Programs Require Most RAM & Most CPU Power: Which & Why?

Here’s which programs require the most RAM and most CPU power and why they do so:

Web browsers and virtualization software tend to use up the most RAM on a personal computer.

For CPU power, the most intense programs are ones that run extraordinarily large numbers of calculations and that can’t take advantage of multitasking.

Video processing and data mining are prominent examples.

So if you want to learn all about programs and tasks that require the most RAM or most CPU power and why they do so exactly, then you’ve come to the right place.

Let’s get started!

Programs Require Most RAM & Most CPU Power: Which & Why?

Why Do Some Programs Require More RAM?

For those who are unfamiliar, RAM (or memory) is what your computer uses as a sort of short-term memory.

When your computer needs information, it pulls it from the storage drive (hard drive on older systems).

But, pulling information from the storage drive is slow.

So, if your computer wants to be able to consistently access a certain file, again and again, it will store that data on the RAM.

This allows the computer to go through the program a lot more efficiently.

With this in mind, programs that utilize more RAM are programs that benefit from having more and more files in that temporary memory setup.

So, any program that has to use a whole lot of data, and frequently looks at the same data, again and again, is going to use more RAM.

What Are Examples of RAM-Intensive Programs? (5 Things)

The concept of using RAM might be making sense at this point, but it’s going to be a lot clearer with concrete examples.

These are programs and types of programs that are known to use a lot of RAM.

I’m not just going to list them; I’m also going to explain why they use so much memory.

#1 Google Chrome

Google Chrome is the most-used web browser in the world right now.

Web browsers are known to use more RAM than the average program, and there are some good reasons for that.

For starters, web browsers have to process a lot of information.

If you search for something on Google, it’s going to pull up a lot of different results for you.

Social media is similar.

These sites have endless scrolling options, and all of the data you see is stored in your computer’s RAM.

But, caching is really what causes browsers to use so much RAM.

This is the act of saving a bunch of information about a website in the RAM for an extended period of time.

By doing this, if you return to a website, it can load very quickly.

So, browsers try to cache as much information as they can without bogging down your computer’s performance.

Google Chrome is a known RAM hog, even among web browsers, largely because of how it utilizes caching.

It caches information more aggressively than most browsers, so it is bound to use up more RAM in order to do so.

#2 Video Games

Video games come in a lot of different shapes and sizes.

There are definitely some simple games you can play (like solitaire) that don’t use very much RAM.

But, if you’re running a high-end, AAA game, then it probably needs a lot of RAM to function.

Mostly, this comes down to how complicated modern games can be.

There are a lot of different processes running, and the game system is pulling instructions and information from multiple resources.

In order to run quickly and smoothly, a lot of that information is going to be kept in your system’s RAM.

#3 Operating Systems

It might be cheating to call an operating system a program.

In reality, it’s more like a bunch of programs working together.

But, it’s worth noting that modern operating systems use a lot of RAM just to stay on.

You can turn on your computer, open up zero programs, walk away, and your computer will probably still be using 4GB to 5GB of RAM.

Even Chrome usually only eats up 2GB to 4GB (although it can get way above that if you’re doing a lot with Chrome).

That means in order to run a modern operating system, you already need 4GB of RAM, and that doesn’t leave much left over for any of the tasks on this list.

Why do operating systems use so much RAM?

It’s because everything your computer does ultimately runs through the operating system.

These systems have to track every order given to your computer and every line of data used to carry out those orders.

It adds up quickly, and as much as can be is offloaded to RAM in order to keep things fast.

#4 Virtual Tasks

Virtualization is known as the premier way to use up a lot of RAM.

If you have ever heard of VMware or any of its competitors, this is software that allows you to run a simulation of other software on your computer.

A classic example is when a Mac user wants to use software that is only available for Windows.

They can run a virtual Windows environment on the Mac, and in that environment, they can run the program that they need.

To do this, your computer basically has to run an extra operating system inside of your existing operating system.

If one operating system can use a lot of RAM, two can use even more.

Even if you are virtualizing something that isn’t an operating system, virtualization requires a lot of RAM.

This is because of how it works.

To run a virtual environment, you’re going to essentially segregate some of your RAM so that it can only be used in the virtual environment.

