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How Much RAM Do Programmers Need? (2022)

Find out how much computer memory programmers should get for software development and coding.

Motherboard Timur Garifov / Unsplash

Last Updated: January 11, 2022

Written by Kevin Jones

When buying or upgrading a computer for coding, you will likely wonder how much memory you should get.

While 16 GBs of RAM should be adequate for many developer use cases, let's dig into the various considerations.

How Much RAM Should You Get for Programming?

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To allow for a reasonable amount of multitasking, researching, fast build times, and a responsive development environment, 16 GB of memory is a good minimum requirement. For extensive multitasking, memory-hungry tools and build processes, and virtual machines, at least 32 GB of memory may be worth the investment.

Check out my Recommended RAM below. Crucial Ballistix RGB DDR4 Crucial Ballistix RGB DDR4 Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

How Does More Memory Help?

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Many people underestimate how important it is to have enough memory (RAM) in their computer. When the amount of memory your applications need is more than the amount of memory available, your computer may slow to a crawl. Typically, in this case, the computer (operating system) will begin swapping data back and forth between your memory and virtual memory. Virtual memory is a large chunk of space on your storage device (SSD or hard drive) used to store data that can't fit in RAM. Because RAM is much faster than an SSD, your experience can quickly become unpleasant once you run out of free RAM (available memory).

How Many Programs Do You Want Open at Once?

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One strategy for dealing with a low amount of memory is to have only a few applications open at a time. Basically, instead of having your operating system swap an idle program's data to virtual memory, you are manually closing the application. This strategy will likely reduce the amount of memory your computer needs. However, it would replace it with a potentially slower workflow. For example, whenever your computer starts to get slow, you'd have to decide which applications to close.

I am a fan of leaving many applications open and switching between them as my work or focus requires.

Common Applications Required by Developers

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Some people argue that developers could theoretically survive with a minuscule amount of RAM by only using a text editor for development. However, this is not realistic for modern development workflows.

You might be surprised by how many tools and applications you use daily, each one taking up memory.

Here are a few examples of RAM-hungry apps that developers might use:

  • Development environments such as Visual Studio, Eclipse, VS Code, Android Studio, pyCharm, IntelliJ, Netbeans, or Xcode.
  • Browsers for research and development. It's not uncommon to have multiple windows full of tabs open. Some browsers use quite a bit of RAM for a smooth experience.
  • Virtual machines. VMs can use a considerable subset of your RAM, as they require you to dedicate a portion of your memory for the virtual OS to use.
  • Container management solutions such as Docker or Kubernetes. Containers can add up if you simulate a production web environment containing cache servers or databases.
  • Similarly, any servers or simulators you need to run while developing can eat away at your available memory.
  • Memory needs of build processes will depend on your specific use case. However, build processes can be memory-hungry when optimized for parallel processing. You may need to measure your build process memory usage to determine how much memory you need.
  • Processing large files and databases. Processing large amounts of data can be very memory-hungry, whether part of a build step or another part of your workflow.
  • Custom tools, especially those that load large amounts of data into memory.

Shared Dependence on RAM

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Most developers don't have a problem with one application or process consuming all their RAM. Instead, it's the cumulative effect of many applications fighting for a scarce resource.

If your OS and applications are not using your memory, adding more will not improve your experience. However, once you reach the capacity of your system, all applications can slow to a crawl when you switch tasks. Your OS has to decide which data to copy to and from virtual memory once there is no more free memory.

While it may not bother you that your build slows down when you're low on available RAM, you probably don't want that to interrupt your Zoom video call.

How Much RAM Do You Need?

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Let's summarize the previous points with a general conclusion. Perhaps you aren't very reliant on virtual machines. In that case, 16 GB of memory will probably be adequate for many usage scenarios.

However, perhaps you never want to have to worry about getting distracted with closing applications to free up resources. In that case, I recommend going with at least 32 GB.

I've been using 32 GB of memory in my development machine since 2014. I've loved the flexibility and have no plans of building a desktop development machine with less in the future.

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Due to the limited availability of DDR5, I'm only recommending a specific DDR4 product at this time.

However, you can check the current availability of DDR5 on Amazon (affiliate link).

  • It comes in a variety of frequencies, including 3000 MHz, 3200 MHz, 3600 MHz, 4000 MHz, and 4400 MHz
  • Reasonable CL16 timings (CAS Latency)
  • The low-profile form factor ensures that the heat spreaders don't get in the way of other devices, including your CPU heatsink
  • Crucial is a reputable brand, and I have used their memory in my machines
  • The customizable LEDs zones are a pretty cool bonus Crucial Ballistix RGB DDR4 Crucial Ballistix RGB DDR4 Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

How to Choose RAM

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Memory Form Factors

When purchasing RAM, ensure that you get the correct form factor (i.e., physical size) for the device to ensure compatibility.

