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Buying Computer Memory:

A quick guide to types of RAM

Boosting a computer's RAM can result in an immediate, and often dramatic, improvement in performance. With more RAM, a computer can run a wider variety of applications, simultaneously keep open more applications, and switch between tasks with greater speed. What's more, a computer with robust memory size will be less likely to freeze or suffer system errors.

If you're considering upgrading the RAM on your desktop or laptop computer, there are a few things you need to consider.

How much RAM does your computer have?

You can either check the owner's manual or look on your computer's desktop by following these steps:

If you use a PC,

  1. Right click on the My Computer icon on your desktop
  2. Scroll down to Properties.
  3. Select the General tab.
The amount of installed memory will appear in the lower right side of the dialogue box.

If you use a Macintosh, click on the apple icon at the top left hand corner of the desktop and select About this Mac.

Most computers purchased by 2002 will have 256MB or more of RAM. Older computers may have as little as 32 or 64MB (which isn't much memory). To run current applications (such as PowerPoint or 3D CAD packages) and operating systems (such as Windows XP® or Apple Jaguar®) an older computer will definitely need more memory. (To see RAM recommendations for a variety of applications, click here.)

How much RAM can your computer handle?

You can find the answer by consulting the owner's manual. Easier still, use our online memory configurator and find the right memory for your system. Most new computers can manage RAM upgrades up to 512MB — and in some cases even 2GB.

When consulting the owner's manual, or calling the manufacturer, check how many memory card slots are free on the computer's motherboard. Next, divide the total amount of RAM the computer can accommodate by the number of free slots on the motherboard. This number will tell you the optimum size of the memory card for each slot.

To provide an example, say your computer has a maximum upgradeable RAM of 512MB, and a motherboard with four empty memory slots. Dividing 512MB by four tells you that the ideal size of the RAM upgrade card for each slot is 128MB. (512MB / 4 slots = 128MB)

How much RAM does your computer need?

256MB is a respectable size that will suit most computer users. It's the RAM size required by many new software applications, and it's also standard on most new computers. Nevertheless, people who use multimedia applications (including high–end video games or CAD packages) might do well to upgrade to 512MB.

To see RAM recommendations for a variety of applications and operating systems, click here.

Though prices vary by RAM type, memory upgrades can cost less than $40 for 128MB, and less than $90 for 256MB. 

Types of RAM

There are four basic types of RAM, each of which goes by an acronym that only sounds intimidating. Ultimately, the type you choose will be determined by your computer's requirements, not by your personal preference. (Click here to use a memory configurator to determine your computer's RAM compatibility requirements.)

You don't have to know the technical ins–and–outs of the RAM varieties, but it helps to know their essential differences. EDO DRAM, SDRAM, DDR SDRAM, and RDRAM are the four basic types of RAM, in ascending order of speed and currency. (In other words, EDO DRAM is the oldest and slowest type of RAM, RDRAM is the latest and the fastest.)

SIMM, DIMM, and SODIMM, and RIMM refer to the different kinds of boards and connectors used by RAM cards to plug into a computer's motherboard. The following table provides a quick summary: 

RAM type Type of board/connectors it uses Characteristics Bus speeds
EDO DRAM SIMM Most likely to appear in computers that are six years old (or older) 67MHz
SDRAM Comes in DIMM or SODIMM Still common, though gradually being replaced in favor of DDR and RD. Three varieties PC 100, PC 133, and PC 210. PC 133 is the most frequently used. 100MHz (PC 100)
133MHz (PC 133)
210MHz (PC 210)
DDR SDRAM DIMM Effectively doubles the speed and performance of SDRAM. Most new computers include DDR memory. 200/266MHz or higher
RDDRAM RIMM Not yet widely utilized, but used by some computers with Pentium 4 processors. 700 or 800MHz


Installing RAM

When you purchase a new RAM card, it will arrive with installation instructions that are relatively easy to follow. Read an article about installing RAM.

If you feel uncomfortable opening the computer's casing yourself, you can always call the nearest Staples store and request to have the RAM installed for you (for a cost of $30).

Tip: Provided your RAM is compatible with your computer's system, you don't have to buy your memory upgrade from the computer manufacturer.


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