Best answer: Most Chromebooks on the market today have 4GB of RAM and that is indeed enough to get by. If a model you're considering has options for 8GB of RAM, though, I'd highly recommend it now that Chromebooks are getting significantly longer support lives.
What is RAM?
RAM stands for Random Access Memory. Think of it as a container where the things you're doing on your Chromebook — both what you can see and what's happening behind the scenes — can store and retrieve data randomly. That means it can access any byte of that data without affecting the preceding or trailing bytes. That makes it fast, because the location of the data you need has no effect on the time it takes to read, write or overwrite it. With no moving parts, there are no mechanical limitations on access times.
RAM is also volatile — once the integrated circuits lose their power, the data disappears. That means it's different from your Chromebook's storage (what we think of as a hard drive) and isn't used to store anything long term. Every time you shut off your Chromebook (or any computer) the RAM is erased.
When you have a tab open in the browser on your Chromebook, all the data needed to draw what happens on your screen and interact with the software is being held in RAM. That's the important thing to know here, and we'll talk about why that matters.
How a Chromebook manages RAM
Chrome OS is a very scaled down Linux desktop. Linux, in general, works well with less RAM than other operating systems, and Chrome OS is really lightweight when nothing else is running. Chrome also uses what the developers call a double wall for low-memory states and what's called zRAM to have things perform better on less memory.
A few words about zRAM — also known as compcache — are needed. It's a feature of the Linux kernel that uses virtual memory compression and makes a portion of the RAM into its own compressed block device. Paging (moving files in and around the memory) is done in that compressed block until it runs out of space and needs to be done on the hard disk. It's OK if that sounds like something you don't understand. All you need to know is that it does wonders on computers — like a Chromebook — that don't have a lot of RAM installed. Google has used zRAM by default in Chrome OS since version 27, and they do a really good job managing it. Unless you're moving a lot of small files around, usually the amount used is zero. But it's there, ready when you need it. Since Android 4.4, this has also been done on your phone or tablet.
Chrome the operating system manages memory better than Chrome the browser on your Windows laptop.
Google's "double-wall" low-memory states are how they try and prevent apps (mostly the browser window itself) from crashing. A certain amount of RAM is reserved for the first "wall" and when that threshold is reached the software evaluates what order to close processes so that what we are actively doing isn't affected. Background operations (like a browser tab that was opened but you haven't looked at yet) are closed first. Next to go are background tabs or windows that you've never interacted with — clicked, or scrolled or typed in — but you have viewed. After that, the background tab or window you haven't used the longest gets its data moved out of RAM. Finally, if none of that works, the kernel OOM (Out Of Memory) function kicks in and closes tasks and processes based on priority. Here's an interesting read on it all, written when it was being developed for those of us who really dig this kind of thing.
This all happens so we won't see the "He's dead, Jim" or "Aww Snap" pages and lose what we're working on. Things have come a long way since the CR-48 was introduced.
This all means that Chrome the operating system manages memory a lot better — and needs much less of it — than Chrome the browser on your Windows or Mac computer does. When you hear people saying how great their Chromebook runs, while it doesn't nearly run as well on your Windows computer or Mac as a browser, all this is a big part of the reason why. It's OK if you don't understand how it all works, just know that Google has done a lot on the software side to allow even a 2GB Chromebook to be pretty functional.
How will you use your Chromebook?
After talking about what RAM is and how Chrome manages it, what will determine how much you need is what you actually intend to do with your Chromebook.
You'll find most Chromebooks come with 4GB of RAM installed, but some expensive models might have 8GB or 16GB installed. I'll be the first one to tell you that you don't need 16GB of RAM on your Chromebook unless you're doing more than running Chrome on it. While an Intel i7, 16GB RAM and 256GB SSD Chromebook makes for a really nice Linux Ultrabook, for most users that's about $1,000 of overkill. Now that the outliers are out of the way, let's talk more about "realistic" Chromebooks.
4GB is good, but 8GB is great when you can find it at a good price.
For most folks, 4GB of RAM is all you really need. It'll handle Facebook, Twitter, Google Drive, and Disney+ just fine, and likely handle them all at the same time. Most Chromebooks today come with 4GB of RAM, and even for someone like me who spends most of the day with 8-20 tabs open on my Chromebook and some Android and Linux apps installed, 4GB handles the load with few issues.
As Chromebooks start getting longer and longer support lives, 8GB is ideal from a futureproofing and power-user perspective. The problem is that most Chromebook models just don't have an 8GB option, especially in the more compact 11.6-inch model category that dominates the market. 8GB will easily handle most remote clients and VM access with grace, which is great for professionals that use their Chromebook to interact with their ultra-powerful desktop while out on the road.
If you see a Chromebook being sold with 2GB of RAM, just turn around and walk away as quickly as you can. This is unacceptable in a Chromebook in 2020.
Choosing your Chromebook
There are a vast number of Chromebooks to choose from today and thankfully, most of them have enough RAM to keep you and your machine working well, whether you're a casual user looking for a secondary machine or a power-user looking for something to dual-boot Ubuntu for you and and Chrome OS for your kids homework assignments.
4GB is enough
The C330 is our favorite Chromebook right now because it perfectly balances price and performance. Packing 4GB RAM, 64GB internal storage and a truly all-day battery, this bright Chromebook won't leave you hanging on crashed Chrome tabs.
I use a C330 as my daily driver and can tell you firsthand that 4GB of RAM is all I needs to get work done on this compact Chromebook, which I use everywhere. Whether you need to get a term paper done or just need to kill some time with solitaire and Twitter, 4GB of RAM is more than enough most of the time.
8GB is better
This sleek Chromebook has 8GB RAM and a lovely 14-inch screen for split screening your team's victory and finishing expense reports no matter where you and your Wi-Fi are. This is also one of the few Chromebooks to offer a backlit keyboard, which makes it perfect for long nights and dim offices.
Already got a Chromebook with enough RAM?
Your Chromebook could always use an assist from some great accessories. Here are some of our favorites.
Samsung EVO Select (From $6 at Amazon)
Chromebooks can seem light on internal storage, but with a spacious microSD card like the EVO Select, you can add storage for tons of photos, movies, music, or any documents you might need to use offline.
MOSISO Laptop Sleeve with Accessory Case ($14 at Amazon)
From 11.6-inch Chromebooks to 15-inch tanks, MOSISO has laptop sleeves in every size you could need for your Chromebook, and they come in over a dozen colors.
Uni USB-C Hub ($33 at Amazon)
This is one of the better hubs to use on the go because the cable detaches to make it a Zippo-sized hub in your pocket. At home, you can swap the short cables for long and use this as a compact docking station.
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