Laptop Memory Upgrades Guide - Part 4

How much laptop memory is optimum and how to upgrade sensibly

how much laptop memory is required

By now you've hopefully become more familiar with laptop memory by following this step by step guide. Generally speaking you should have a fair idea why it's crucial to have enough RAM installed in your, laptop, the different memory technologies prominently used ever since the mid 1990's right through to today, and last but not least appreciate the various laptop RAM modules they use. That's quite a lot to remember and if you've been reading from the beginning then now might be a good time to give yourself a pat on the back - we're about half way through to getting your laptop running faster.

What we want to do in this section is to discuss what amount of RAM you should have installed in your laptop for it to perform optimally. While doing so we first want to touch on two issues that are related, namely how not get carried away with RAM greed thus how to save yourself from over spending, and the differences between laptop RAM bought directly from your laptop manufacturer and that from a 3rd party. Last but not least we'll look at the limitations that you face when deciding how large an upgrade to opt for. As you'll discover, all these aspects influence your decision - let's try and make it a good one shall we?

Regardless what OS or other software you use on your laptop, it will benefit from an optimum amount of installed memory

How not to fall victim to RAM greed - determining the situation specific to you

Have you ever heard that too much of a good thing can turn against you? We knew you have but also want you to understand this saying in the context or RAM. We're not going to suggest guidelines regarding how much memory your laptop should have or also what limits the amount you can upgrade to because we'll do this further below. Instead, we want to start off by addressing how you can realistically keep a lockdown on taking action too soon when it comes to upgrading your laptop's RAM.

Let us put this in perspective for you. So, you've read part 1 of the Laptop Memory Upgrades Guide, learned that more RAM is the magic bullet to laptop performance and immediately shoot off thinking this must mean that you simply need to install as much RAM as your laptop supports and that this is the best solution each and every time. While installing as much RAM as possible in your laptop definetly won't harm its performance, going for the most you can buy will harm your wallet. If you care about the "value for money" side to upgrading laptop memory then you'll probably appreciate what we'lll say next. If you simply want to skip to buying laptop RAM then we explain this in full in part 5 of the Laptop Memory Upgrades Guide.

When deliberating whether your laptop could benefit from more RAM it's a good idea to try answering the following basic question: how much RAM do I use on a regular basis? Think about it, if we can deduce this ballpark figure then it will only help us when we later need to ask ourselves: does this figure approach or surpass the amount of RAM I currently have installed and do I expect to use any new more demanding software in the forseeable future that may increase this figure? Consequently, there's no harm in asking yourself the first question now and as you'll soon realise we can use the answer in more ways than one. Further below we'll go over these areas in greater detail - for now let's just point our thinking in the right direction and establish a line of thought.

So, how does one find out how much RAM you currently use? It's easy. One way is to simply look through all the software readme files corresponding to the applications you make use of on your laptop and add those values together. When doing so keep in mind two aspects, the recommended amount of RAM stated in the requirements section of the manual but also whether you use these various software applications at the same time. Let's clarify the first part. Each software has a certain requirement for RAM, for example it might say "256MB RAM (recommended)". This means that roughly 50% of this amount (128MB) will be used by the application (near to maximum) while the other 128MB is there hidden within the 256MB to cater for the Operating System (i.e. Windows XP). In such case assume about 50% of 256MB and do the same for each application in your list. As for the second aspect, only add numbers together that correspond to software which you use at the same time. For example, you may make heavy use of a range of office applications but also play the odd game too. Unless you work and play at the same time (i.e. have the game launched in the background) then don't add its memory requirements. If you don't currently have a laptop since you're just setting out to buy one then you can still follow the above on someone else's computer, or if you have bought retail versions of software simply read off the information printed on its packaging or printed manual (if provided).

