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How much RAM do you need?

“640K should be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates 1981

Ironic that this quote should come from the founder of Microsoft – the company whose Windows operating system goes through computer resources like kids go through birthday cake.

Older operating systems required a lot less RAM then moden system. Modern operating systems, and their hardware, require quite a bit more to properly operate. As a standard, most computers these days should have a minimum of 4 GB (Gigabytes) in order to properly run. In my opinion, though, the sweet spot is 8GB, which should allow you to run most applications and games in Windows.

For those who are doing heavy video editing, graphics design, hard core gaming, or just like to have a lot of programs running, you cannot go wrong with 16GB.

Anything past 16 GB may not provide much of a speed benefit other than being able to run more programs at the same.

Timings and Latency

 signifies latency, that is, the amount of time th

signifies latency, that is, the amount of time that needs to pass from the read command being issued to the data being available for the processor to access. In the case of synchronous DRAM such as DDR4, this latency is measured in clock cycles rather than nanoseconds.

But without getting too technical, let’s just say that latency doesn’t mean much to the average gamer, just like clock speeds and bandwidth. The performance benefits that lower latency offers in regard to gaming are almost non-existent, so it’s really not something that’s worth spending extra money on, and capacity should still come first.

What Are Memory ‘Ranks,’ and Why Should I Care?

Each dual inline memory module (DIMM) has two 64-bit interfaces (one on each side) connected in series. Each interface supports one rank of memory, so that a single-sided module usually has one filled rank, and a double-sided module usually has both ranks filled. (Caveat alert: Though less common, some memory has through-paths, or “vias,” that connect both sides to a single interface.) Since the two sides of a dual-rank module are connected in series, one might not expect the added rank of memory ICs (integrated circuits, i.e. “chips”) to improve performance. This is where interleaving comes into play. Interleaving allows two different operations to occur simultaneously, such as accessing data on one rank while transferring data on the other.

The memory controllers of most consumer processors support up to four ranks of memory per channel, which is why so many dual-channel boards have four slots and why so many quad-channel boards have eight. If every module used in these boards was dual-rank, the memory controller would be “full.”

How does one determine whether a module is dual- or single-rank? Specs may tell you, but you can’t count on that. If not, physical examination is another way. A look under the edge of a module’s heat spreaders would reveal how many ICs are used. Since the ICs on most performance-oriented memory modules have an 8-bit interface, eight of those make up a 64-bit rank. (Some low-end memory uses four 16-bit ICs per rank. These “chips” tend to be rectangular.)

However, actually looking at RAM modules and peering under stickers or heat spreaders is not a realistic method for anyone ordering RAM online or trying to examine memory that’s packaged up in a store. Researching memory via memory reviews can help, but finding a review of the exact kit and speed/capacity flavor you are looking it is hit-and-miss. And even professional RAM reviews are relevant only if they’re very recent. Why? We’ve seen companies apply an old part number to a new product with half as many ICs (each at twice the density). Tweaking the actual on-module components can make all the difference.

Depending on what you do, it’s a legitimate strategy to buy a kit containing four DIMMs for a four-slot dual-channel motherboard, since you’re guaranteed to have at least one rank per module. But some motherboards are wired to overclock better with only two DIMM slots filled. If that is what you aim to do, you need to factor that in. Alternatively, kits that contain 32GB modules always have dual-rank DIMMs, since 16Gb is the current density limit for high-end consumer DDR4 ICs, and eight of those make a 16GB rank.

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RAM Speed

The RAM in Intel based computers is accessed by the CPU via the front-side bus (FSB) and the memory bus. Improvements in technology have changed the speed of the FSB dramatically. Similarly the RAM itself has a maximum speed at which it can reliably operate and this must be at least as high as the memory bus speed. Clearly there is a ‘grey area’ where the definition of reliable operation is made and this is one difference between ‘low quality’ and ‘high quality’ RAM – the high quality RAM is likely to operate with close to 100% reliability significantly above the bus speed for which it is rated. This is one of the regions that overclockers exploit to boost their system performance – increasing the FSB speed to take advantage of the performance ‘buffer zone’ of good quality RAM.

Obsolete SIMM modules (EDO or FP) were rated by the response of the chips on the module e.g. 70 nanosecond. Older SDRAM sticks were rated as 66MHz, 100MHz (PC100) or 133MHz (PC133) speeds. Original DDR was rated at PC1600 or PC2100. Current DDR is rated as PC3200. Original RIMM modules were PC600, PC700 and PC800 speeds. Current RIMM modules are rated PC1066. Original DDR2 is designed for 400MHz, 533MHz and 667MHz speeds. Latest DDR2 is designed for 800MHz operating speed. What does this mean in terms of quantity of data that could be transferred per second? Taking information from a variety of memory manufacturers sites we can make a table to show some comparisons of peak memory performance:

Type of RAM PC Rating RAM Speed in MHz Peak Throughput in MB/sec
SDRAM PC100 100 800
SDRAM PC133 133 1100
RIMM PC800 400 1600
RIMM PC1066 533 2100
DDR PC1600 200 1600
DDR PC2100 266 2100
DDR PC2700 366 2700
DDR PC3200 400 3200
Dual Channel RIMM PC800 400 3200
Dual Channel RIMM PC1066 533 4200
Dual Channel DDR2 PC2-3200 400 6400
Dual Channel DDR2 PC2-4200 533 8400
Dual Channel DDR2 PC2-5300 667 10600
Dual Channel DDR2 PC2-6400 800 12800

Let’s Get Granular! Our Platform-Specific RAM Recommendations

We’ve come up with an, ahem, “short” list of what you can (and/or should) use with specific desktop platforms, attempting to place these in rough chronological order (by release date, newest to oldest). For custom desktop PC builds, we recommend treating the statements of motherboard manufacturers regarding their memory support as theoretical limits and reading reviews to determine practical limits. Additionally, firmware limits set by system manufacturers usually cannot be exceeded, regardless of whether the machine is a notebook or desktop.