DIMM (Dual In-line Memory Module)
DIMMs are larger memory sticks made for desktop computer motherboards.
SO-DIMM (Small Outline Dual In-line Memory Module)
SO-DIMMs are smaller memory sticks made for laptops and some mini-PC small form-factor motherboards.

DDR Versions

DDR (Double Data Rate) SDRAM is the memory used in nearly all computers today.

With each version of DDR, faster memory speeds become available.

Consumer DDR Comparison
DDR3DDR4DDR5
Max DIMM Size 16 GB 64 GB 128 GB
Bandwidth 6400–17067 MB/s 12800–25600 MB/s 25600–51200 MB/s
Transfer Rate 800–2133 MT/s 1600–3200 MT/s 3200–6400 MT/s
Frequency 400–1067 MHz 800–1600 MHz 1600–3200 MHz
Voltage 1.5 V 1.2 V 1.1 V
On-die ECC No No Yes

Memory Speed

DDR ram speed is measured in megatransfers per second (MT/s). MT/s measure how fast data can be read and written per second to and from RAM.

Faster PC memory can improve game performance and frame rates, but using the fastest RAM may not have as much of an impact as upgrading your CPU and graphics card.

Suppose you do not use your computer for memory-hungry applications such as games or video processing. In that case, you may see little benefit in using the fastest memory.

Look up the motherboard model on the manufacturer's website to determine which speeds are supported. Price typically scales with the memory speeds, so choose one in your price range that meets your needs.

Memory Timings

Similar and related to memory speed, memory timings can also impact performance. Manufacturers often reference timings as a series of numbers, such as 16-18-18-38. Timings measure how many clock cycles it takes to perform an action. Assuming memory sticks have a constant memory speed, lower timing values indicate a shorter time between commands. Because timings are measured in clock cycles, they scale down as the memory speed increases.

While memory timings can impact performance, they are typically less critical than speed and capacity.

Memory Capacity

DDR ram capacities are measured in gigabytes (GB).

Even if you are not an enthusiast PC user, I recommend at least 16 GB of ram. This amount of RAM will allow you to keep several browser windows, video streams, and documents open simultaneously without having to worry about your computer slowing down.

Suppose you use more memory-hungry software, such as Adobe graphics products, 3d or physics tools, or high-resolution video editors. In that case, you might consider 32 GB of memory for peak PC performance. However, you could likely get by with 16 GB of memory if you are okay with closing some applications before opening others.

Look up the motherboard model on the manufacturer's website to determine which memory capacities and module sizes are supported. Also, refer to your motherboard's documentation for guidance on which slots to use.

Memory is typically purchased in a pack of two or four modules (sticks). Make sure to use the same speeds, capacities, and timings. The lowest values will be used if multiple speeds or timings are used. If multiple sizes are used, you may need to use single-channel mode, which will be slower.

The easiest way to get matching sticks for peak performance is to buy them together in a pack.

Learn more in How to Choose the Best RAM for Your PC.

What Is DDR5?

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DDR5 is the latest generation of PC memory. DDR5 SDRAM is short for Double Data Rate 5 Synchronous Dynamic Random-Access Memory.

DDR5 provides twice the bandwidth and density of DDR4 while reducing power consumption. Higher bandwidth translates to faster processing for memory-intensive applications such as games, video and image editors, 3D tools, and browsers.

Additionally, all DDR5 memory will have on-die ECC, which provides error detection and correction before sending data to a CPU. DDR5 ECC is expected to improve reliability and reduce defect rates.

DDR4 vs. DDR5

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Consumer DDR4 vs. DDR5
DDR4DDR5
Max DIMM Size 64 GB 128 GB
Bandwidth 12800–25600 MB/s 25600–51200 MB/s
Transfer Rate 1600–3200 MT/s 3200–6400 MT/s
Frequency 800–1600 MHz 1600–3200 MHz
Voltage 1.2 V 1.1 V
On-die ECC No Yes

DDR5 provides twice the bandwidth and density of DDR4 while reducing power consumption. Higher bandwidth translates to faster processing for memory-intensive applications such as games, video and image editors, 3D tools, and browsers.

Additionally, all DDR5 memory will have on-die ECC, which provides error detection and correction before sending data to a CPU. DDR5 ECC is expected to improve reliability and reduce defect rates.

Is DDR5 Worth the Upgrade?

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DDR5 is the path forward in the long run, but current conditions may limit its benefits. Let's dig into the various considerations.

Cost and Availability

Currently, DDR5 is more expensive than DDR4, when available, but is out of stock at most locations.