The second way to achieve the above is to simply use your laptop as normal, that is launch all the software you normally do. Leave it open in the background so you end up with all your applications launched together. Next, simply launch Task Manager (in Windows, similar names in Linux/Mac OS) and look at where it displays the amount of physical memory in use. Note down this amount. Whichever method you use, you want to arrive at an amount either in MB's or GB's (1024MB = 1GB). Of course you may even want to try both methods and then compare your results - if you do don't worry too much if these results substancially differ. Does this figure reflect or approach the total amount of RAM you laptop currently has installed? Depending on your situation the answer may be yes or no.

As we stated above, we can use this result in more ways than one. We'll want to keep it in mind for when it comes to deciding whether to upgrade and if so by how much. We can however also use it to deter sales people who would rather we spend more money than feasible to do so before we even leave the store. How about something you can say to shake them off? If the answer to the above question regarding how much RAM you currently use is a "no" (a "yes" also works but doesn't have the same impact) then use it against the sales people. If they suggest your newly purchased laptop is great but would be greater still if you upgraded its RAM then mention what software you use, how much RAM it requires, clearly state that this amount is below the amount of installed RAM (if true), and that you don't plan using anything more demanding anytime soon (if also true) etc. You'll be surprised how quiet they go as soon as they realise you know more about the topic than them. They'll be lost for words, We dare you try. Do you think they'll be able to come up with a counter response? Sales people don't like it when they lose authority, after all they're supposed to know what they're selling, no?

Of course the part about saying thanks but no thanks to imposing sales people is only valid if you shop in store or via the phone. Luckily when ordering online you won't have a sales representative breathing down your neck to worry about. What's most important from the above is the figure you've arrived at, namely the amount of RAM you currently make use of in your laptop with the software you normally run. It will eiher be considerably below the total amount of RAM installed in your laptop, approaching this amount, or even surpassing it - if it's the latter then we definately need to stop virtual memory impacting performance.

How much RAM you currently use and how much to upgrade to - setting the course for action

We're going to take the dangerous step in assuming you've read the above and have come to learn the amount of RAM you currently use. If so great, if not then we suggest you scroll up and do just that. What we should perform next is try and arrive at an answer to how much RAM we need in our laptop. In particular we'll want to find an answer to whether our derived figure approaches or surpasses the amount of RAM we currently have installed, and equally whether we expect to use any new more demanding software in the forseeable future. Let's look at each of these cases in turn:

  • A) The amount of memory I currently use is considerably below the installed amount of RAM

  • It's not always that we make use of all the RAM within our laptop. This might be because we either don't use many demanding software or that our laptop came equipped with a healthy amount of RAM. If this is the case then it's likely unwise to upgrade unless you plan to use some demanding software in the near future that may increase usage. If so try and find out how much RAM this software will use (use the methods described above) and then return to re-evaluate your findings.

  • B) The amount of memory I currently use approaches the installed amount of RAM

  • In many cases you will find yourself in this position, that is your laptop will still have free unused RAM when running your software but this amount will be limited. If this is the case try and find out how much RAM is currently unused. For example, let's assume your laptop has 2GB RAM and you've deduced that you currently use 1650MB. In this example the amount of free RAM would be 2048MB - 1650MB = 398MB. We suggest you calculate this as a percentage so 1650MB of used RAM out of 2048MB is 80.57%, this means the percentage of free RAM is 100% - 80.57% = 19.43%.

    It's useful to arrive at the percentage value because you'll want to establish how near you are to using up all the RAM installed in your laptop. In our example, 80.57% is actually high. In such case the Operating System will already be making use of virtual memory to limit full usage as much as possible. As a general guideline you'll want to keep this to below 75% as a maximum. The more you approach using up all your RAM the slower your laptop will gradually become.

    The solution in this case is to bring this percentage down, at least to 50% or if possible (i.e. your wallet allows as does your OS and laptop model) to 25%. Again, let's take the above example. If we double our RAM from 2GB or 4GB then we'll essentially half the percentage of used RAM. Consequently, it will drop from 80.57% to 40.28%. Keep in mind this all relates to how much RAM you currently use. If you plan on using some more demanding software in the forseeable future then follow the advice explained in (A) above then re-calculate your findings.

