higher number the better, and because each successive generation of RAM has undergone design changes, you can’t switch out one for another.

crucial ballistix ram
These RAM sticks from crucial specifically say DDR4 on them.

VRAM

VRAM, or Video RAM, is another beast entirely. Rather than being part of your computer’s general memory, VRAM is an intermediary between the CPU and graphics card. Before you see an image on the screen, the data is read by the VRAM processor and converted from digital information to an analog image on the screen.

How much RAM do I need?

Most computers, tablets and phones have between 4GB and 32GB of RAM, although more advanced computers could have even more. On computers, 8GB to 16GB is standard. Some cheap tablets have around 2GB of RAM, which isn’t enough for your laptop.

8GB of RAM is more than enough to power a Windows or Mac computer, but won’t be able to handle too many intensive apps. 16GB RAM will handle advanced programs. 32GB of RAM and up is good for serious computer engineers, gamers, or audio and visual professionals.

Most modern phones have 8GB of RAM. And unlike computers, you can’t really upgrade the RAM in your phone.

The amount of RAM that you need depends on what you’re using your device for. Over-investing in RAM isn’t going to make your computer magically better or infinitely fast – even 100GB of RAM won’t mean anything if the rest of your computer is slow.

You can buy RAM in various combinations, or modules. For example, if you want to buy 16GB of RAM, you can get:

  • One 16 GB stick
  • Two 8 GB sticks
  • Four 4 GB sticks
Corsair Vengeance RAM
Two Corsair RAM sticks, from their “VENGEANCE” series.

The combination you get doesn’t matter. Just make sure it’s compatible with the rest of your computer, and fits in the case.

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How to overclock your CPU and boost your computer’s performance without spending money

Computer CPU Chips
Overclocking your CPU takes some preparation, but isn’t hard to do.

  • You can overclock your PC’s CPU by increasing the CPU multiplier and voltage in the BIOS or UEFI menu.
  • Before you overclock your CPU, make sure that your CPU is powerful enough, and isn’t already under stress.
  • Overclock your CPU in small increments, and stress test it frequently to avoid damaging your PC.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

If you want to improve your computer’s performance without spending money to upgrade its components (or replace the PC outright), you might want to try overclocking the CPU.

When you overclock the CPU, you make it run faster than it was intended to. Depending on how aggressively you overclock it, this can boost its speed by as much as 30%. Dedicated gamers, for instance, overclock their computer’s CPU to extract every last bit of performance from their computer.

Be aware, though, that not every PC can be overclocked safely. And boosting your CPU won’t make the other components any better. So overclocking a CPU by 25% won’t necessarily make the entire computer run 25% faster – especially if the rest of your PC is older.

Can I overclock my computer?

Not every CPU can be overclocked, so you need to begin by determining if your computer is compatible.

Laptop CPUs, for example, generally can’t be overclocked. The hardware typically doesn’t allow it, and even if it did, it’s not possible to cool a laptop well enough to safely overclock.

If you have a desktop PC, you need to see if your processor supports overclocking. Here’s an easy guide:

  • Intel ends its model numbers with a “K” or an “X” to indicate that the chip can be overclocked. For example, the Intel Core i9-10900K can be overclocked, while the Intel Core i9-10900F cannot.
  • All AMD Ryzen CPUs can be overclocked. If you have a non-Ryzen CPU, perform a Google search to check the chip’s overclocking status.
AMD Ryzen Threadripper
AMD Ryzen chips are designed to be overclocked.

How to prepare to overclock your CPU

Before you actually overclock your CPU, it’s a good idea to prep your PC and make sure that your CPU isn’t already too stressed for overclocking. If you try to overclock a CPU that’s already redlining, you could see full system failure.

  • Start by giving your PC a thorough cleaning. Shut off the computer and unplug it from the wall. Open the case and, using a can of compressed air and a microfiber cloth, clean out any dust that’s accumulated on the motherboard and in the fans, ducts, and other airflow pathways. We also recommend wearing an antistatic wristband, which will keep you safe from static shocks – if you don’t have one, touch your PC case often to ground yourself.
  • Monitor your CPU’s temperature so you know how hot it’s currently running. While idle, most CPUs should hover around 130℉, and jump up to about 170℉ while working hard. If your CPU is regularly hitting 175℉ to 200℉, especially when you’re not running a lot of programs, it’s probably not safe to overclock it. You can download a free app like HWMonitor to check your temperatures, or you might have an app that came with your video card that’ll be installed already.
    11_ __How_to_check_CPU_temperature
    The HWMonitor app provides a list of your PC’s components, with the temperature underneath.

