Bring On the RAM – If You Can

My very first microcomputer – back in the Duran Duran era – was a Commodore VIC 20 that featured an 8 bit processor, a cassette tape storage drive, and 5 kilobytes of available RAM. I managed to get a couple of expansion cartridges and boot the RAM all the way up to 32 KB. Impressive.

Eight years later I had a Commodore Amiga that had 2 MB of RAM and by the time I got into the Windows universe in the late 1990s my PC had (wait for it) 16 whole MB of RAM.

Well, times have changed. When I started using Linux in 2006 my Dell desktop was totally stuffed with RAM at 512 MB. And boy, that seemed like overkill when you could run Linux on as little as 64 MB or less. Today the cheapest laptop you get at Staples or Best Buy will have 8 GB of RAM  or 1.6 million times as much as my VIC-20. My current video card has 1000 times as much RAM as my Amiga 500 had back in the day. I think nothing of putting 16 GB of RAM in my desktop today – and it’ll hold a maximum of 32 GB. Newer motherboards can hold even more than that.

The explosion in RAM availability has been good – and bad. It’s good in the sense that the latest versions of Linux and especially Windows have been designed to put all that available RAM to good use. The operating systems can drastically speed things up by keeping needed programs and data in the RAM and not always loading it from your hard drive. Today’s high RAM systems blaze through web surfing and office work – even YouTube.

Lots of RAM makes it possible to have tabbed browsing, HD video, high resolution gaming, Netflix, Spotify – all at once. Not exactly your grandpa’s Internet.

However there’s a downside to designing software for gobs of RAM – and it’s with older hardware or netbooks. It used to be that if your PC was too old and tired to run the next generation of Windows, you could rely on Linux to run and do the same stuff with less resources.

However even Linux has to run the latest and greatest browser. Yesterday I was running Linux Mint with Google Chrome and only one tab open – and my desktop was using 1.6 GB of RAM. I have a couple of old netbooks with maximum memory capacity of 1 GB and 1.5 GB respectively. Those machines would have to resort to swapping stuff on the hard drive to even run a simple web surfing task. The only way they can be useful today is with a lightweight browser like Midori and the lightest possible Linux desktop system. And this is with two to three times the RAM of my old Dell that ran Linux so well back in 2006.

My “best” low powered netbook has a maximum memory capacity of 2 GB and even with that much in it I can’t run videos or play any Web based games. It’s strictly an email/office computer I take on holiday. I have another old desktop that was incredibly powerful when new and has 3 GB of RAM – all you could use back then. It’s on the edge of usability today.

It used to be that you junked a computer because its processor was too slow or obsolete to run the latest operating system. Today it’s more a matter of how much RAM you can stuff onto the motherboard. For some old desktops and netbooks that’ll never be enough. Not any more. Pity.



Published by Ray MacDonald

Ray MacDonald is a retired food scientist who lives in Almonte, ON.
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