  • C) The amount of memory I currently use surpasses the installed amount of RAM

  • Perhaps multi-tasker is your middle name or your laptop left the factory with a low amount of installed RAM, or both. Your situation is critical and laptop performance degraded - approaching anywhere near to 100% RAM usage or surpassing this amount is guaranteed to force your Operating System and all other software to heavily rely on virtual memory. You need to follow the advice explained in (B) above but switch it up a gear - you'll most likely want to more than double your installed RAM (should your laptop support it).

    You maybe surprised to hear that it's not all that uncommon for people to find themselves in this situation, don't consider yourself the unlucky one. Normally this can be explained by either of the following: an older laptop has been converted to using a newer Operating System and/or software without upgrading its RAM, or the laptop purchased was a cheap model, or one on sale and shipped with a low amount of installed RAM. If it's the former then you'll want to pay specific attention to the later parts of information below, it may be that the amount of RAM you wish to upgrade to is beyond that supported by your model of laptop.

The behind the scenes of laptop manufacturer branded RAM and that from 3rd parties - knowing and deciding your options

We've been observing how people buy RAM for a number of years now and think this warrants some explanation. You see, many people and this may include yourself assume that if you buy memory directly from your laptop manufacturer then it's somehow the best you can get. We'll call this "high quality" but of course this means a number of things: 100% compatibility, lifespan, performance, electrical characteristics etc. The truth is you're both right and wrong. Allow us to explain. If you buy your laptop RAM directly from say Dell then of course it's going to be 100% compatible with your laptop, will likely work for however long you keep the laptop and its performance will be "market standard" so to speak. There's nothing inherently wrong about buying your laptop RAM in such a way except two aspects which we want you to know and draw your own conclucions from.

First of all is the price, no prize for guessing this one. If you buy your memory upgrade from Dell etc. then you will overpay in comparison to buying it from a 3rd party. Not such a big deal you may think is it? After all is it worth deliberating over spending some more pounds, dollars, euros (whatever your local currency)? That's not all though. The most important piece of information you should know is that almost none of the laptop manufacturers produce their own RAM. That's right, there's no such thing as Dell, Lenovo, Acer etc. branded memory. You may come across a memory module with this laser inscribed on the module (usually printed on the sticker if at all) but rest fully assured that except for the likes of Samsung or Fujitsu-Siemens the fact you're buying laptop RAM direct from your laptop manufacturer is in no way representative to it being their own product.

There are only several memory manufactures in the world including the likes of Samsung, Hynix, Micron, Infineon, Nanya etc. Many brands use their memory chips in their products to then sell as their own. In the case of the big players in the laptop market they usually just stick on their own sticker, give it their own part number and price it above the current market price. In the case of 3rd party players such as Kingston, Corsair, OCZ Tech etc. they go a step further and essentially "fabricate" the memory as their own - by this they usually laser inscribe their own logo on the memory chips so at least to the untrained eye its appears as their own product through and through. Of course there's nothing wrong about such practises and all are high quality (stiff competition enforces this), but keep this in mind when you next upgrade your laptop's RAM.

So what can this mean to you? Depending on your own preferences you can either choose to buy laptop RAM direct from your laptop manufacturer albeit at a higher premium or expand your buying options and buy from 3rd parties at considerably lower price points. Consequently, if you decide on the latter option then you may possibly be able to purchase more laptop RAM for the same price and thus potentially add more memory. You may also want to consider that 3rd party laptop RAM is sometimes also available in the form of higher performing memory modules that support lower (tighter) memory timings, which will to an extent improve your laptop's performance further.