  • You should also keep an eye on your CPU’s usage percentage. The usage percentage tracks how much of the CPU’s processing power is being used at any given time. If your PC is constantly hitting 100%, pushing it harder might not be safe.
  • Another way to establish your CPU’s baseline performance is to benchmark it. Benchmarking is the process of deliberately giving the computer a difficult task, to see how well it performs. There are lots of free benchmarking tools out there – Cinebench, for example, is an easy-to-use app that can give you an indication of how well your PC’s CPU and GPU run.
  • Finally, you should perform a PC stress test. Remember that overclocking a CPU means pushing the chip’s performance beyond the level that it’s designed for. So a stress test, which you can run using a tool like Prime95 or Intel’s Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU), can give you confidence that the CPU is running properly before you begin to overclock it.
How to overclock a CPU 2
Intel ETU is a versatile utility that can stress test, benchmark and even let you overclock the CPU without rebooting to the BIOS.

  • Before you overclock your CPU, you should also consider upgrading your PC’s cooling equipment. Overclocked CPUs can run very hot, and the cooling equipment that came with your PC might not be able to handle the heat.

How to overclock your CPU

If you’ve prepared and are certain that you’re ready to overclock your CPU, there are two ways to do it.

You can overclock via your computer’s BIOS or UEFI startup menu, or use a specialized overclocking utility like Intel XTU. If this is your first time overclocking, using the BIOS/UEFI is simpler and safer.

1. Turn off your computer completely, and then press the power button to turn it back on. As soon as you do, press the proper key to launch the BIOS or UEFI menu. The specific key will differ by system, but it’s usually the Delete, F1, F2, F10, or F12 key. You might need to check your PC’s or CPU’s user guide for details.

2. Your computer will bring you to the BIOS or UEFI menu. What this menu looks like will vary depending upon the computer’s manufacturer and vendor, so there’s no single set of instructions that will help you find the overclocking controls. Even so, they shouldn’t be hard to locate.

3. Find the section that deals with your CPU. This might be called “CPU Tweaker,” “Processor Settings,” or something similar. If you have a more advanced PC, the section might even be called “Overclocking” or “OC.”

4. Once you reach the CPU menu, you’ll see a host of different options. But there are only two controls that you really need to worry about: The CPU multiplier and the CPU voltage. You can adjust both, but start with the CPU multiplier.

Increase your CPU’s power incrementally, and test it before boosting it again.

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What is a CPU? A guide to the ‘brain’ of your computer or phone, including how it works

CPU chip
The CPU is essential to your computer’s functionality.

  • A CPU, or central processing unit, is like the brain of any computer or mobile device.
  • CPUs receive data from every other part of the device, and then decide how and when to launch apps, display images, and more. 
  • Most computers run on Intel or AMD CPU chips, although new Apple products use a custom CPU made by Apple.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

A CPU, or central processing unit, is the most important part of your computer. It’s found on the motherboard and is responsible for executing every command you or an app makes. It opens apps, loads data, shows images – the CPU is involved with nearly everything on your computer.

Your desktop computer or laptop isn’t the only device with a CPU chip. Your phone has one, your video game console has one, your smartwatch has one. If you’ve bought a car made in the last ten years, it probably has a CPU for its dashboard screen.

The CPU is a critical part of any modern device. Here’s what you should know about it.

How CPUs work, and the different types

The CPU is the foundation of your computer, which is why it’s generally the first thing listed in any computer ad. Without a CPU, your computer won’t turn on, much less be usable.

Whenever you try to open a program or file, or type something, data is sent to the CPU. The CPU then decodes the data, and decides whether the command can be done. If it can, it’ll be done. If it can’t, you’ll probably see the program you’re using crash, stop responding, or give you an error message.

 

Since the CPU is handling data from every part of the computer at once, it’s easy to overload a CPU by flooding it with commands. This is why your computer goes slower when you have too many programs open – you’re constantly sending new data for the CPU to deal with. 

mac spinning wheel of death
If you’ve ever seen the “Spinning Wheel of Death” on your Mac, it likely means the CPU needs some time to think.

And if your CPU is forced to deal with too much at once, you could crash your computer.

There are two major types of CPUs: x86 chips, and ARM chips.

x86 CPU chips

Among Windows-based PCs, x86 chips are far more popular, and are usually made by either Intel or AMD. Most Intel CPUs are a part of the Intel Core family, and have names like the Intel Core i3, Intel Core i5, and Intel Core i7. On the AMD side you have Ryzen CPUs, like the Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 9.

As a general rule, the higher the number in the CPU’s name, the faster it will perform. 

AMD Ryzen Threadripper
AMD is a leader in the CPU market.

Although some of these CPUs are faster than others, they’re all largely interchangeable because they all use a “x86 instruction set” – that’s where the name comes from. In short, they all speak the same language, and can all understand and perform commands that the rest of the computer sends.

ARM CPU chips

Mobile devices, new MacBooks, and some Windows computers use ARM chips. These are less powerful and take less energy, making them perfect for smaller devices. They run a bit slower, but not enough that the average user will notice.

Apple has invested heavily into ARM chips over the past few years. Their most recent set of CPU chips, the M1s, were specially designed to run new MacBooks. 

apple m1 chip getty
Apple’s M1 chips are incredibly powerful for ARM models.

What it looks like inside your CPU

Modern CPUs typically feature billions of transistors etched into the silicon wafer that comprises the chip. The more transistors, the more powerful your CPU.

The average transistor count has jumped dramatically over the years; the Intel 80386 processor, an important CPU in the 1980s, had 275,000 transistors. Just a few years later, the 80486 had 1.2 million transistors. By 2016, the Intel Core i7 processor found in many mainstream PCs had 3.2 billion transistors. The Apple M1, found in the latest MacBook Pro, has 16 billion transistors. 

CPU
A close-up of a CPU’s transistors.

The transistor count is far from the only factor that determines the speed and performance of modern CPUs. Clock speed is also a critical consideration. 

The clock speed of the CPU – measured in gigahertz (GHz), or a billion cycles per second – is a measure of how many instructions the CPU can perform in a particular period of time.

You also have to consider how many cores your CPU has. Most modern CPUs are multi-core, which means they can divide incoming data and decode all the parts at once. It’s like having six workers in an office compared to just one – much more efficient. Programs which are optimized for multi-threaded and multi-core CPUs can run dramatically faster.  

Another component that affects the performance of a CPU is the cache. Most CPUs have multiple caches, such as L1, L2, and L3. Each cache has a specific purpose. The L3 cache, for example, is faster than the computer’s main memory and is used to feed data and instructions to the cores without bothering the other caches.

Many CPUs also contain a graphics chipset, which allows it to control the computer’s display. High-performance computers might have a separate graphics card or chipset, in which case the graphics data is handed off to that separate card.

 

If your CPU isn’t going as fast as you’d like, you can try overclocking it. This is a process where you force the CPU to run faster than it’s designed to go. It can give you better performance, but can harm your CPU if you overuse it.

Despite all this, the best way to find a good CPU is pretty simple: Just look for higher numbers. The newer your CPU’s model number is, the more cores it has, the faster its clock speed, the better it is.

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What is overclocking? How to boost your PC’s speed and power by changing its CPU settings

Gaming PC
An overclocked computer can run more intensive programs than usual.

  • Overclocking is the process of forcing your computer to run faster than it’s intended to go.
  • You can overclock both your CPU and graphics card, which can help you run advanced programs on an older PC.
  • Although overclocking is largely safe, it’s possible to run into overheating and crashing issues.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Overclocking a component in your computer – usually the CPU, and occasionally the graphics card – makes your computer run faster than it was originally intended. This lets you improve your computer’s performance without spending money to upgrade or enhance your PC. 

Not every computer can be overclocked, and there are some risks associated with overclocking as well. Here’s everything you need to know.

What is overclocking?

Different computer processor chips run at different speeds – this is known at their “clock speed.” A higher clock speed means a CPU can run more operations per second, and thus run your computer faster.

But even processors with different speeds are all made on the same assembly line. It’s only after the processors are built that companies test them for defects, take out the more defective ones, and manually “throttle down” those chips to make them run slower in a computer.

pc build motherboard cpu
Not all CPUs can safely run at the same speed.

That means that in theory, even these slower chips can run at faster speeds if you want them to – that’s how they were built, after all. This is where overclocking comes in.

Overclocking lets you undo the throttling and run that slower chip at a faster speed, as if it were a less defective model.

To do this, you need to increase the processor’s “multiplier,” which can be found in your computer’s UEFI or BIOS menu, causing the chip’s clock speed to increase.

The pros and cons of overclocking

Overclocking is incredibly popular among computer enthusiasts, gamers, and anyone who regularly needs to run programs that take a lot of CPU power. This can include graphic design apps, 3D modeling programs, and more. Done right, it can increase your computer’s performance essentially for free.

When you join discussions about building computers or buying graphics cards, you’ll often find people talking about how easily their computers can be overclocked. Buying a less expensive graphics card that can be overclocked can save money, while still ensuring excellent performance.

