We've been tracking the memory market closely since the beginning of 2013, sounding alarms along the way about the incredibly rapid increase in RAM prices. Well, as of this writing, the price of the average midrange 8GB RAM set is $70, twice the price that similar sets sold for in December 2012. That's a 100 percent increase in six months! Common sense would suggest that prices on technology products drop over time. Who knew that buying RAM in 2012 could be such a good investment?
In our opinion, it's no longer a question of "RAM's cheap, should I just get 16GB?" It really does come down to whether anyone focused on gaming should even consider 16GB, and furthermore, whether 4GB might be a viable option when trying to save some money. Take a look at our benchmarks that follow to come to your own conclusions!
Part I: 4GB vs. 8GB
Test System: Intel Core i5-4670K, Asus Z87 Gryphon, Sapphire Radeon HD7870 2GB, Corsair 2x4GB or 1x4GB DDR3-1600, Windows 8 x64
We ran six tests, all at a resolution of 1920x1080, and all averaging three 60-second runs through the actual gaming world, rather than built-in benchmarks. We used either one or two sticks of Corsair DDR3 RAM running at DDR3-1600 (9-9-9-24) settings. Thus, the 4GB system not only has a memory deficit, it was also running in single-channel mode (resulting from the use of just one stick of RAM). These two factors should have at least had some effect, right? Not so, according to our data.
Here's what we tested, followed by the results:
(1) Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Hengsha Landing Pad) - Maximum Settings/FXAA
(2) Battlefield 3 (Swordbreaker Single-Player) - Ultra Settings/4xAA
(3) Battlefield 3 (Caspian Border Multi-Player) - Ultra Settings/4xAA
(4) Far Cry 3 (Village) - Ultra Settings/4xAA
(5) Hitman: Absolution (Chinatown) - Ultra Settings/4xAA
(6) Tomb Raider (Village) - Ultimate Settings/FXAA
Wow! This is definitely not what we expected to see! Out of our six benchmarks, only two show a difference greater than 1 percent, and in one case, Battlefield 3 Multi-Player, it was 3 percent slower with 8GB! That is likely just a result of test-to-test variability due to real-world online gaming. That leaves Tomb Raider as the lone game that may arguably benefit from more than 4GB of RAM, with a 3 percent increase in frames per second, from 43.0fps to 44.5fps. There's also a slight benefit to the minimum framerate in the majority of our games, although it likely would not be noticed while gaming.
So what's going on here? Well, our theory is that because games are still coded as 32-bit applications, which cannot take advantage of more than 4GB, it's simply impossible for them to benefit from additional memory unless the system itself has a number of other applications running. And for our tests, we of course had nothing extraneous running in the background.
What should the gaming audience take away from this first set of tests? Even though 4GB appears to run more than adequately, in our opinion, it's better to be safe than sorry - although not all games can take advantage of more than 4GB of RAM, if you tend to run a lot of applications in the background, you may find that your system as a whole will quickly run out of memory with just 4GB. We've also found that using dual graphics cards can require additional system memory, so 4GB wouldn't be ideal for that scenario. But for budget gamers who want a system to grow with, we strongly recommend just picking up one 4GB stick today, investing the $35 saved in a better video card, and checking back in six months to see if memory prices have come back down to earth [Update: it's nearly five months since we first published this article, and prices have actually gone up, but there's always hope!].
We know many readers simply won't believe the numbers we've generated here. Surely, putting more money into a system must have benefits, right? Well, we weren't satisfied either, which is why we decided to conduct an even more extensive set of tests, on a different test system, with 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB on board. Read on for our results!