Upgrading the amount of installed laptop memory - identifying limiting factors

Unfortunately it's not always an easy path to success when upgrading laptop memory. You see, even if we do our research and find out how much RAM we need there are still aspects that limit how much we can upgrade to. Luckily it's not all that complicated, in fact it's rather simple if we know where to look. In addition to the number of memory slots found in a laptop as we discussed earlier in part 3 of the Laptop Memory Upgrades Guide, there exist two additional aspects that limit the amount of laptop RAM you can install thus use within your laptop. These are as follows:

  • 1) Memory controller

  • The memory controller in your laptop is the logic which interacts with the laptop's RAM each time a device requests a read, write or copy request. In many laptops the memory controller is intergrated in what is referred to as a chipset, or specifically the northbridge chipset. This is a seperate hardware device which is responsible for various functions, of which the memory controller is one of them. In recent laptops, for example those using AMD Turion 64 X2 and Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 Mobile processors, the memory controller is actually part of the processor die. In either case, the total amount of laptop RAM you can may install thus use is determined by the memory controller. Consequently, by identifying the model of memory controller present within your laptop, we can not only determine the type of RAM you need (i.e. DDR, DDR2, DDR3 as explained in part 2 of the Laptop Memory Upgrades Guide) but also the maximum amount that's supported by your laptop. There are a number of ways to achieve this, let's take a look at them in turn:

    • A) Looking on your laptop's original packaging
    • You'll have to excuse us if this sounds too obvious to you but it's actually one of the most simplest ways you can use believe it or not. If you still have the original packaging your laptop came in then more often than not it will have a sticker listing it's specification. If so look for the line that reads "chipset". This will most likely be on the same line as the words "Intel", "AMD", "SIS", or "ATI" or "VIA" as these brands are by far the most common. You'll want to note down the make and model, for example "Intel PM45 Mobile Chipset". If you've successfully managed to extract this information (careful not to confuse it with the graphics card chipset) then the best way to find out the maximum amount of supported RAM is to search on Google or Yahoo for a phrase such as "Intel PM45 Mobile Chipset specification".

    • B) Looking within your laptop's user manual
    • It's very often that laptop manufacturers print a detailed list of hardware components of your laptop in its user manual. You will either find this information printed within the first few pages at the beginning of the user manual, or as also common, anywhere in the final few pages. If successful, note that the make and model number and similarly to (A) above, search for the corresponding phrase in Google or Yahoo. If you're lucky then you may find even find this information in the user manual.

    • C) Using a system info type application
    • Should you not have any luck with (A) or (B) above then a very good way to find out the make and model of chipset within your laptop is to use an application that reports hardware information. One recommended such application is Sisoft Sandra. It's suffice to download and install the "Lite" version. Once you've run the software you'll want to look at the tab labeled "Hardware" and then click on the "Mainboard" icon. Scroll down to where it lists the maximum amount of installable RAM - there's no need to look for the make and model of your memory controller unless you want to. Should you choose to explore the information listed, you'll encounter items discussed earlier in this guide.

    • D) Using a memory tool or memory scanner
    • As you'll discover in part 5 of the Laptop Memory Upgrades Guide we recommend two methods for easily locating laptop RAM suitable for your laptop, namely the memory tool and memory scanner. You can use these methods to find out the type of memory modules compatible with your laptop model, the number of memory slots it features and the maximum amount of RAM that can be installed. If you decide to use these methods then you won't have to worry about manually locating the make and model of your laptop's memory controller.

  • 2) 32bit Operating Systems

  • The Operating System, regardless whether you are using a version of Microsoft Windows or any release of Linux, Mac OS etc. is the core software element in any laptop. The OS must be able to address (communicate) with all the installed laptop memory if it's to make use of it.

    32 bit OS's feature 32bit addressing limitations that limit the total amount of addressable RAM to 4GB. What this means is that even if your laptop supports more RAM (for example 8GB) but you are using a 32 bit OS then only a maximum of 4GB will be visible not only to you but also any software you run. Unfortunately, because 4GB is the absolute total, this addressable space (specifically the number of unique memory addresses) must be shared by other devices in your laptop as well, take for example the graphics card. The outcome of this is that you will only have visible anywhere between 3.25GB and 3.5GB of RAM. There are techniques to surpass this problem in select's OS's but neither are problem free. The only recommended means to overcoming this limitation is to use a 64bit OS, for example a x64 version of Microsoft Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7, or other OS.