CPU and Motherboard Upgrade

Intel's 12th generation Core CPU supports both DDR4 and DDR5. However, DDR5 isn't backward compatible with DDR4. Motherboards only support one or the other. This motherboard limitation means that you'll need to choose whether you want to get the lower cost DDR4 memory or get DDR5 with the ability to upgrade it in the future.

Timings

Initial DDR5 memory timings are not very good. Poor timings are typical with new DDR releases. However, it means that the performance may not be much better than DDR4.

If you want to use DDR5 memory in the future with your same motherboard, one option would be to get the initially available DDR5 memory with worse timings. You could then upgrade the DDR5 memory in the future as timings improve.

CPU Support

Currently, only Intel has released CPUs which support DDR5. Lack of DDR5 support from AMD means that if you want to use an AMD CPU, you'll be limited to DDR4.

Future Upgradability

If you get a DDR4 motherboard, you won't be able to use it with DDR5. Motherboards typically only support DDR4 or DDR5, but not both.

Which CPUs Support DDR5?

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Intel's 12th generation Core processors, code-named "Alder Lake," support DDR5. Additionally, Intel is expected to support DDR5 with its next-generation Xeon server processor, code-named "Sapphire Rapids."

AMD has not yet released processors which support DDR5 but is expected to include DDR5 support in their next-generation Zen 4 architecture, which AMD will release in 2022.

Check out my Recommended DDR5 CPUs and Motherboards below.

Intel Core i9-12900K Processor 16 Cores (8P+8E) up to 5.2 GHz Intel Core i9-12900K Processor 16 Cores (8P+8E) up to 5.2 GHz Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

Desktop and Workstation CPUs

Intel introduced support for DDR5 in their 12th generation Core processors in November 2021. These processors support both DDR4 and DDR5, although you'll need to use a motherboard that supports the particular DDR type.

AMD is expected to release a DDR5 processor in 2022.

Desktop Processors That Support DDR5
Processor BrandingProcessor Models Supporting DDR5
Intel Core i9 Core i9 12900K, 12900KF, 12900T, 12900F, 12900
Intel Core i7 Core i7 12700K, 12700KF, 12700T, 12700F, 12700
Intel Core i5 Core i5 12600K, 12600KF, 12600T, 12600, 12500T, 12500, 12400T, 12400F, 12400

Find Intel Alder Lake processors on Amazon (affiliate link).

Server CPUs

Intel's Sapphire Rapids–based Xeon CPUs will support DDR5.

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Below are our recommended DDR5 CPUs and motherboards, along with DDR4 motherboards for those not quite ready to make the jump.

Best Intel High-Performance Enthusiast CPU: Intel Core i9-12900K

  • Up to 5.2 GHz: perfect for games, video editing, and high-intensity tasks.

  • 16 cores (8 Performance + 8 Efficiency): Quite a few cores considering the frequency! This combination makes it a great all-around system that can handle almost any task.

  • Virtualization features make it great for running virtual machines.

  • Check the latest price of the Intel Core i9-12900K on Amazon (affiliate link).

    Intel Core i9-12900K Processor 16 Cores (8P+8E) up to 5.2 GHz Intel Core i9-12900K Processor 16 Cores (8P+8E) up to 5.2 GHz Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link
  • For the Intel Core i9-12900K CPU, you'll need a motherboard with the Z690 chipset to support CPU overclocking. Otherwise, you can use a motherboard with Intel's other 600 series desktop chipsets (e.g., H670, B660, H610).

  • Our recommended DDR5 motherboard to pair with the i9-12900K is Gigabyte's Z690 AORUS Master: GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS Master GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS Master Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

    • PCIe 5.0 support
    • It supports up to 128GB of DDR5 memory (DDR5 provides the fastest memory speeds)!

      DDR5 memory appears to be out of stock at most retailers, so I recommend sticking with a DDR4 motherboard or preparing for a long wait. Check out our recommended DDR4 motherboard below.

    • 10 Gbps Ethernet port is faster than any home Internet speed available with tons of room to spare for file transfers.
    • Wi-Fi 6E makes it easy to reach the fastest speeds and future-proof your Wi-Fi system.
    • Bluetooth 5.2 is great for streaming music to Bluetooth headphones.
    • Four x4 NVMe M.2 slots, which is fantastic! Three of these run at PCIe 4.0 speeds, and one at PCIe 3.0 speeds.
    • USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 offers 20 Gbps USB speeds!
    • Check the latest price of the GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS Master on Amazon (affiliate link).
  • If you're not quite ready to make the jump to DDR5, our recommended DDR4 motherboard to pair with the i9-12900K is Gigabyte's Z690 AORUS Elite AX DDR4: GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS Elite AX DDR4 GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS Elite AX DDR4 Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

    • PCIe 5.0 support
    • It supports up to 128GB of DDR4 memory!
    • 2.5 Gb Ethernet port is faster than most home Internet speeds with room to spare for file transfers.
    • Wi-Fi 6
    • Bluetooth 5.2 is great for streaming music to Bluetooth headphones.
    • Four x4 NVMe M.2 slots, which is fantastic! All four of these run at PCIe 4.0 speeds.
    • USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 offers 20 Gbps USB speeds!
    • Check the latest price of the GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS Elite AX DDR4 on Amazon (affiliate link).

