Running Out of RAM on Your Computer: What Happens?

Here’s what happens when you run out of RAM on your computer:

In general, your computer will run a lot slower.

Applications are likely to freeze. 

You might not be able to pull up new applications or navigate to already-open windows. 

Sometimes, the problem can even cause your computer to crash.

If you want to learn all about what happens when you run out of RAM on your computer, then you’re in the right place.

Keep reading!

Running Out of RAM on Your Computer: What Happens? (+ Facts)

What Is RAM? (2 Things)

installing ram memory module on desktop computer motherboard.

RAM is frequently called memory, and throughout this explanation, the two terms will be used interchangeably. 

RAM is hardware that your computer uses to hold temporary files for current operations.

That’s a very technical explanation and not very clear.

RAM acts as short-term memory for a computer.

It’s great at remembering things for applications that are actively in use, but it’s terrible at remembering things that aren’t currently active.

Perhaps it’s easier to understand RAM with a strong analogy.

#1 A Helpful Analogy For RAM

Filing cabinet at office

Pretend you are transported back in time and have to do taxes by hand. 

You have no computer.

Instead, you have a bunch of statements and forms and a table. 

You have a sheet of paper that you use to actually calculate totals.

It’s very much like the central processing unit (CPU) in a computer.

It’s where the important work is done.

But, in order to find the information for that central processing, you have to find and organize tax receipts.

You were good about this, and they’re all in your filing cabinets in the office. 

So, for each receipt, you have to go through the filing cabinet, pull the document, and then take what information you need.

Once you’re done, you file the document back in the cabinet.

You can see how this gets tiresome.

Getting up and going to the filing cabinet wastes a lot of time.

So, if you pull a document that you think you might have to reference again, you leave it on the desk.

This analogy is similar to how a computer works.

The hard drive is the filing cabinet. It stores all of the information, but retrieving information can be slow and cumbersome (at least from the perspective of a computer). 

So, if the computer needs to access the same information on repeat, it will leave that info on the desk.

RAM, or computer memory, serves as the desktop space.

It can’t hold nearly as much information as the filing cabinet (or hard drive).

It’s also disorganized. 

Still, as long as the desk space isn’t cluttered, you can use it to make easy references to important information whenever you need it.

This method speeds up the operation you are trying to complete.

#2 The Physical Explanation of RAM

male hand holding RAM

You have an idea of how RAM works in a computer, but that does nothing to help you identify it in the real world.

In a physical sense, memory or RAM is made into sticks. 

These sticks are around four inches long, relatively flat, and usually have visible circuit boards and components on them.

They are installed directly into the motherboard of a computer near the processor.

RAM uses what is called volatile memory.

It is called that because any loss of power causes the RAM to lose every bit of data it is holding. 

The RAM can’t remember a single thing when you power cycle the computer.

It gets completely reset (which is a big part of why turning it off and on again fixes tons of problems).

But, because of how RAM is designed, it can send data to the CPU very quickly. 

The computer likes to use RAM to speed up calculations and processes, which is why RAM is in electronic devices.

It makes things run better by reducing the time spent retrieving electronic files.

Why Do RAM Shortages Cause Problems?

Upset woman working from home office.

Just like in our analogy, the RAM can run out of space.

A desk is cluttered when it has too many documents.

All of a sudden, it takes more time to sift through the desk space than it would file everything again. 

The same is true for computer memory.

When too much of the memory is used at one time, applications grind to a halt. 

You will probably see a spinning icon for your mouse, and nothing will be very responsive.

In extreme cases, running out of RAM can cause applications or the entire operating system to crash.

In short, when you run out of RAM on the computer, the computer stops functioning correctly.

What Causes You to Run Out of RAM?

Business woman working with computer

Running out of RAM is bad, so how do you deal with it?

You can start by learning about the two things that can cause you to run short on computer memory. 

The first is easy to understand.

RAM can malfunction.

While RAM failure is not the very most common issue with modern computers, it can and does happen.

If one or more sticks of your RAM fail, then you will face slow applications and potential crashes.

The other issue is far more common.

This is when the device is taxed beyond the RAM’s capacity.

It happens a lot more with older devices, and there’s a clear reason for that. 

When a device is built, it usually has plenty of RAM to run the preloaded operating system and carry out advertised functions.

As the computer ages, the operating system will get updates. Apps will too. 

Over time, the software becomes more complicated and demanding, but the RAM doesn’t change.

Eventually, the software is needing more RAM resources than the computer can supply, and things get slow and crashy.