    Unfortunately, select modern laptops that support 64bit computing (feature a compatible processor and memory controller) ship/shipped with a 32bit OS version. In such case you will need to upgrade should your laptop support over 4GB of RAM and you're contemplating upgrading up to or beyond this total amount. Fortunately, it's easy to differentiate whether your laptop supports a 64bit OS. The easiest means is to look for "64" in the processor name, for example AMD Turion X2 64. Some processors don't reveal "64" in their name, in such cases it's easiest to download and run an application such as CPU-Z. On the "CPU" tab locate the field listing its supported instruction sets. If you see it listing AMD64/EM64T then you can be sure your laptop supports a 64bit OS.

    A final important note on 32bit OS's is that while 4GB is the maximum amount of RAM they can address, this should not be interpreted to mean that all 32 bit OS's support this amount. Older OS releases such as Microsoft Windows 98 and Me (and therefore Windows 95) have problems when more than 512MB laptop RAM is installed. This results from the fact that their codebase is actually a hybrid of 16bit and 32 bit code. While it's rare that you will attempt installing a large amount of RAM within an older laptop running an older 32bit OS, it pays to keep this fact in mind. The good news is that if your laptop is running a 64bit OS then there'd no need for concern as the total addressable memory space is far greater than the total amount of RAM supported by your laptop.

  • 3) Memory technology

  • One final area which we believe casts some doubts in the community is the relation between memory technology and how it determines how much we can upgrade. Some of you have the dilemma (let's call it desire for now) surrounding the problem of upgrading an older laptop to the levels of RAM normally found in modern laptops. For example you've had your laptop for X years and it's only recently that you've noticed a considerable slowdown. All (or the bulk of) your research seems to suggest it's because the recent move to newer software versions has increased the need for more RAM. Consequently, you're determined to install a full dose of 4GB RAM. Could this be you?

    Unfortunately the age of your laptop, or specifically the age of its technology determines just how much is possible. Consequently, both (1) and (2) discussed above as well as the number of memory slots found within your laptop as discussed in part 3 of the Laptop Memory Upgrades Guide limit just how much RAM your laptop supports. Older laptops will not support the same levels of RAM found in modern laptops because they use an older memory technology. The effect this has is that older memory technology means an older memory controller supporting less RAM in total, which in turn means that laptop memory modules featuring this memory technology are only available in smaller capacities.

    In very rare cases a laptop manufacturer may misprint the total amount of RAM supported by your laptop but the probablity of this occuring is very slim. If in doubt always try and confirm your findings via using a number of methods listed in (1) above with methods (1C and 1D) being most likely to provide a definitive answer. In other rare cases the memory controller within your laptop may unofficially support more RAM than otherwise advertised. In some situations this may indeed be true, but because the availability of memory modules doesn't permit you finding out it's best to regard such option as irrelevant to your upgrade.

Recommended memory (RAM) size based on Operating System (Basic use)

The recommended amount of RAM your laptop should contain is first and foremost driven by the Operating System (OS) it uses. Recommended in this case is defined as the amount of memory your laptop should contain to deliver comfortable basic all-round performance from a value for money perspective. This implies satisfying the requirements of the OS as well as enabling performing user tasks such as word processing, email, surfing the internet, chatting, watching a movie etc.

Recommended memory (RAM) size based on Operating System and type of application(s) (Power user)

Power users will appreciate a greater helping of RAM to ensure comfortable multi-tasking. Recommended in such case is defined as the amount of memory your laptop should contain to deliver comfortable advanced all-round performance from a professional user perspective. This implies satisfying the requirements of the OS as well as enabling performing user tasks such as word processing, email, surfing the internet, chatting, watching a movie but equally others that are considerably more demanding such as involving graphics, audio, video, application development, database and even gaming etc.

A power user is defined as one who regularly deploys multi-tasking throughout his or her day but also one who makes use of demanding software.

Go back and read about the Types of laptop memory modules...

...or continue reading to discover Where to buy 100% compatible SDRAM, DDR, DDR2 and DDR3 SODIMM memory.

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