Best Value CPU: Intel Core i5-12600K

  • Less than half the price of the i9-12900K, but still excellent performance at up to 4.9 GHz.

  • 10 cores (6 Performance + 4 Efficiency): This core count makes it suitable for everyday multi-threading tasks, such as having tons of browser windows open.

  • Virtualization features make it great for running virtual machines.

  • Check the latest price of the Intel Core i5-12600K on Amazon (affiliate link).

    Intel Core i5-12600K Intel Core i5-12600K Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link
  • For the Intel Core i5-12600K CPU, you'll need a motherboard with the Z690 chipset to support CPU overclocking. Otherwise, you can use a motherboard with Intel's other 600 series desktop chipsets (e.g., H670, B660, H610).

  • Our recommended DDR5 motherboard to pair with the i5-12600K is GIGABYTE's Z690 AORUS PRO motherboard: GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS PRO GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS PRO Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

    • PCIe 5.0 support
    • It supports up to 128GB of DDR5 memory!

      DDR5 memory appears to be out of stock at most retailers, so I recommend sticking with a DDR4 motherboard or preparing for a long wait. Check out our recommended DDR4 motherboard below.

    • Three NVMe M.2 slots, which is excellent! These all run at PCIe 4.0 speeds.
    • 2.5 Gb Ethernet port is faster than most home Internet speeds with room to spare for file transfers.
    • USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 offers 20 Gbps USB speeds!
    • Check the latest price of the GIGABYTE Z690 AORUS PRO on Amazon (affiliate link).
  • If you're not quite ready to make the jump to DDR5, our recommended DDR4 motherboard to pair with the i5-12600K is GIGABYTE's Z690 Gaming X DDR4 motherboard: GIGABYTE Z690 Gaming X DDR4 GIGABYTE Z690 Gaming X DDR4 Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

    • PCIe 5.0 support
    • It supports up to 128GB of DDR4 memory!
    • Four x4 NVMe M.2 slots, which is fantastic! All four of these run at PCIe 4.0 speeds.
    • 2.5 Gb Ethernet port is faster than most home Internet speeds with room to spare for file transfers.
    • USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 offers 20 Gbps USB speeds!
    • Check the latest price of the GIGABYTE Z690 Gaming X DDR4 on Amazon (affiliate link).
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Intel's 12th generation Core CPU uses an LGA 1700 socket.

Locked Intel CPUs may come with a stock CPU cooler. These CPU models do not have a "K" in the name. While stock coolers will prevent your CPU from overheating, your CPU will throttle its performance during games and other intensive tasks. Higher TDP coolers will keep your CPU at turbo speeds for longer durations. Stock coolers are often quite loud at their maximum speed.

The LGA 1700 socket will require a CPU cooler that supports the new socket size. Some manufacturers are releasing upgrade kits for LGA 1200 heatsinks to support the new size.

Best AIO Liquid Cooler: Enermax Liqmax III 360

  • This Enermax liquid cooler has an excellent cooling capability with a 360-watt TDP (Thermal Design Power).
  • Supports a variety of CPU sockets, including Intel LGA 2066, 2011-3, 2011, 1700, 1200, 1366, 1156, 1155, 1151, 1150 and AMD AM4, AM3+, AM3, AM2+, AM2, FM2+, FM2, FM1.
  • Quiet operation at 14-27 dBA.
  • You can request an LGA 1700 mounting kit via the LGA 1700 Mounting Kit Request Form.
  • Make sure your computer case dimensions support this, as it will take up a decent amount of space! Enermax Liqmax III 360 Enermax Liqmax III 360 Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

Best Dual-Fan Air CPU Cooler: Thermaltake TOUGHAIR 510

  • This CPU cooler doesn't have any fancy LED lights, but the dual 120 mm fans do a great job of cooling LGA 1700 CPUs.
  • Suppose you think this cooler will take up too much space. In that case, Thermaltake has a few single-fan TOUGHAIR variants which use different orientations.
  • This CPU cooler has a 2000 RPM max speed for optimal cooling.
  • 180-watt TDP (Thermal Design Power). Thermaltake TOUGHAIR 510 Thermaltake TOUGHAIR 510 Check Price on Amazon Amazon Affiliate Link

Other Considerations When Building a PC

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Want to brush up on other new technologies to consider when building a computer? Check out these articles: