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What is RAM memory? All you need to know

A few years ago, 4 GB of RAM was enough to run games and programs. Today about 16 GB are needed to keep them going well and not crash. It is one of the easiest components to handle and to get to improve the performance of your PC. Even if you have little experience handling computers and their components, you can figure out the basics of RAM memory and even increase the RAM capacity of your PC.

But for those who do not know, in this article we explain what RAM memory is. We answer many of the questions you may have with her.

First of all, what is RAM memory?

The Random Access Memory (Random Access Memory in English, hence its acronym) is a memory storage whose format allows it to be read and changed in any order, as long as there are storage cells. It is usually used to store work data of a computer. A random access memory device allows reading or writing data elements in almost the same time, regardless of the physical location of the data within memory.

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Other direct access data storage media, such as hard drives; have a linear data read affected by its physical location on the recording medium. this makes it slow and inefficient to use a hard drive to handle the operations that an operating system continually performs. In the speed section, it is being solved thanks to the existence of Solid State Disks or SSDs, and to the automatic hard disk defragmentation processes that many operating systems carry today. But even if it improves speed, it is much more efficient if the memory is designed to be volatile and easily rewritable instead of saving registers.

The fact that it is volatile memory means that the stored information is lost if the power is cut. The two main types of volatile random access memory are static random access memory (SRAM) and dynamic random access memory (DRAM).

How does RAM work?

Said in a simple way, RAM is a memory storage in which to save complicated processes, and that within it are resolved or stored to be consulted later. It differs from the processor by its comparatively large storage capacity. Storage such as hard drives have capacity, but they retain information and are quite slow to perform the operations needed by an operating system or different programs.

Returning to the example of why CPUs are not efficient for processes, a RAM module allows configurations of 8 GB, 16 GB, 32 GB or 64 GB if we limit ourselves only to RAM in DDR4 format. In the case of CPUs with more cache, they only reach 64 MB, which is hundreds of times smaller than the capacity of a single RAM module. For this reason, RAM is essential for a slightly advanced electronic device to run correctly.

Can a computer run without RAM?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Every electronic device must have RAM, whether it is an integrated chipset that has it as an integrated volatile storage space or independent modules. If we turn on a computer that has no RAM memory, will not get past the POST screen, which is the power-on self-test. You won't be able to get past that screen because a computer without RAM has no place to refer the startup processes of the operating system to.

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In the case of not having enough RAM, either because it is defective, broken or one of the modules does not have good contacts, the motherboard will beep and the computer will not boot. Part of the hard drive or SSD may be used to move forward. But if you have to, it will not be as fast as a RAM module. The space of the hard disk will be filled by saving the records, until the computer is turned off.

No device can work without RAM

Even something as simple as an electronic ink reader has a RAM module to power its limited operating system.

What is the DDR format of RAM memory?

The DDR memory format indicates the generation of format to which it belongs. DDR is the size of the volatile memory storage chips that come attached to the RAM module PCB. With each generation they are smaller, allowing to put more in a single module. They also have improvements in energy efficiency and in the frequencies they can reach.

Support for a particular generation of DDR is supported by the CPU and motherboard. In the case of Intel, a CPU can be supported by drivers at the hardware level to support one or two generations of DDR, but the final decision rests with the motherboard. In the case of the 12th generation of Intel Core known as Alder lake, motherboards are supported to support both DDR4 and DDR5.

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However, support for DDR5 or DDR4 ultimately depends on the physical capacity of the motherboard. While a motherboard can support a CPU with support for both DDR4 and DDR5, the physical connectors on the motherboard dedicated to RAM will indicate which form factor the motherboard can support. When a new format of DDR memory is introduced for commercial use, a standardized shape is agreed that the connectors will have through a position in which the connector will have a protective notch to prevent the introduction of RAM of any other format not supported by the motherboard or the CPU.

What is the difference between DDR4 and DDR5 RAM?

The move from DDR4 to DDR5 memory involves improvements in the maximum capacity a DIMM can have, power consumption, and frequency. Those are the most basic changes, with some differences at a more advanced level.

Characteristics of DDR4 RAM

  • DIMMs up to 64 GB capacity
  • DRAM banks divided into two or four selectable bank groups.
  • Voltage of 1,2 V
  • Frequency between 800 and 1600 MHz

Characteristics of DDR5 RAM

  • Decision Feedback Equalization, to scale the data I/O rate for higher bandwidth and better performance.
  • 4,8 gigabits per second of bandwidth.
  • Capacity up to 512 GB per DIMM module.
  • Voltage 1,1 V.
  • Possibility of incorporating voltage regulators.
  • 51,2GB/s per module
  • 2 memory channels per module.

In short, DDR5 memory is more efficient with less power. Its main current problem is the low accessibility and variety of products due to the scarcity of components. Being a cutting-edge technology, in its early years you pay for the novelty. In addition, there is hardly any software that takes advantage of this RAM memory format, since they treat it as if it were DDR4 memory.

What indicates what type of RAM memory I can use in my computer?

This is indicated by both the CPU and the motherboard, with the latter having the last word on what memory format it is capable of using. Intel, with the Alder Lake series and most likely with the Raptor Lake series, will allow the use of both DDR4 and DDR5 since it has the drivers for both models in its hardware.

But in any case, the final decision will be that of the motherboard that we decide to use. Depending on the range we choose from the motherboard, it will only be compatible with DDR4 or DDR5, not both.

In the case of AMD, everything is much more direct. The AM4 platform deals with memories in DDR4, and the future AM5 platform that will be released with the first AMD Ryzen 7000, has confirmed that will allow RAM in DDR5 and abandon DDR4.

What are RAM memory latencies?

