Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out part one of this article too.

I, like many of you, have dealt with technology for quite a long time. If you haven’t dabbled with all this tech, I can understand how confusing (or even difficult) it can be upgrade or a replace an already expensive machine, but let me tell you that now is the time to upgrade!

Today, we’re going to supplement some information from all previous parts and talk about some more things to think about when you upgrade. Today’s subject? RAM!

Random Access Memory (RAM)

This won’t be a step-by-step how-to for upgrading RAM, but rather the reasoning for upgrading RAM if you need it. We’ll talk about what RAM is, what it does, and how to monitor it so that you can see if you really need more RAM.

Oh, and generally, more is better, but I’d say that you don’t have to go all out on this. And here’s why…

The Role of RAM

RAM, often called memory, is basically the staging area for your CPU. It holds important stuff for the operating system, data that you’re currently working on, and programs that you have running so that your CPU has quick and easy access to it. It is considered short term storage, opposed to long term storage, which is your internal storage or hard drive. Even though there is a physical capacity limitation for your RAM, all these newer operating systems tend to not actually allow your RAM to run out.

The operating systems simply move older information from the RAM to the internal storage (which is called virtual memory) to allow for newer and more pertinent information to be stored in the faster RAM. That older information can still be called upon when your CPU needs to get back. The thing to note is that internal storage (virtual memory) is notably slower than your RAM, so your CPU has to wait for the information to be transferred from the storage, to the RAM, then to the CPU.

Short Term Memory

Think of it as short term memory in a brain. Your short term memory holds some recent facts that you’ve just dealt with. As more things come into view, those facts are pushed into long term memory as they become less important, and may take a little bit or a lotta bit of time to recall, depending on your brain. Think upon the last time you had an oil change on your car compared to the last time you filled up your gas.

More RAM just allows your CPU access to more relevant data. It’ll speed things up overall and you’ll notice a difference while you multitask using different programs. You may also notice an increase in performance if you’re working on an image or a video that is large in size. While 4GB of RAM in your system will get you by in most processes in life, 8GB is about standard for today in terms of photography and video editing. The prosumers like to use 16GB and the pros like to use 16GB upward to 64GB or even more depending on the system and the need. It is also important to note that as technology advances and the needs of operating systems increase, the demand for more RAM from the operating system may also increase– which is why 8GB is about standard, leaving room for increased demand and other processes.

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 5.03.39 AM
The Memory Section in OSX’s Activity Monitor lets you see how your system says your RAM is doing. The Memory Pressure graph helps illustrate the availability of memory resources.

When you close an application out, the RAM that that specific application uses typically gets freed up so that other applications can utilize the space. A number of things could go wrong with a computer and cause the RAM to not be freed up. One problem is called a runaway application, which are bug or circumstances during which your application may utilize more or even all of the RAM that is available, and even may affect overall system performance if it takes over the CPU as well. Apple has a little site about this for their machines that can be found here.

Preventing Hangups

System hangs, frozen applications, and other unexpected behaviors often occur when the resources run out– which is why restarting your computer often solves many programs. Oh, and a little tidbit– this is also true for the iPhone (and apps like Candy Crush, Facebook and Snapchat are notorious for being memory hogs and causing crashes).

I know when I was on my Windows machines with earlier versions of Photoshop, I’d find that my system would often act super slow and irresponsive. Photoshop would often hang and freeze, and wouldn’t register a click or a switch of a tool. I was running about 4GB of RAM, an old 500GB traditional hard drive, and was working on an image that required merging several photos together. I remember trying to figure out why everything was going so slowly and found that upgrading the RAM was the cheapest and simplest solution that I was able to do at the time. Back then, I felt that my machine was generally susceptible to runaway programs and memory leaks while editing photos– causing RAM and other resources to be depleted.

Monitoring your RAM on a Mac

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 5.14.04 AM

Apple provides OS X users a means of monitoring RAM and system resources through an application called Activity Monitor. You can use Spotlight, the magnifying glass icon located on the top right hand corner of the screen, to search for the Activity Monitor app. Once launched you can see monitor system tasks as well as memory pressure.