In this way, you’re kind of dividing your computer into different parts: one for regular stuff and the other for the virtualization.

#5 Memory Leaks

The last great source of RAM usage comes from memory leaks.

This is not a type of software.

Instead, it’s a bug that can potentially afflict any software you might run. 

Here’s how it works.

Typically, a program will use memory to help it deal with certain amounts of information in order to run.

But, the program will limit how much memory it uses at one time.

So, if it runs up against that limit, then it will release information that it doesn’t need as much.

It can then free up some RAM for new things that matter.

In this way, something like Chrome might use up a few GB of RAM at a time, but it doesn’t need to use absolutely all of your RAM.

A memory leak happens when this mechanism fails.

It’s the result of a software bug, and basically, the program fails to ever erase things from your RAM.

So, the longer you have a program with a memory leak open, the more RAM it uses.

Eventually, it will use all of your RAM.

This will bog down your whole computer, and it can even cause crashes.

Why Do Some Programs Tax CPU Power?

The CPU (central processing unit) on your computer is completely different from the RAM.

The CPU is the part that actually executes orders and does the “thinking” for your computer.

If you ask your computer to add two numbers, the CPU does the math.

The term “central” in central processing is important to note.

In some way or another, every task carried out by your computer is going to involve the CPU.

So, the programs that use the most CPU power are going to be the ones that require the computer to follow the largest number of steps.

Some programs have the computer run in circles, so to speak, and that leads to more CPU usage.

There’s a second part to this, though.

Modern CPUs have multiple cores.

Skipping a lot of computer engineering, this is a way to design a CPU that literally enables it to do multiple steps at once.

A computer that is using its cores efficiently can carry out a task with a lot less CPU power because of that efficiency.

But, some programs either don’t or can’t make good use of multicore processing.

Those programs are usually going to take up more raw CPU power.

What Are Good Examples of CPU-Intensive Programs? (4 Tasks)

As we look at examples of CPU-intensive programs, a theme is going to emerge.

A lot of these programs require steps to be done in sequence.

These are programs where the next step requires results from the previous step, so there are hard limits on multitasking.

That’s what drives up the CPU usage in a lot of these cases.

#1 Indexing 

Indexing is not a program.

Instead, it’s a task that a lot of programs have to perform.

If you install a bunch of files on your computer, the operating system has to index those files so that it will know where everything is.

Other programs that do a lot of indexing include database systems, malware scanners, and specialized search programs.

The reason indexing tasks tend to utilize a lot of CPU power is that they deal with a large amount of data, and they can’t multitask the process very easily.

Indexing is when your computer maps out the file location of everything on a list.

As an example, if you do a general virus scan, your computer has to make a list of all of the files that will be scanned.

That’s indexing.

The challenge for your computer is that it has to make the index in order.

That limitation means that it can’t use the extra cores as efficiently to break the task into smaller parts, so it uses a lot of CPU power to compensate.

#2 Playing Games

Once again, video games make the list.

In general, anything that requires a lot of graphics processing also requires a lot of CPU power.

Even if you have a powerful, dedicated graphics processing unit, it has to work in tandem with the CPU in order to render all of those beautiful visual images on your screen.

To keep it simple, powerful graphics processing requires very, very large numbers of calculations per second in order to avoid any stutter in the video.

Those calculations make your CPU work hard.

#3 Mining

Any type of data mining also uses a lot of CPU power.

If you use your computer to try to mine for Bitcoin, as an example, the CPU is running countless calculations to try to win the race and win the coin.

I’m going to skip explaining how Bitcoin mining works this time around.

Instead, suffice it to say that it pushes the CPU.

Other types of data mining have similar CPU power needs.

If you’re trying to scrape information from a bunch of websites to figure out why they’re doing better on Google search results than your site is, you’re going to need a lot of CPU power.

#4 Solving Very Hard Math

Lastly, anything that does very difficult math is going to work the CPU very hard.

This might not be a common problem for most consumer computers.

But, when computers are used to solve math problems, they often have to go through a very long set of processes, and all of it has to be done in order.

Once again, this takes away the benefits of multitasking for a CPU.

Ultimately, this makes hard math CPU-intensive, and it’s why so much automation and artificial intelligence is done by servers and through cloud access.

The applications are just too much for the average personal computer.


  • 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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