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I'm thinking about upgrading my RAM from 1GB to 2 or 4 GB. I would like to have some idea as to whether buying more RAM would be worth the expense. How can I know whether I will see better performance after upgrading RAM?

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Also, I would suggest you check your computers specs for max ram allowed. For instance, many netbooks are limited to 2 GB. That could save you the trouble of buying 4 GB and then finding out you can't use it. –  matt davis Aug 25 '12 at 14:10
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4 Answers

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Are you spending a lot of time waiting for data to be loaded or written to the hard disk? RAM helps with that. It doesn't make computations faster, it reduces the time the computer pauses between computations because it can't get at the data fast enough.

If you want to rely on more objective measurements, open your usual applications and work normally for a bit. Then open a terminal and run the command free -m. You'll see output like this:

             total       used       free     shared    buffers     cached
Mem:          3965       3618        346          0        157        276
-/+ buffers/cache:       3184        780
Swap:        16383        774      15609

or

             total       used       free     shared    buffers     cached
Mem:          1851       1798         52          0        338        489
-/+ buffers/cache:        971        879
Swap:        15257         11      15245

Look at the values on the line with -/+ buffers/cache. The one in the “used” column tells you how much of your memory is used for applications proper. The second one tells you how much memory is used to store data that is also on the disk (cache and buffers). On a healthy desktop system where you use multiple applications (say, a web browser and a word processor and a music player and a couple more), the cache and buffers should represent about half the total memory, i.e. the two values on the -/+ buffers/cache line should be roughly the same. This is a crude approximation: 60%/40% is just fine, 80%/20% says you could use RAM. The first system above could use more RAM, the second one is fine.

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How different is this from looking at the swap usage to figure out if you need more RAM? –  Hippo Aug 25 '12 at 16:47
    
@Hippo On a typical system, there's always a bit of swap usage, because some services are started in the background but aren't in use, or some applications remain unused for a long time and can be swapped out without hurting performance. The amount of swap in use doesn't tell you how much of that should usefully be in RAM. The amount of buffers+cache tends to be a better indicator: every system needs cache. –  Gilles Aug 26 '12 at 16:35
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I upgraded from 1 GB to 2 GB and I saw a huge performance boost.

I had the standard Ubuntu Pangolin install + Google Chrome. If I opened Google Chrome and opened, say, 10 different webpages, the system would slow right down. With 2 GB the problem disappeared.

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Of course you will see better performance when you will run more processes at a time. But if you run only a few processes then you may not feel it.

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It also dependes on the distribution you have installed, and the applications you run. On more recent distributions with heavier applications you'll see a better performance.

If run like Openbox and you use the terminal most of the times, the performance boost won't be so clear.

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