Computing

What is RAM? A Comprehensive Guide

A hand inserting a stick of Corsair RAM into a desktop motherboard. Image Source: Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Introduction

Random-access memory, commonly known as RAM, is an indispensable component of various devices, including desktop computers and smartphones. RAM serves as a high-speed, temporary storage solution that facilitates quick access to vital information for applications, games, and the operating system. This eliminates the need to retrieve data from slower storage devices such as hard drives and SSDs, saving valuable time. In this article, we’ll delve into the nitty-gritty of RAM, discussing its importance, types, and considerations for your devices.

What is RAM, and How Does it Function?

RAM functions as a device’s short-term memory. It reads and stores information that an application or operating system may require in the near future. This data is readily accessible to the CPU, graphics card, or any other component that needs it. The stored information remains in the RAM until you either shut down the program or restart your device. At that point, the RAM is cleared and ready to accommodate new and relevant data. RAM acts as a cache, ensuring that other components do not need to fetch data from slower storage devices like hard drives or SSDs every time a new action is performed. In comparison to these storage components, RAM offers significantly faster speeds. However, it’s important to note that the slower storage devices are essential for long-term data storage when the RAM is not powered.

Exploring Different RAM Types

The term “RAM” or “memory” typically refers to dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) or synchronous dynamic random-access memory (SDRAM) for modern systems. While the technicalities between the two terms may vary, they are generally used interchangeably. The most prevalent type of desktop RAM available today is DDR4. However, older systems may still utilize DDR3 or DDR2, and the latest systems employ DDR5. Each generation of RAM offers faster speeds through increased bandwidth, measured in megatransfers per second. It’s crucial to note that different generations of RAM are not interchangeable due to physical variations and improved energy efficiency.

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Mobile platforms such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones utilize Low-Power Double Data Rate (LPDDR) memory, available in various generations such as LPDDR4 and the most recent, LPDDR5X. While mobile-grade LPDDR memory offers comparable performance to desktop-grade DDR memory, it falls slightly short of the swiftness provided by the best DDR5 RAM. Nevertheless, LPDDR memory consumes less power, thus conserving battery life. These memory modules come in different forms, including being soldered directly onto the motherboard or using SODIMM (Small Outline Dual In-line Memory Module), which is a more compact replaceable stick than the DIMM-style memory sticks found in desktop PCs.

Another term worth mentioning, particularly in the gaming domain, is VRAM (video RAM). Although it was once a standalone technology, VRAM now refers to dedicated memory on graphics cards. In the context of game consoles, it can also allude to system memory exclusively reserved for the GPU. GDDR6 is commonly used in modern graphics cards like AMD’s RX 7000-series, while Nvidia employs GDDR6X RAM in its RTX 3000 and RTX 40-series graphics cards. The upcoming video memory generation, GDDR7, is currently in the development phase.

Determining the Suitable RAM Capacity

Corsair Vengeance memory kits being used for extreme overclocking. Image used with permission by copyright holder

When it comes to RAM capacity, it’s crucial to consider the requirements of the operating system, games, and applications you use. Ensuring that you have sufficient RAM is vital for optimal performance. Typically, a modern PC running Windows should have no less than 8GB of RAM, with 16GB being the common choice for gaming PCs. However, certain AAA games may benefit from 32GB of RAM. Users engaged in video editing or heavy multitasking might find 32GB or more beneficial. Remember that PCs not only run the current application but also handle additional services and background tasks. Hence, having more than the minimum amount of RAM is essential. While having copious amounts of system memory does not necessarily result in enhanced speed, it’s preferable to have faster memory once the sufficient threshold has been met.

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The Importance of RAM Speed

Similar to a CPU, RAM operates at a specific clock speed that determines its data handling capacity per second, in conjunction with other factors. The overall speed of the memory is referred to as bandwidth and measured in megatransfers per second. Traditionally, memory is labeled with speeds in megahertz (MHz). DDR4 memory typically runs between 2,133MHz and 3,000MHz, with some kits reaching speeds upwards of 4,866MHz, and DDR5 memory potentially reaching 8,000MHz. These speeds are often marketed as DDR4-2133 or similar, occasionally with a “PC” label. The number following “PC” represents the rounded value of the MHz speed multiplied by eight. For example, you may encounter listings such as DDR4-2133 PC4-17000.

Timings are another aspect that affects RAM performance, although their significance has diminished over time. Timings are denoted by multiple numbers separated by dashes, signifying the time between clock cycles. As memory speed increases, timings also increase, resulting in higher latency. However, the greater bandwidth of faster memory can compensate for this rise in latency, ultimately leading to improved overall performance. For the average consumer, timings are not a significant concern during memory purchase, unless high-performance memory is required for specific purposes such as benchmarking or top-tier gaming.

Understanding RAM Channels

Most memory sticks available today support at least dual-channel memory, meaning there are two lanes (buses) connecting each memory slot to the CPU’s memory controller on the motherboard. To take full advantage of dual-channel memory, it’s important to install the RAM sticks in the correctly colored slots on the motherboard. Consult the manual if you need assistance in identifying the appropriate slots for your specific motherboard. Additionally, high-end RAM kits with three or four modules support triple- or quad-channel memory designs, commonly found in workstations and server systems.

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Can You Increase RAM Without Upgrading?

Unfortunately, increasing the amount of RAM without physically installing additional modules is not possible. Although there are websites that make jokes about “downloading” more RAM, it’s simply not a viable solution. However, if you frequently encounter memory shortages, closing running applications, especially browser tabs, can help free up some memory. Another helpful tip is to reduce the number of startup applications, thus minimizing the apps that launch with Windows.

Conclusion

Now that you have a comprehensive understanding of RAM, you may feel confident enough to install it yourself. If you require further assistance or prefer step-by-step guidance, check out our detailed guides on how to install RAM and how to build a computer.

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