RAM Vs Processor – Which Really Makes Your Computer Faster?

This is a quick break in the middle of our series about computer basics and making your computer fast and efficient, but it actually fits right in with that topic.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who knows that I am a “computer person” but has developed a few perceptions of their own. We were trying to play a game online together over a popular game website, and found ourselves unable to do so because he was unable to load the game.

Frustrated, he started complaining about the website. He’d told me the technical specifications (specs) on his laptop before, and while I couldn’t remember his RAM, I remembered his processor (CPU) being a little on the slow side. I asked him to jog my memory about the specs.

“Does your computer have a dual-core processor, or single?”

“Dual.”

“Hmm… But it’s only like 1.6GHz, right?”

“Yeah.”

As I had thought, he confirmed that his CPU wasn’t exactly running at the speed of light. I remarked, “Yeah, I forgot that your processor is relatively slow.”

He then admitted that it was and mentioned several of the programs he had running, including a popular antivirus. Antivirus programs can strain limited resources, especially when you have real-time scanning on. When you include that atop an already slower processor and a more resource-heavy operating system (Windows 7) – it’s understandable how a computer could have issues.

After talking about how these programs on an already taxed processor could be causing issues, he proclaimed that he needed more RAM.

And this is where I was blown away…

After reiterating that his processor was already being pushed, implying that the problem lies in the processor and not necessarily the RAM, he disagreed.

“Nah, it is the RAM. At least, that’s what I was told when I bought it.

I couldn’t believe that he was disagreeing with me in favor of what he was informed by a salesman.

Further confirming my suspicions, he remarked that he “only had 4GB of RAM”. Instead of this supporting the idea that more RAM would make a whole world of difference, this confirmed that it was his processor.

Why?

My computer has the exact same amount of RAM and did not share the same problems he was describing – because my processor’s speed is much faster.

However, that brought to my attention just how common this misinformed logic really is. Many people get the processor mixed up with the RAM and the RAM mixed up with the hard drive.

It’s extremely common that people think that their computer runs slow because they need more space on their hard drive. Or that more RAM would fix everything on their computer.

The reality is that hard drives, CPUs, and RAM all have different functions and purposes. They all work together and share some similar characteristics, but like most things in life – you must have balance.

You could (hypothetically) have 100GB of RAM in your computer. If you had a slow processor, all that extra RAM would ultimately be wasted.

Likewise, you could have a lightning-fast CPU but with not enough RAM, the computer would still be held back significantly.

Let’s say you have a top of the line processor – it’s super fast, quad-core, one of the most modern models available. You also have 10GB of RAM. Just an absurd amount. You can do everything with this computer! But you only have a 20GB hard drive.

Windows 7  64-bit version takes up 20GB. If you had a 20GB hard drive, you could have the operating system – and absolutely nothing else. You’d have the most awesome PC and you couldn’t do anything with it.

The point is, computer specifications should be balanced. Sure, you can lean a little to this side or that, but overall the numbers should be within a certain range of each other. You may get a little more out of your computer with a higher number on either end (than having a equal keel) but it probably won’t be what you’re hoping for.

Think of this for a moment – a hard drive is a long drawer, RAM is the hanging folders to organize documents, and your CPU is a secretary trying to file 100 documents away. Your documents that needed to be grouped together alphabetically and kept in order.

  • Your secretary is fast, but you only have 6 hanging folders, not clearly marked.
  • Your secretary is slow, but you have 26 hanging folders clearly marked in alphabetical order.
  • Your secretary is fast and you have 26 hanging folders clearly marked in alphabetical order.

OK, that’s a little goofy – I admit it. But out of that scenario, which would you envision working the best?

A fast secretary with an inept filing system couldn’t do her job to the best of her ability. Her speed would be hindered by the lack of folders. In the same way, a fast CPU would be relatively inefficient without enough RAM to support it.

A slow secretary with a great filing system would be hindered by her own speed. She’d 27have the folders she needed to do the job well, she just couldn’t move fast enough. A slower CPU simply wouldn’t be as fast, even if supported by plenty of RAM

A fast secretary with a good filing system – would be fast and efficient. And there’s our answer:

A CPU can be fast, but only with enough RAM can it be efficient.

(And vice-versa.)

You simply can’t have one without the other.

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12 Responses to RAM Vs Processor – Which Really Makes Your Computer Faster?

  1. Gem says:

    I am sooo stoked with the answers I’ve found in this post… it’s a perfectly clear, jargon-less and agenda-free explanation of critical PC specs for the semi-computer literate… many thanks!!!

  2. Heather says:

    I’m so happy that this was useful for you! And thank you for your comment! I appreciate all feed back, good or (gulp!) bad.

  3. dfasdf says:

    I noticed an SSD is completely ignored for a fast computer. Often people confuse ram and processor speeds with how quickly the disk is being read and written.

