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How to Install RAM on a PC

Are you tired of waiting for applications to open? Plagued by "insufficient memory" messages? A RAM upgrade may be the answer. This is probably the cheapest, easiest, and most noticeable improvement you can make to your computer's speed.

What is RAM?

RAM, an acronym for "random access memory," is the place where your programs reside while they're running — and where your open files are stored before you hit the "save" command. If active programs and files take up more room than your RAM has available, your computer uses empty space on your hard drive to keep track of what's going on (called "paging to disk"). Hard drives have moving parts, which make them slower. RAM chips don't, which, in a general sense, is why having lots of RAM makes your computer run faster.

A note of caution

RAM modules and the slots where they're inserted are both made of plastic. Get a little too rough inserting a module and you're liable to break it. Even worse, if you break the slots they go into, you may wind up taking a trip to the computer shop to have a new motherboard installed (a worst–case scenario, to be sure). Just use firm pressure — don't force.

Find out what you already have

First, you need to determine how much, and what type of, RAM your computer currently has. For machines running Windows 95 and above, click on the Start button, scroll up to Settings, click on Control Panel, double click on System and click on the Performance tab. You should see a listing for memory, which will show the current amount of RAM. Your user manual will also have all of this info if you have it handy.

In this tutorial, we'll assume you have an open bank in which to install your RAM. Most computers will only have one open bank (one slot for DIMMs, two for SIMMs). In the future, if you want to install more RAM and your banks are full, you'll need to remove some RAM and replace it with higher capacity modules.

Disconnect and unplug the cables

While some manufacturers recommend keeping the computer plugged in while you work on it to keep it grounded, we don't recommend this route. For safety's sake, you don't want to be digging around in an electrical appliance that's plugged in, whether it's a toaster or a computer. Also, your computer is most likely connected to other things that are plugged in, such as a printer or a monitor. Unplug everything and disconnect all of the cables that are attached to your computer. If you're afraid you might not be able to make sense of that jumble of cables later on, take a few minutes and label everything using masking tape and a magic marker.

If your computer is a desktop model in which the monitor sits on top of the hard drive, you'll need to move the monitor out of the way. All you need is the hard drive, unfettered and ready to be moved to your work area.

Create an antistatic area

RAM modules, like many other computer components, are vulnerable to static electricity. Basically, static can run a current through computer components in a way the components weren't meant to handle, thereby damaging them. Take some precautions to avoid this. You don't want to create static by rubbing your feet on the carpet, so the best place to upgrade your computer is in a room with linoleum or hardwood floors. The kitchen is a good place to work on your computer, not only because of the floor, but because you can set the computer on the kitchen table to work on it.

The quest to avoid static has led to a number of rumors, like it's best to work on computers barefoot, wearing leather–soled shoes, only wearing cotton, or while completely naked. The best way to avoid static, however, is to stay in constant contact with a part of the computer case that's bare, unpainted metal while you're fiddling with its innards. If that sounds like a bit of a juggling act to you, you can pick up an antistatic wrist band at your local electronics or computer store. The band goes around your wrist and has a cable that gets attached to the computer case to keep you grounded.

Note: Always handle RAM modules (and other similar components) by their edges so you're holding plastic. Avoid touching the metal contacts, keep yourself grounded, and you won't have any problems.

Remove the computer's cover

Now that you've taken antistatic precautions, it's time to access the machine's innards. Examine the computer to see how it comes apart. If it has a tower or minitower case (meaning it stands upright), look at its left side. Some cases are held together with screws, while others have a panel that pops off by pushing on a release. If you see screws, unscrew them (turn counterclockwise) until you can take off the side panel of the computer. If it has a catch that lets you pull the side panel off, consider yourself lucky and put the screwdriver aside.

If you don't see an obvious way to remove a side panel, you may have to remove the entire cover of the case as a single unit by removing all the screws around the edges. If you have a desktop computer, you usually have to remove the entire top and sides of the case as a single unit. Remove the screws along the edges of the box until you can lift off the case.

Once again, your computer's documentation or the manufacturer's Web site will probably have more specific instructions on getting access to your computer's interior. Just be sure to get the info before you start taking things apart.

