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What Is RAM, How Much Do You Need, and Which One Should You Buy

System memory — aka RAM — can seriously impact video editing software, and it’s one of the easiest, most affordable upgrades you can make. Here’s why.

Video editors rely on their computers as much as they do on their cameras and lenses, and, like knowing the difference between a full-frame and an APS-C sensor, it’s essential to know the components within a computer.

The central processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU) are also essential for video editing. Yet, RAM can make a significant impact at a much lower price. System memory loads your entire editing timeline so that you can access it quickly and without hiccups. But not having enough can lead to freezes, crashes, and lost work.

Having more RAM enhances every part of your video editing workflow. Unlike other PC components, RAM is easy to upgrade and affordable, making it a no-brainer for any video editor looking to revitalize their struggling machine.

What Is RAM?

These cheap-looking OEM RAM sticks are the kind you may find on a pre-built computer. Image via Denis Dryashkin.

The system memory works for the CPU. What that means is that RAM is a temporary storage device that holds a CPU’s program instructions, assets, and other data. Upon shutting down or rebooting, RAM is wiped, making it a volatile type of memory device. Every time you open a new program, the instructions for the program are directed to the RAM from the computer’s storage.

The more RAM that is available on a computer, the more instructions can be held. When there isn’t enough RAM, older program instructions and data are moved over to virtual memory. If the computer tries to access instructions that aren’t loaded onto the RAM, it has to wait until they transfer from virtual memory to system memory to the CPU, which slows down a computer.

RAM can access data at speeds unlike anything else, and it’s the main reason why just a few gigabytes of the stuff is more expensive than a terabyte’s worth of HDD storage. Not even NVMe SSDs, which are the fastest type of storage, can compete with RAM’s data transfer speeds.

Most computers, except laptops, use dual in-line memory modules (DIMM) that look like sticks, which is why they are colloquially known as RAM sticks. These so-called RAM sticks are inserted onto the motherboard via the DIMM slots, producing a satisfying, audible click when done properly.

While RAM sticks all look the same to the untrained eye, not every RAM stick is compatible with just any motherboard. You’ll have to research which type of RAM your CPU and motherboard support and how much RAM is supported, which I’ll cover later in the article.

Laptops are the exception, and they use small outline dual in-line memory modules, or SO-DIMMs, which have a smaller footprint. Not every laptop can be upgraded for more RAM. Certain Macs, such as MacBooks and the Mac mini, have their RAM modules soldered onto the motherboard, making it impossible to upgrade.

To know if your laptop can be upgraded for more RAM, read the manual or check online.

How Does RAM Affect Video Editing?

The Importance of Sufficient RAM

You’ve seen this look. You’ve probably made this look several times, though you were not aware. This is the look of a person who’s computer crashed while editing video because they didn’t have sufficient RAM. Don’t let this be you. Image via ESB Professional.

Video editing depends heavily on the CPU — video editing software that offers hardware-accelerated rendering, such as Premiere Pro and the paid version of DaVinci Resolve, also relies on the GPU — which in turn depends heavily on RAM to hold calculations, program instructions, assets, and other data so that they can be quickly accessed. As I mentioned before, not having enough RAM forces the CPU to wait, which is the main culprit behind a missing or slow timeline. With enough RAM, you can store the entirety of the timeline.

I recently doubled my RAM to 32GBs, increasing the number of programs and browser tabs I can have open before noticing a drop in performance. The difference when using DaVinci Resolve is like night and day, and my timeline loads much quicker now.

RAM also affects computers in other ways, like, for example, being able to have multiple programs running in the background. Video editing software is so RAM-hungry that it can slow down a RAM-deficient computer to a crawl, leaving browsers and other applications in the lurch. If you like to have music playing in the background or a browser open for research or a tutorial, you can pretty much forget about that if you don’t have enough RAM.

What You Need to Know About RAM?

Not all RAM is equal, even though it may look that way. RAM sticks, or DIMMs, may have the same form-factor, but you would be wrong to insert just any old RAM stick into a DIMM slot before first researching.

You should be aware of three factors before purchasing RAM, and those are memory frequency, Cas latency, and CL timings. All three units measure the RAM’s speed in different ways, but memory frequency is, by far, the most important feature to look out for — feel free to get lost in the weeds learning about CL timings and CAS latency.

Manufacturers typically tout memory frequency as the number you should care about when it comes to speed. While memory frequency is not the only way to measure RAM speed, it’s much easier to comprehend than the other two. Faster frequency memory can go through more cycles per second, which is measured in megahertz or MHz. RAM writes and reads data on every cycle that it performs, meaning that modules with a higher frequency can transfer data at a faster rate per second.

Overclocking/XMP Profile

Overclocking sounds like a thing that only experts should do, but it’s the only way to get memory modules to operate at the advertised speed. I didn’t know about this when I built my PC, and I though the manufacturer had ripped me off because my memory modules, which were rated at 3000 MHz, were operating at a far inferior speed of 2400 MHz. It turns out that you have to hop in the BIOS and make some quick adjustments by setting an XMP profile, which overclocks your RAM.

Every motherboard BIOS looks and operates differently, so read your manual to find the section about RAM overclocking or XMP profiles. Once I found the correct section, I clicked on XMP-2998, which, finally, got my RAM to operate at the advertised speed of 3000 MHz — it’s actually 2998 MHz, but close enough. Open up Task Manager on your computer, and click on “Memory” under the performance tab to check the frequency of your RAM, which is next to “Speed.”

Dual-Channel Memory

Most motherboards either have two or four DIMM slots, with larger motherboards typically featuring the latter. Inserting a RAM stick into any DIMM slot seems natural, but then you won’t be able to take advantage of Dual-Channel memory.

