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Making Sense of Computer Memory

Tolerating periodic performance freezes is part of working on a computer. However, there is a way to cut back on the problem significantly: upgrading your computer's RAM.

Big gains at little cost

For the last two or three years, the performance emphasis for computers was on processing speed. The more megahertz, said the conventional wisdom, the better.

"The drawback was that memory lagged behind," says Misty Willms of Kingston® Technology Company, Inc., a leading manufacturer of memory products for desktop computers, notebooks, digital cameras, and other technology devices. "You have to have strong memory to coincide with, and take advantage of, better processing speed."

Fortunately for consumers, memory upgrades have become dramatically cheaper in recent years, sometimes as much as 80 percent cheaper.1

What is RAM?

RAM stands for "random access memory", a set of computer chips that provide the workspace on your computer. Whenever you work in a program such as Word or Excel, explains Amado Diaz, Computer Consultant at Workgroup Consulting Associates, "the information is read from the hard disk and brought into memory (RAM) so the CPU [or Central Processing Unit—the brain of a computer] can manipulate the data." When you have more RAM, you can load and manage bigger files and have more programs open at one time.

RAM is measured by megabytes (MB). Most new desktop or laptop computers come with 128MB installed, though some still come with 64MB. Other computers come with 256MB, 512MB, or even 1 gigabyte. Computers can be upgraded in steps of 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, and 256MB, provided the system is equipped to support upgrades. Most are. Even if the motherboard is old, a RAM upgrade will improve your computer's performance.

How much RAM do you need?

Any application or software program you buy should list minimum RAM requirements. ZDNet recommends that "you go over the minimum if you can, especially if you're running applications that require a lot of memory." When you go over the minimum, you'll see increased performance and fewer computer freezes.

Here's a quick rundown of the minimum and recommended RAM requirements suggested by Kingston Technology:


Windows® XP
Minimum 128MB
For optimal performance 256MB
For complex photo editing, animation, real–time videos, solid modeling, finite element analysis, or use of CAD or 3D CAD packages 512MB – 1GB

Windows® 2000 Professional
Minimum 64MB
For database administration, spreadsheets, and working with 2 applications at a time 64 to 128MB
For heavy use of statistical applications, databases, Web development, complex presentations, and video conferencing 256 to 512MB
For engineers and designers using 3D CAD packages, real–time videos, solid modeling and finite element analysis 1GB



Windows® 98
Minimum 32–64MB
For database administration, spreadsheets, and working with 2 applications at a time 64–128MB
For those using multimedia applications such as video, voice recognition, and graphic design 128–384MB




Windows® 95
Minimum 16–32MB
For heavy administrative use 32–48MB
For statistical applications, presentations, and video conferencing 64–96MB
For photo editing, real–time videos, 3D CAD 128–256MB




Windows® NT 4.0
Minimum 32–48MB
For administrative accounting and presentation software 48–64MB
For statistical applications, large databases, presentations, and videoconferencing 64–96MB
For statistical applications, large databases, presentations, and videoconferencing 128–256MB




Macintosh O/S
Minimum 48–64MB
For heavy administrative accounting, complex documenting, business graphics, network connectivity 64–128MB
For statistical applications, large databases and presentations, video conferencing 72–128MB
For animation, complex photo editing, real–time video, 3D CAD 256MB–1GB




LINUX
Baseline 48–112MB
For optimal performance 112–512MB
For animation, complex photo editing, real–time video, solid modeling 240MB–1GB




Games
Baseline 64MB
For optimal performance 128MB
For games that are intricate and involve maps 256MB


How to install RAM

If you're ready to learn how to install new RAM modules, read our tutorial, 'How to Upgrade Your RAM (PC)'.

Before you begin, remember that you should first check your computer manual to see what kind of memory configuration it uses. If you use a generic PC, you can check your motherboard manual and call the manufacturer. Based on the serial number and model name, the manufacturer should be able to tell you exactly what kind of configuration you need. Don't be intimidated by the acronyms DIMM, SIMM, RIMM, SDRAM, and RDRAM. Just find out which one you need by checking the motherboard, calling the manufacturer, and then looking for the right product.

Tip: The FTC's Magnuson–Moss Act stipulates that customers can purchase third–party compatible products without voiding the warranty on their system. Provided your RAM is compatible with your computer's system, you don't have to buy your memory upgrade from the computer manufacturer.


1According to Heather Jardim of Kingston Technology.

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