Linux is a great way to breathe new life into an old machine. Why? Because most Linux distributions have lower system requirements than Windows, the operating system found on most PCs sold in stores. Linux typically puts less strain on your computer’s CPU and doesn’t need as much hard drive space. But what about RAM?
It depends. Windows and Linux may not use RAM in exactly the same way, but they are ultimately doing the same thing. So to answer this question, let’s first breakdown what RAM is.
What Is RAM?
RAM (random access memory) is an area of your computer that allows files to be written and read at short notice. This data is physically separate from the files on your hard drive, and the chip is often faster for physical and mechanical reasons. Unlike your hard drive, RAM doesn’t store data when there’s no power. When you restart your PC, RAM becomes a blank state. Computers use RAM for temporary storage, a space to create data that needs to be accessed quickly and frequently.
Not all RAM is equal. There are two types: DRAM and SRAM. DRAM provides access times of roughly 60 nanoseconds. SRAM cuts that down to only 10. So 4 GB of SRAM will be faster than 4 GB of DRAM, but you will often still see DRAM in use because it’s significantly less expensive.
But which operating system needs more RAM?
Windows 10 requires 2 GB of RAM, but Microsoft recommends you have at least 4 GB. Let’s compare this to Ubuntu, the most well-known version of Linux for desktops and laptops. Canonical, Ubuntu’s developer, recommends 2 GB of RAM.
This means you can take a Windows desktop that needs more RAM and save yourself some money by swapping the operating system. Just like that, your machine may feel good as new again.
But comparing numbers is only part of the story. There’s more to understanding RAM than making sure you have enough necessary for your computer to run.
How RAM Works
It’s bad for your hard drive to run out of space. The same isn’t true of RAM. Empty RAM is, in a sense, wasted RAM.
A fast web browser can load a webpage in seconds. But no matter how good it is at loading bits over the web, it can do a better job if that information is already stored on your PC. Apps like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox can load sites faster by caching those you’ve visited in RAM. All the user should see is faster load times.
Your applications aren’t the only bits of code that uses RAM as a quick place to store temporary files. The operating system itself needs to access this part of your PC too. The more RAM your OS needs, the less space you have for programs. This is why Windows has higher system requirements — it has more components trying to use RAM at any given time. Just take a look at all that’s going on inside the Windows Start menu on a brand new machine. Then consider how there’s even more going on in the background that you can’t see.
When all of your RAM is used up, your computer will likely try to start storing these temporary files directly on you hard drive. Since this is slower than reading and writing to RAM, your machine will start to feel sluggish. That’s why your desktop suddenly springs back to life when you close a browser filled with tabs. Gigabytes of RAM open up to the rest of your apps all at once.
The Linux Advantage
Linux’s strength comes not from a magical ability to make your computer run the same apps using less memory. A web browser on Linux will guzzle GBs of RAM, just as it does on Windows.