Even on a new computer, if you multitask hard enough, you can use all of your memory and see these issues.

Some of the processes that tend to eat the most RAM are high-end video games, video editing software, and internet browsers with lots and lots of tabs (or windows) open.

There are a few other things that can contribute to memory shortages.

Multitasking is definitely more common, but it helps to keep in mind the idea of failing software. 

Software can misbehave and create what is called a memory leak.

This is when the app consumes way more RAM than it is supposed to.

This leaves you with insufficient memory problems. 

Thankfully, it’s the easiest problem to fix.

Simply shut down the app and leave it off until there is a developer fix for you (usually in the form of an update).

Can You Get More RAM? (2 Things)

Hand with memory on a computer motherboard

It’s a simple solution.

If you don’t have enough RAM, just get some more.

Is this viable?

For the vast majority of desktop computers, it is viable and fairly easy to do. 

For laptops, it’s a bit of a toss-up.

Sometimes you can add more RAM, and sometimes you can’t.

For mobile devices, it’s a lot less promising.

Let’s dig into the topic and understand why.

#1 Installing Additional RAM

Technician install ram memory module on mother board

Installing RAM is a direct way to increase your computer’s memory.

RAM comes in sticks.

You can add more sticks of RAM if the device has unused slots.

If not, you can try upgrading the sticks of RAM to ones with more memory. 

The trick to this is that each device has a maximum RAM capacity.

You can only use sticks that are supported by the device.

If your sticks are too big (in terms of total memory), they won’t work.

To make sure you get it all right, you can use a RAM tool kit like the one at Crucial.

There’s another trick regarding RAM.

Not all devices make it accessible.

Smartphones are a great example.

They use soldered RAM that can’t be easily removed from the device.

This is done to keep the design smaller and more secure while requiring less active cooling. 

Ultimately, the phone runs better because the RAM is soldered, but this means that you can’t physically upgrade the phone’s RAM.

You can look for professionals to do it for you, but most won’t.

Replacing soldered RAM voids warranties, and most service providers will not take on the risk.

There are plenty of laptops that also don’t allow for RAM upgrades.

The lesson here is to look up your device and see if an upgrade is even on the table.

#2 Virtual Memory

Group of SSD

Fortunately, RAM upgrades aren’t your only option.

You can also make use of virtual RAM (more appropriately called virtual memory). 

If your device is less than 10 years old, it is very likely already using virtual memory.

Virtual memory is where the computer system reserves part of the hard drive to act like RAM.

Technically, virtual memory is not physical RAM, so there are some things to know about it.

First, virtual memory is slower than actual RAM.

Despite that, virtual memory is still faster than calling up files from the hard drive in the traditional method.

This has to do with complicated programming techniques.

Suffice it to say that virtual memory can be used to increase your computer’s speed.

The other thing to know about virtual memory is that it depends on the hard drive.

Since the hard drive is the device that actually functions in this capacity, its speed matters a lot.

Old platter drives are a lot slower than modern solid-state drives. 

So, if you have a slow hard drive, you can upgrade this bit of hardware, and it can help you with your RAM issues by making the virtual memory considerably faster.

This is additionally appealing because most hard drives are not soldered in place in a large number of devices.

That said, many smartphones will also solder the storage, so this is also a bust in those cases.

Can You Reduce RAM Usage?

Young woman using a computer laptop while sitting at a wooden chair.

This is probably the best way to deal with running out of RAM.

There are a few tricks that lower RAM usage and any of them can help your device get back to normal speeds and responsiveness.

The first is to power cycle the device.

We’ve already covered this in part, but let’s drive it home.

When the device turns off, the RAM is completely emptied.

When everything loads back in, you have fresh RAM, and it shouldn’t be bogged down.

Another thing you can do is kill some extraneous apps.

Look at everything that is currently running, and shut down the applications that you don’t really need right now. 

The most glaring example of this is web browsers. Kill the extra tabs or windows.

You’ll see that it frees up a ton of memory very quickly.

You can also restart applications that seem to be using too much RAM.

Because RAM is volatile, as soon as you shut down an app or program, your RAM will immediately forget everything it was storing in relation to that software.

When you restart the program, you have fresh RAM usage that likely won’t be so demanding.


  • Theresa McDonough

    Tech entrepreneur and founder of Tech Medic, who has become a prominent advocate for the Right to Repair movement. She has testified before the US Federal Trade Commission and been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, helping influence change within the tech industry.

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