According to Crucial, which manufactures RAM sticks and other storage devices, using Dual-Channel RAM “increase(s) data transfer speed by adding more channels of communication between the memory and the memory controller.”

Instead of only one open channel between your RAM sticks and your CPU, you can use two channels, which greatly speeds up your computer. Motherboards with Dual-Channel memory require RAM sticks to be slotted in a specific order, so read the motherboard manual to find out more.

How Much RAM Do You Need?

This is the question that everyone likes to ask, but there is no concrete number that I can recommend because every video editor has a different need and budget. What I can say, however, is that the more RAM the better, but that’s easier said than done.

RAM is incredibly expensive per gigabyte, and every CPU supports a certain amount of RAM. My CPU supports a max of 64GBs of RAM, which would cost me around $250 if I got a kit with four 16GB RAM sticks.

For 1080p video editing, 16GBs is a decent starting point, but it won’t be a walk in the park. I’ve edited video with only 16GBs, and it wasn’t the fastest or easiest. I had freezes, crashes, and my timeline took forever to load, an issue made worse by storing the video files on an HDD instead of an SSD.

Either way, 16GBs isn’t too bad if that’s all you can afford, but don’t bank on having a smooth experience. Doubling the capacity to 32GBs is much better, and you should have no issues editing 1080p video. You’ll also be able to do some 4K video editing, but I recommend creating proxies of 4K video files first to make it easier on yourself. For 4K video editing, 64GBs seems to be the sweet spot, and it can handle 8K video files as well.

If you like to browse the internet via the Chrome browser, having more RAM is almost a necessity since it’s such a MEMORY HOG as the video states below. Seriously, Chrome devours RAM like Joey Chestnut devours hot dogs on America’s birthday

Which RAM to Buy

Vengeance LPX

I know they’re not much to look at, but the Corsair Vengeance LPX memory modules have never let me down. Image via Corsair.

Much like the stock market, the PC component industry goes through ups and downs, and none more so than RAM, which fluctuates heavily based on high demand or shortages caused by factory shutdowns.

Luckily, RAM is at a reasonable price right now, or as reasonable as it can be, and there are tons of great options from several manufacturers. The actual RAM chips on a memory module are made by manufacturers such as Samsung, Hynix, or Micron, but they sell those RAM chips to consumer-facing manufacturers that assemble the RAM sticks.

Here are a few brands that I recommend, but make sure to double-check that the RAM you’re buying is compatible with your motherboard and CPU.

  • Corsair Vengeance LPX —  Whether you’re building a budget build or upgrading an old PC, these RAM modules are a great option.
  • Corsair Vengeance RGB Pro Another Corsair memory module, except this one lights up in pretty colors. It’s only worth getting if your PC has a glass side-panel since it’s too pricey to hide.
  • G.SKILL Ripjaws V Series — You can get a 32GB kit for around $110 — add another $10 if getting four sticks instead of two. It’s not the best looking, and it’s not low-profile, so it may interfere with other components in your system, but it’s a reliable, affordable kit. 
  • G.SKILL Trident Z RGB — Not only do these RAM modules have RGB that can sync with your system, but it also gives your build a premium look. It’s costlier, sure, but it’s only a few bucks more than its sibling above, so why not.

Mixing RAM Kits

Mixing two or more different RAM kits is not something that is recommended in the PC building community. Manufacturers bundle two or more sticks of RAM in a kit because those sticks have been tested to work well with each other. It’s always more expensive to buy a kit than individual sticks for this reason, but, if you know what you’re doing, I say mixing the kits and saving money is not a bad idea. However, it’s risky to mix two RAM kits that are not identical. Kits from different brands or with varying memory frequencies, CAS latency, or timings may not play well with each other, leading to problems. But if you want to mix two identical kits from the same manufacturer and with the same specs, I say go for it. Just make sure you’re able to return the kits if something doesn’t work out.

Mixed RAM Kits

I mixed two RAM kits and lived to tell the tale.

I wouldn’t recommend mixing RAM kits if I hadn’t done it myself, and I can happily report that I’ve mixed two identical RAM kits with no adverse effect on my system. I previously had two 8GB sticks of Corsair Vengeance LPX 3000 MHz RAM on my system, which was fine for most tasks. Still, I decided to double the system memory to improve my video editing workflow — more RAM is also great for gaming. After opening DaVinci Resolve with my new kit installed, I noticed that the timeline loaded much faster, and I rarely had to wait before it started playing.

Don’t Underestimate RAM

Most pre-built computers these days are outfitted with the latest and greatest CPUs, GPUs, and SSDs, but RAM is often ignored or severely underestimated. While RAM has become more affordable in the past years, it’s not uncommon to find a $1000 laptop or pre-built computer with only eight or 16GBs of RAM. And that amount of RAM is fine for most uses, except that video editors need as much RAM as possible for a smooth editing experience.

If you have a desktop PC or Mac, do a quick search to find what type of RAM is compatible with your CPU and upgrade it. It won’t cost as much as replacing the CPU or GPU, and it should only take a few minutes. Although not all laptops can take advantage of a RAM upgrade, it’s worth looking into because it can save you from buying a new computer before it’s time.

If you feel like your system is slow when editing or your editing software keeps crashing, it’s probably time to make a RAM upgrade. You don’t need to go all out and purchase 128GBs, but 32GBs is a great start, and 64GBs is even better for 4K video editing. And if you need to upgrade your PC even further, we’ve got just the article.

While you’ve got video editing on your mind, check out this related content:

Cover image via hodim.