Give your PC a break, add some memory

Bytes: By expanding your computer's RAM capacity, you reduce the likelihood of crashes.

May 02, 2002|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Sixty-four MB isn't enough.

That's hard to say for someone who has been computing as long as I have. Almost as hard as adapting to phrases such as: "That two-bedroom on the corner is reasonably priced at a million dollars."

My first computer had 64 bytes of memory. That's right: not megabytes (MB), not even kilobytes (KB), but just "bytes."

But it's true that 64 MB of memory -- more than a million times more memory than in my first computer -- just isn't enough anymore.

Before we go on, let's take a moment here to establish just what "memory" is. If you're already cued in, please skip this, and just make sure your computer has at least 128 MB and preferably 256 MB of RAM.

Many computer owners can't get anyone to clear up the difference between "memory" and "hard drive." They'll be confused when told they need more memory, because they know they haven't yet filled the hard drive. And they can't get answers because among technocrats there seems to be an attitude of, "If you don't already know, it's hopeless to explain." Always a wonderful approach to learning.

Think of your computer as an office. In that office is a worker -- the processor chip.

The office has shelves to hold books, notebooks and other materials. Those shelves are the hard drive. That's where your programs and documents wait for the time when the processor needs them.

Today's hard drives typically hold 10 to 40 gigabytes. One byte can hold one character or numeral of a document, one spot of a picture or one incremental step in a program. A gigabyte is a billion bytes.

In this office analogy, memory is the desk where your processor-worker actually gets things done. Memory holds programs and documents while they're being worked on. Today's memory is measured in megabytes, with 128 or 256 MB typical on new computers. Older computers may have only 32 or 64 MB.

When your computer starts running, it copies some programs and parts of the operating system into memory first. Then, when you choose to write or check e-mail or play a game, the computer copies the programs you ask for into memory, followed by the documents you'll view or images you'll play with.

The operating system, programs, and documents all co-exist in the memory chips. So 128 MB may seem like a lot -- 128 million characters or numerals -- but keep in mind that today's programs contain millions of instructions, databases can have millions of data points, and today's documents and graphics can contain millions of dots. The combination fills megabytes in a hurry.

When you don't have enough MB to hold the complete programs and documents you want to work on, your computer tries to shuffle them in and out of memory, copying one from disk to memory, then erasing it to make room for a second document, then erasing that to make room to copy back the first document, and so on.

Imagine our poor office worker trying to compare several documents but having only enough desk space for one document at a time. Up and down, up and down, pulling things off shelves, returning them, making notes. The more desk space, the easier it is to lay them all out at once.

Today's operating system programs typically claim to run in 64 MB, but the recommended minimum is often 128 MB. Because much of that will fill just with the operating system itself, you're better off getting 256 MB into your machine. Then you should have room for most kinds of computing. More memory is fine for those who spend all day editing digital photographs and videos -- the top-quality professional stuff -- but the rest of us won't see much performance improvement moving from 256 MB to 512 MB.

More memory -- up to that 256 MB amount, or as close as you can get -- can help make your computer run faster. In fact, I'd rather have a 500 MHz computer with 256 MB of RAM than a 1 GHZ computer with 64 MB of RAM.

More memory can also help prevent program and system crashes, which sometimes result from programs battling over memory.

On a laptop, more memory can help you compute longer. Spinning the hard drive is one of the biggest battery-drainers for a laptop. The more your laptop can do in memory, without having to copy things constantly to and from the hard drive, the longer your battery will last.

Good news: Memory is pretty cheap. Adding 128 MB should cost only $30 to $50. You may hear that prices are headed up, but it won't be by much, so don't feel any heat to make this upgrade now. But remember that boosting your memory to the 256 MB zone is one of the best upgrades you can make.

And adding memory is easy. For most desktops, it's just a matter of snapping it into place.

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