    • Heather says:

      Although SSD (solid state drives) do offer a speed boost from classic hard drives, the average consumer computers are still more likely to come with a regular hard drive. This speed boost may be of benefit to people who are using their computers intensively but to someone who is using a computer casually (email, web surfing, office documents, etc), it will likely go unnoticed.

      My point was to address the common misconception that more RAM automatically means a faster computer. I have used a SSD before and it made little difference to me. But a SSD is a good choice for anyone who will be demanding much of their computer.

  4. joey_of_cle says:

    I would like to offer the kitchen analogy for this idea; Cupboards and cabinets are your HDD. Nice cabinets with good storage organization are SSD. Counter space is your RAM. Processor speed is the number of cooks.

    Any suggestions on a proper balance for all these specs? How much RAM is optimal for particular processors?

    • Heather says:

      Excellent analogy, Joey, thank you!

      As an example – my computer has a 500GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, and a 3GHz dual-core processor. It was bought a couple years ago so the video card (unimportant for those interested in browsing the internet but imperative for gaming and such) is a bit outdated but when I bought it, it was sufficient for pretty much all computer gaming needs at the time (at the minimum level, at least).

      It ALL depends on what you need it for, just don’t let someone sell you on excesses. For example, if I could hypothetically add 10GB of RAM, my processor computer would still be held back by the max processor speed and dual-core abilities.

      Also, although SSD (solid-state drives) are superior to regular hard drives, the negligible difference for the average use is not going to justify the additional cost.

      If you are a gamer (beyond things like Solitaire!) or need to manipulate photos, videos, or audio files – these rules do not apply. However, for the average home user, a computer with similar specs as mine will be more than sufficient. Minimally, I’d say at least 2GB RAM and a 2GHz processor with 75GB hard drive would be sufficient for most basic use (email, browsing the internet, occasionally watching YouTube videos, etc).

      However, the operating system also plays a part. Newer operating systems require more and more resources, leaving fewer resources available for the user.

      Whew!

  5. Jay says:

    Thank you! This explanation was straightforward and simple, exactly what I was looking for!

  6. Claudia Won says:

    I’m becoming a college student in few weeks and I need a laptop mostly for using Word. I have seen 2 laptops at my budget.
    -Dell Inspiron 15 3000 series: intel core i5 processor at 1.7GHz, 8GB RAM, 1TB 5400RPM SATA Hard Drive, Windows 8.1, 4 hours of battery, 5.3lbs- $530
    -Lenovo Ideapad 15.6 Inch Touchscreen: Intel core i5 processor at 2.5 GHz, 6GB RAM, 1024GB 5400RPM SATA Hard Drive, Windows 8.1, 5 hours of battery, 5.9lbs-$600
    I could not choose between them becaue of processor speed and RAM size. plus I need to carry the laptop so a lighter one would be better but that’s not reallly a problem..
    SO can you suggest which one would be better for me to do A LOT of writing

    • Heather says:

      Hi Claudia, sorry for the late reply. For Microsoft Word and lots of writing for college (as well as internet searching, etc) either one of those would be more than sufficient. It’s anything beyond writing that could require you to have a more robust laptop. If you are really just looking for something to write with – I would just go with the cheaper of the two.

      To give you an idea – I am typing this response on a Toshiba Satellite with 2GB of RAM and a single-core processor at 2.2GHz. Granted I’m not in Microsoft Word 2010 or later.

      Anyway, hope that helps!

  7. David Best says:

    This was a very good post. Very informative. But it doesn’t quite answer the question posed in the title. So taking as a given that one needs balance–to optimize speed, within budget, would you spend a little extra on RAM or the Processor?

    Here is a specific example: I’m looking at a “Standard” MacBook Pro, and I have the following options. If I can only spend up to $150 on one of the two upgrades, which should it be?

    Processor
    2.5GHz Dual-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz
    2.9GHz Dual-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz [Add $150.00]
    Memory

    4GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM — 2x2GB
    8GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM — 2x4GB [Add $100.00]

    Thanks!

    David

    • Heather says:

      Hi David,

      It unfortunately was an intentionally open-ended question since each person with each purpose will have different needs. Your question didn’t specify what sort of processor you were starting out with or what sorts of things you might be needing to do with your Mac, not to mention that they are a bit of a different beast altogether.

      It really all depends on what sort of base model you have but – as I’m not familiar with Macs personally – if you have this one (https://www.apple.com/macbook-pro/specs/) then I would probably be more apt to recommend the RAM upgrade before the processor.

      My original point though still remains in that you would have “maxed out” your RAM capabilities but you could still be held back a bit by your processor speed.

      Again though, it all really depends on what you need to do on it and how you would plan to go about it, how many programs you want open at a time, etc.

      Thanks for your question! :)

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