  • RAM information is available at the bottom of the Memory pane:
    • Memory Pressure: The Memory Pressure graph helps illustratethe availability of memory resources. The graph moves from right to left and updates at the intervals set in View > Update Frequency. The current state of memory resourcesis indicated by the color at the right side of the graph:
      • Green: Memory resources are available.
      • Yellow: Memory resources are still available but are being tasked by memory-management processes, such as compression.
      • Red: Memory resources are depleted, and OS X is using your startup drive for memory. To make more RAM available, you can quit one or more apps or install more RAM. This is the most important indicator that your Mac may need more RAM.
    • Physical Memory: The amount of RAM installed in your Mac.
    • Memory Used: The total amount of memory currently used by all apps and OS X processes.
    • Virtual Memory: The total amount of memory-address space that programmers have set for their apps’ memory mapping. Virtual memory in OS X has nothing to do with consuming RAM or resources on the startup drive.
    • Swap Used: The space used on your startup drive by OS X memory management. It’s normal to see some activity here. As long as memory pressure is not in the red state, OS X has memory resources available.
    • App Memory: The total amount of memory currently used by apps and their processes.
    • File Cache: Memory that was recently used by applications and is available for use by other applications. For example, if you’ve been using Mail and then quit Mail, the RAM that Mail was using becomes part of the file cache, which then becomes available to other apps. If you open Mail again before its file cache memory is used (overwritten) by another app, Mail opens more quickly because its file cache is converted back to app memory instead of loading all of its contents from your startup drive.
    • Wired Memory: Memory that can’t be compressed or paged out to your startup drive, so it must stay in RAM. The memory used by a process can’t be borrowed by other processes. The amount of wired memory used by an app is determined by the app’s programmer.
    • Compressed: The amount of memory in RAM this is compressed to make more RAM memory available to other processes.

Upgrading RAM

Once you decide that you need more RAM, there’s a lot of complicated factors to help you figure out what specific RAM you need for your system. To blanket cover this for everyone wanting to upgrade RAM in a computer they already own, I’d recommend taking your machine into the local computer store and finding out what kind of RAM is needed for your exact system, and how much it will cost.

For those purchasing a new system, it’s much simpler. Many companies have pre-built configurations for you to purchase, hopefully you can find a machine that has the specs that you want in it. Many suppliers also provide custom built/built-to-order machines for purchase as well.

Often times, you can upgrade the RAM in computers later, so depending on your budget upgrading may be something to be done incrementally. One thing noteworthy tidbit to know if you’re looking into purchasing a current Apple product: only the 27″ iMac has user replaceable RAM, the rest (21.5″ iMac, MacBook Pro, MacBook Air) have their RAM soldered into the logic board, which means there’s no real easy way of upgrading the RAM once it is purchased– so think ahead!

Think about what software you end up using and what the minimum requirements are. It is fairly common to see software companies also give out recommendations for system specs, providing you a handy outline as to what you might be needing to run that software smoothly.

Two More Bits of Info

Side-note and a bit of information: Video Cards (GPU) also have RAM, often called VRAM, or video memory. Similar to how RAM works for the CPU, VRAM is the staging area for the GPU. More is better, but again, not always necessary. On a few lower-end to middle-end video cards both integrated and not, the GPU may allocate some of the CPU’s RAM for use by the GPU if the GPU’s VRAM is insufficient. This often occurs on some of the older Intel HD Graphics cards, which aren’t exactly powerhouses. So you might want to think about more RAM if you’ve got a card like that. Google your video card model to find out specifics.

More info: Random access memory may be called random, but is far from being random. It’s in the middle of a super complex and technical process of handling data. Technically, it’s called random access memory because it can write to all areas of the memory at any given point instead of sequentially. For enable If you had containers labeled 1 through 6, the system doesn’t have to fill containers 1, 2 and 3 before it can write to 4. It can fill and empty as it pleases, but also keeps track of exactly where everything is. Super smart stuff, really.

This Post Sponsored by:

Arizona Highways Photo Workshops. For more than 30 years, Arizona Highway Photo Workshops has been committed to helping photographers find inspiring destinations, quality education and spectacular images. Get more information (and enter our contest) at http://www.ahpw.org/FindIt/.

SongFreedom is about artists supporting artists. Were a music licensing platform with the best music availablestuff from the radio, or your favorite indie bands and soundtracks. A place where photographers and cinematographers can find the most powerful song for their story with the click of a button.

Drobo. A family of Safe, Simple, and Expandable storage systems for capture in the field, editing in the studio, or backup and archive.

Zenfolio. Looking for more than just a photo hosting website? Join the tens of thousands of photographers who switched to the best all-in-one solution to organize, display and sell your photography work online.

lynda.com Learn photography anytime, anywhere, and at your own pacefrom bite-sized tutorials to comprehensive courses. Try lynda.com free for 10 days by visiting lynda.com/Photofocus.

The HDR Learning Center Check out new ways to use High Dynamic Range photography to make compelling images. Free tutorials and posts to get results. Produced in partnership with HDRsoft.