One of the questions that I am asked frequently by people who are looking to buy a new computer is whether the machine they are looking at has enough RAM.
Usually I ask them what they are planning on using the machine for and how much memory the machine has. Then I usually can't help but to laugh inside when I hear the answer.
It's very common today to hear things like "well it only has two gigabytes of memory and all I'm planning on doing with it is email and surfing the Web. Will two gigs be enough?" Or, "I don't use the machine for much, I just mainly use it for email and Quicken. Quicken is very important to me and I want to make sure my new machine is going to be able to run it OK. Are you sure that just two gigabytes is going to be able to do the job?"
And, "the ad says this machine can take up to four gigabytes. Maybe I should get four just to be safe. What do you think?"
It's at that point I usually have to stifle a chuckle because to me that's funny.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to be rude, cocky or arrogant, it's just that I've been doing this for a while and I can remember, not too long ago, when just the idea of having a gigabyte of memory in your home computer was the stuff of science fiction.
I can even remember writing a column in 1996 explaining to readers how they should be able to run their machines with just 16 megabytes of memory. Just to put that in perspective, 1,000 megabytes equals 1 gigabyte.
Again, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you can run one of today's machines with only 16 mb; you certainly do need considerably more than that to run Windows 8, Windows 7, Vista or even XP, but even with a fancy operating system such as Windows 8, the basic tasks haven't changed much and two gigs of memory should be just fine to check e-mail, surf the Web and run Quicken.
Another way to put the whole memory question into perspective is to think of it in terms of money.
Back around 1996, when Windows still in its infancy, RAM was very expensive. At the time that I wrote that previous column, saying 16 mb was enough, RAM was going for about $50 per megabyte, meaning that the 16 mb I was advocating cost about $800. So that means a gigabyte, or 1,000 megabytes, back then would have cost about $50,000!
Another factor that I consider is the level of machine that they are replacing. Very often, I will speak to someone who is replacing an old system and they wonder if two gigabytes will work for them on the new machine. Doesn't it stand to reason that if you were able to surf the Web, check your email and run Quicken on the machine you are replacing, then a new machine, with more than 10 times the memory, shouldn't have a problem handling those same tasks?
Today, the tasks haven't changed. It's still email, the Web and maybe some critical program such as Quicken, but whenever I hear people pondering whether two gigabytes will do it for them I can't help but hear that little "grampa voice" in the back of my head saying, "back in my day we couldn't afford a gigabyte. We got by with 16 megs and we liked it!"
Back in 1996, I don't think I could have ever imagined being able to get a gigabyte of RAM, let alone pay less than $100 for it. The whole thing makes me wonder what things will be like a decade or so in the future.
In 10 years, will we have people wondering if 1 terabyte -- 1,000 gigabytes -- will be enough or if maybe they should spring for two? Regardless, I'm sure they will probably still only use their machine for checking e-mail, surfing the Web and running Quicken.
Sean McCarthy fixes computers. He can be reached at 888-752-9049 or help@ComputeThisOnline.com (no hyphens).