In recent years, however, there’s been some evidence that overclocking isn’t as useful as it used to be. Modern CPUs already run so fast that overclocking can have little effect. And more important, improving your processor performance can be useless if the rest of your computer isn’t fast enough to keep up. This is called “bottlenecking.” 

For example, if you have a slow hard disk drive (HDD), overclocking your CPU can’t make it run faster. Likewise, programs that use your graphics card more than the CPU won’t be helped by an overclocked CPU.

What is overclocking 2
Your CPU will need enhanced cooling if you plan to run it at a higher clock speed.

Overclocking comes with some inherent risks. Companies don’t throttle down processor chips for fun – they do it because the chip has defects, and running it too fast can cause your computer glitches.

Too much overclocking can lead to instability and crashing apps, as well as the occasional Blue Screen of Death. Frequent crashes can cause data loss and frustration. In some cases, overclocking can even damage your CPU or graphics card permanently. 

You need to weigh the sometimes-marginal performance improvements that come from overclocking against these risks. 

How to overclock your processor

If you want to overclock your computer, first assess if your processor supports overclocking – not all do. 

Intel adds an “K” or an “X” to the model numbers of the Intel Core CPUs that can be overclocked. For example, the Intel Core i9-10900K can be overclocked; the Intel Core i9-10900F cannot.

If you have an AMD CPU, the news is better – any “Ryzen” CPU can be overclocked.

You should also ensure your computer has adequate cooling equipment. Your CPU should have a heavy duty heatsink and large cooling fans. You might even want to use a liquid cooling system to deal with the extra heat generated by your faster CPU.  

Your CPU will need enhanced cooling if you plan to run it at a higher clock speed. 

To overclock the CPU, restart your computer and enter the startup menu in the computer’s UEFI or BIOS. These startup screens vary dramatically from one manufacturer to another, so you’ll need to look for the overclocking controls. 

What is overclocking 1
The BIOS or UEFI is where you’ll find an option to overclock your CPU.

It’s a good idea to increase the multiplier by a small amount, reboot the computer and test it. You can increase the clock speed in increments to get to the speed you are interested in. 

Every time you increase the clock speed, spend a few hours “stress testing” the computer. You can use an app like Prime95 to temporarily run the CPU at 100% load to make sure there are no problems with the PC. 

If your computer crashes, you get a Blue Screen of Death, or your programs won’t open, return to the UEFI or BIOS menu and revert to a slower clock speed. 

It’s also possible to overclock your graphics card’s GPU, though you can’t do that from the UEFI or BIOS menu. To speed up your GPU, you’ll need to use an overclocking utility – one of the most common is MSI Afterburner

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How to check the CPU usage on your computer to see how well it’s performing

woman using laptop headphones music
It’s important to check your computer’s CPU usage to make sure it’s operating normally.

  • You can check your CPU usage on a PC with the Task Manager or Resource Monitor apps.
  • On a Mac, you can check your CPU usage using the Activity Monitor app.
  • Your CPU usage tracks how hard your computer is working to run programs, make calculations, and more.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Your PC or Mac’s central processing unit (CPU) is like its brain. It’s the piece of your computer that tells every other part how to work, which programs to launch, which pictures to show, and more.

 

Your CPU usage – in simpler terms, how much of the CPU’s energy is being used – is measured with a percentage. When your computer is idle, your CPU usage should float around the single digits or low teens. When running videos, games, or other intensive applications, the CPU usage should jump, but still never stay at 100% for too long.

If you’ve noticed performance issues, like a slow startup time or lagging apps, you’ll want to check your computer’s current CPU usage. That way, you can make sure the CPU’s usage percentage is staying in a healthy range, both when your computer is idle and running at high gear.

How to check your CPU usage on a Windows PC

How to check your CPU usage on a Mac

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How to check your PC or Mac’s CPU temperature to see if it’s at risk of overheating

woman using laptop in bed at home
Your computer can easily overheat when you use it on soft surfaces, like pillows and blankets – here’s how to check your computer’s CPU temperature.

  • You can check your CPU’s temperature on a Mac or PC by downloading a third-party app.
  • If your CPU gets too hot for too long, your computer could shut down or stop working permanently. 
  • To monitor your computer’s CPU temperature, we recommend HWMonitor for PCs and XRG for Macs.
  • Visit Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

If you recently upgraded your computer, you’ll want to pay attention to its CPU temperature. Running your CPU too hot can burn out your components, making your computer unusable. And if you need cooling fans, you’ll never know unless you check that temperature.

Fortunately, you can easily keep tabs on your PC or Mac’s CPU temperature by installing a third-party monitoring app.

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