The latencies or timings of RAM memory are a way of expressing its real speed, since it usually includes in its definition the time it takes for each of the steps and processes used in information processing. As it happens with the CPU, the RAM memory has several steps and the latency expresses the delay between these operations. Generally, the lower the latency number, the less time the RAM takes and therefore the faster it is.

The latency of a RAM memory is expressed with four numbers, which indicate the time between the request and the response of the following four processes in clock cycles:

  • CL: Also referred to as Cache Latency, or cache memory latency. Indicates the time in clock cycles that the RAM memory takes to respond to requests from the processor. This term is the one that is usually put in commercial RAM memories, since it is the most decisive when calculating performance.
  • TRCD: Response time since the information row and column are activated where the necessary data requested by the CPU process is found.
  • TRP: Latency between accesses to different data lines.
  • AFTER: Minimum number of clock cycles in which a row must remain open until data is read or written correctly. This number is closely linked to the frequency of the RAM, so that the faster the clock cycles, the less time the cells will have to wait to be accessed or rewritten.

It should be said that at certain levels, the latency of a RAM will not be noticeable in most processes. It will be more noticeable in the data transfer, file decompression or rendering processes. In gaming, it will be noticeable in games that are more sensitive to RAM latency.

How to calculate the performance of RAM memory?

To know the performance of a RAM kit; there is a formula to know your performance level. To do this we follow the following formula:

1000 / (Actual RAM frequency) x Cache Latency

This will give us the time in nanoseconds that the RAM has in general, since it takes into account the latency of the cache.

Can RAM memory be overclocked?

Yes. As usually happens with the overclocking of any electronic product, forcing the frequencies and properties of RAM memory is a use case that is not covered by the manufacturer and therefore can void the warranty.

In order to overclock RAM, we must have a motherboard that has overclocking options at the hardware level or in the BIOS. This removes the motherboard limiter and will allow RAM modules to operate without limit as long as they are physically possible. The modules will go up in frequency, reducing latencies and increasing their temperature up to a certain physical limit.

What is the difference between single channel and dual channel RAM?

By dividing RAM memory into two channels, processes do not saturate the bandwidth of a single module. In order to put the RAM in dual channel mode, we must connect two compatible RAM modules on the motherboard. Both modules should be of the same capacity and frequency or there may be timing issues.

RAM memory can be combined with modules of different times and speeds. But if there are differences, there will be moments of stress for the motherboard. This is because you are trying to run two RAM DIMMs at different frequencies and latencies. This is why RAM manufacturers make packages with two exactly the same modules, so that there are no incompatibilities on dual channel.

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By putting the RAM in dual channel mode, you are going to give the motherboard more bandwidth to operate the RAM. In this way, a single 16 GB module can be less efficient than 8 GB modules on the same equipment and configuration, if they had the same frequency and latencies. The dual channel saturates less bandwidth and allows more information to pass through.

Some motherboards even have four RAM channels to accommodate four DIMMs. But keep in mind that the memories should be as similar as possible to avoid stressing the motherboard. This can be solved by buying a pack that has all four modules, or two packs of two identical modules.

How do I know how much RAM I have and what type?

There are several ways to find out how much RAM you have, and what type it is. The most direct is open your pc case, being careful not to damage parts or cause static electricity discharge. Once you have opened it, you will be able to check how many RAM modules you have. This will tell you if you have it on single channel or dual channel depending on the number of modules connected to the motherboard. Possibly, they still have the labels of the original product, which will also indicate the frequency, type, capacity and latencies they have.

If you can't do it, or you're not confident enough in your abilities to remove the PC lid and RAM, you can always use the free downloadable CPU-Z software. After downloading and unzipping it, if you allow it to run an analysis of your software, it will give you all the information you need about your RAM memory.

In the memory section, you will be able to easily see the type of memory you have, if it is DDR3, DDR4 or DDR5; channel type, capacity, and frequency. If you also need it, it will inform you of the latencies of the modules in their current state. It should be noted that CPU-Z reacts to changes in the frequency and latencies of the RAM, which is also used to evaluate overclocking tasks.

What options do I have to improve the RAM of my PC?

Upgrading RAM is one of the easiest processes when it comes to handling PC hardware. Said in a simple way, the computer itself adapts to memory changes whenever and when they are in compatible formats, speeds and capacities.

Now, what can you improve regarding your RAM? The first thing is to go from single channel to dual channel. Having 16 GB of memory is fine, but if it's all concentrated on a single DIMM, you may create a certain bottleneck. It is capable of storing 16 GB of volatile memory, but the transfer capacity will be limited to a single lane. Splitting it by two can be a way to improve speed. To do this, you must acquire two memory modules as identical as possible so as not to stress the motherboard.

Then there is the capacity of the modules. Depending on the number of RAM slots your motherboard has, you can fit more DIMMs into it. If your board supports DDR4, that means it allows modules with up to 64GB of storage per drive. In a single dual channel is 128 GB of RAM capacity, and 256 GB if you allow four. If your motherboard is DDR5, it allows 512 GB per module, so if it allows four channels of RAM, it will be able to operate 2 TB of memory. This is theoretical for now, as RAM modules with such capacity are not available, at least for home use, and they are not easily accessible.

If what you want is to improve the RAM format, it already requires change motherboard and the CPU of your computer. We only recommend this if you really need to upgrade your memory format several generations, such as going from DDR3 to DDR5. You'll need to get a compatible CPU, which will need to be either a 12th Gen Intel Alder Lake and its matching motherboard, or a Ryzen 7000 and its AM5 platform motherboard.

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Benjamin Rosa

Madrileño whose publishing career began in 2009. I love investigating curiosities that I later bring to you, readers, in articles. I studied photography, a skill that I use to create humorous photomontages.

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