Your Ideal PC

Memory: Get the Most You Can

RAM comes in modules.
Photograph: Marc Simon
Because it's an easy upgrade to perform and can significantly improve performance (see below), boosting a PC's RAM is one of the most popular hardware enhancements people undertake. This 5-minute procedure can let you keep more programs open, accelerate memory-hungry graphics programs and games dramatically, and sharpen your PC's responsiveness.

The memory modules that most recent systems accept are 184-pin DDR DIMMs of varying speeds, such as DDR333 or DDR400; the number describes the RAM's clock speed. You'll sometimes see memory referred to by the bandwidth it offers, such as PC2700 (DDR333) or PC3200 (DDR400). The type you should buy depends on the motherboard and processor you choose: For best performance, opt for the fastest type of memory module that works with both. A new type of memory (called DDR2) offers even speedier performance, but this can be used only on new systems equipped with the latest Intel chip sets.

Get at least a gig: Sure, you can save money by installing less, but 1GB of RAM puts you comfortably above the point at which most speed gains occur, and it should enable you to run the most demanding applications and increase the speed of your system when you keep more than one program open at a time.

Go dual-channel if possible: If your motherboard supports it, use dual-channel memory. This type of memory boosts performance by increasing the speed at which data can be read and written. But for it to work, you have to install matched RAM modules in pairs. Some early dual-channel boards came with only three RAM sockets. If two of those sockets are already filled, you must either upgrade with a single DIMM (and lose some performance) or replace your two existing DIMMs.

Don't buy cheap memory: RAM prices go up and down every day, but no matter how high they get, don't purchase cheap, no-name memory. Dodgy RAM can create many confusing, hard-to-diagnose problems, so it's worth spending a bit more for RAM from a well-established brand, such as Corsair or Viking, to avoid these problems. You should also buy all of the memory you'll need at once: Although memory from different manufacturers should work together, we advise you not to count on it.

Adding RAM: More Memory, Faster PC

If your system has 256MB or less of RAM, it's a good candidate for a RAM upgrade. Though most current PCs come with 512MB or more, just 18 months ago systems often had 256MB--not enough to run today's memory-hungry programs.

To see what sort of difference a RAM upgrade makes, the PC World Test Center evaluated the speed of a test system (a machine from Velocity Micro) on our new WorldBench 5 benchmark, using first 256MB and then 1GB of DDR400 RAM. Our test system got a significant speed increase from the extra memory; we found that the video editing, 3D rendering, and multitasking tests all showed at least a 10 percent increase. That's not bad for an upgrade that costs less than $200.

Test Report: Memory Matters (chart).


Richard Baguley

Upgrade Focus: What Type of Memory Should I Buy?

to upgrade your RAM, you must know what type of memory your system takes. Manufacturers like Crucial and Kingston offer automated memory selectors that will identify the right type for your PC.

Our Picks

  • Power PC: Two 512MB PC3200 Corsair Registered XMS3200 double-data-rate dual inline memory modules ($155 each). The AMD Athlon 64 FX processor that we selected for our power system requires a pair of registered DDR modules.
  • Media, Quiet, and Value PCs, and Upgrade: Two 512MB PC3200 DDR SDRAM DIMMs ($110 each, various manufacturers).

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