Take a look

Since there are so many different types of computer motherboards, it's impossible to say exactly where your RAM modules will be. So, you'll need to look for them. Take one of the new modules out of its antistatic packaging (holding it by the edges). By now you know that RAM modules are rectangular — grasp the module using your thumb and forefinger, holding the short sides. Examine it carefully, and try to find its matching brothers and sisters inside your computer.

Generally, the RAM banks are in a spot that's easily seen and accessed. Since we're assuming you haven't upgraded your computer before, you should see the current modules and an adjacent empty slot or two (at least one for DIMMs, at least two for SIMMs). Bear in mind that the RAM modules already in your computer may look slightly different than what you have in your hand. The new module may have more or less little black squares on the top or bottom, depending on whether it's a higher– or lower–capacity module. However, it should be the same width as the installed RAM modules.

Now, put the RAM module back in its package — you have one more thing to check. Some RAM slots have little clips on the sides. Make sure the slot(s) where you're installing your new RAM have these clips in the open position (if they're closed you won't be able to insert the modules). Examine the installed modules to see how the clips look in the closed position.

Take the new RAM module out again. If you compare the module and slot for a few minutes before installing your RAM, it'll help you understand how it goes in. It only goes in one way, and, if you try to force it in the wrong way, you might break something. Grasp the module by its edges again, being sure the little silver or gold lines (the contact points) are facing away from you and toward the computer.

Both DIMMs and SIMMs have a notch on one edge that must be installed on the proper side of the slot (either the left or right). Also, each metallic contact point on the RAM module corresponds to a contact point in the slot. Hold the module up to the empty slot. Now, examine how the contact needs to be made and how the notch in the module corresponds to the slot. If it doesn't look right in relationship to the modules that are already installed, flip the module over and see if you can make the contacts match up.

Install the RAM modules

If you're installing a DIMM, you'll need to put it in the slot directly adjacent to the other module or modules. A pair of SIMMs go in the next two available slots. With SIMMs, be sure to install the inside one first or you won't be able to get them both in.

If you're installing a SIMM, hold the RAM module so it's at a 45–degree angle to the motherboard and lined up correctly with the slot (aimed down from the module in front). Push it slowly but firmly into the slot while angling it up until it's perpendicular to the motherboard and its edge is parallel to the existing modules. You're basically rotating it into place by starting at an angle, which is the key to getting it to seat properly. You should feel it snap into place. If it doesn't, check to make sure you have everything lined up correctly and try again. If your slots have clips, sometimes they'll close during a failed attempt to install a module and will need to be reopened on your second attempt. It does take some pressure to get them installed properly.

If you're installing a DIMM, the procedure is the same, except that, rather than starting at an angle and rotating the module into place, you need to push it straight in — perpendicular to the motherboard. Some manufacturers recommend different methods of installing DIMMs. If your computer's manufacturer recommends a different method, it's best to do it that way.

When you have the RAM module in place, examine it from a couple of different angles to make sure it's lined up correctly with the old modules. If it appears to be sticking out too much, gently push on it until it looks right.

If the slot has clips, they'll usually close automatically as the RAM module seats. Sometimes, however, you have to close the clips manually. Use the old modules as a reference to make sure everything looks right. Once the DIMM or SIMMs have popped into place and look right, you're ready to replace the cover.

Put it all back together

After making a final check on the new RAM, put the case back together, haul the computer back to where it belongs, hook up the cables, and plug it in. It's a good idea to hook up your monitor and mouse at this point, because if the RAM isn't recognized, you may have to unplug everything all over again.

In Windows 95, 98 or above, the new RAM will automatically be recognized. To be sure the upgrade was successful, check your computer's RAM again. If the RAM increase doesn't show up, it's possible that the modules are not seated correctly. In this case, repeat the disassembly procedure and make sure everything looks right. If everything looks okay but the RAM still isn't functioning, you probably have a bad module (Note: for SIMMs, just one module of the pair may be bad). In this case, take the module(s) back to where you purchased it and ask the store to check it out.

However, if you took your time, paid attention to how the new RAM modules are seated, and the modules are okay, your computer will fire right up and be better, faster, and stronger.


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