▶ Intel Z490, H470, B360, H410 Chipset Motherboards (With a 10th Generation Core “Comet Lake” CPU)

The short version: With no “Gear” modes to worry about on these previous-generation chipsets, there’s little to stop a mildly experienced builder from simply enabling a DDR4-3600 XMP profile on an overclocking-enabled Z490 motherboard. That’s a pretty safe bet for system builders working from a retail-sold DIY motherboard. Note, however, that some OEM systems might have the (ostensible) overclocking chipset, but not the firmware settings to actually accomplish this.

Without overclocking, Intel’s 10th Generation Core i9 and i7 processors support memory up to DDR4-2933, while its Core i5 and i3 versions top out at DDR4-2666. Intel never unlocked overclocking for its B or H 400-Series chipsets.

As with the Z590, it might be necessary to increase the power threshold of lower-energy (65-watt) processors to prevent a power-throttling increase. Check your motherboard firmware for these settings prior to memory selection.

▶ AMD TRX40 (Threadripper) and X570, B550, or A520 (Mainstream Ryzen) Chipset Motherboards

Even though these two are completely different platforms, both support DDR4-3600 at a synchronized FCLK. AMD recommended DDR4-3200 at the time of the launch of the Ryzen 3000 Series, and buyers who can’t afford DDR4-3600 at reasonable timings (CAS 18 or lower) might wish to consider this less-expensive option.

▶ Intel Z390, H370, B360, and Z370 Chipset Motherboards (With 8th and 9th Generation CPUs)

Intel’s Z-series chipsets are super-friendly to memory overclocking on adequately provisioned motherboards, so the same DDR4-3600 “best” and DDR4-3200 “alternative” recommendations apply for these chipsets catering to 8th Generation and 9th Generation CPUs. Unfortunately, H370 and B360 do not generally support anything beyond Intel’s official limits, which are DDR4-2666 for the Core i9, i7, and i5, and DDR4-2400 for the Core i3, Pentium, and Celeron.

▶ AMD X470 and B450 Chipset Motherboards (With Mainstream Ryzen CPUs)

Support for high RAM data rates across various motherboard models under these chipsets is mixed. Some easily exceed DDR4-3600; others barely go above DDR4-2933 when paired with a Ryzen 2000 Series CPU. The closest thing we’ve seen to consensus has been DDR4-3466, but again, we’ve had boards that topped out at far less.

The good news is a resurgence of AMD-compatible DDR4-2933 memory modules on the market following Intel’s addition of this speed to its 2020 desktop processor guidelines. Those who think that DDR4-2933 is unacceptably slow should dig a little deeper to find out what other people are running with the same motherboard and processor. Imitation can be far more than the greatest form of flattery—it can save you a heap of time and trouble!

▶ AMD X399 Chipset Motherboards (With First or Second Generation Ryzen Threadripper CPUs)

Remember that Threadripper X399 boards tend to have eight memory slots. Breaking from DDR4-3600 recommendations because many builders wish to fully populate these boards with eight dual rank modules (16 total ranks), stability at this setting is still common when using up to eight total ranks with the Ryzen Threadripper 2950X. Earlier processors can be fussier, though. DDR4-3200 is compatible across most Threadripper processor models and memory configurations, but AMD recommends only DDR4-2933 for second-gen Ryzen Threadrippers and DDR4-2666 for first-gen Ryzen Threadrippers.

▶ Intel X299 Chipset Motherboards (With LGA2066 Core X-Series CPUs)

Like Threadripper, Core X-Series boards gravitate to eight slots for quad-channel support. CPUs from the 9th and 10th Generation of Intel’s HEDT platform typically supported memory frequencies exceeding DDR4-3600 with up to four dual-rank modules, but DDR4-3200 became a far safer choice when deploying the platform’s 16-rank maximum configuration or when using a 7th Generation Core X-Series processor. For non-overclockers, Intel supported up to DDR4-2933 on 10th Gen and DDR4-2666 on 9th and 7th Generation Core X-Series CPUs.

▶ AMD X370, B350, A320 Chipset Motherboards (With Older Ryzen CPUs)

High data rates are a pipe dream for most users of the 300-Series AMD chipsets, and that’s mostly because of some major variation in the memory-controller stability of Ryzen 1000 Series CPUs. Some motherboard and CPU combos were good past DDR4-3466, while others couldn’t make it over DDR4-2400. Failures in trying to boost frequencies were more likely to occur as the number of ranks increased (for example, using dual-rank rather than single-rank DIMMs, or using four rather than two DIMMs).

Given this variation, we’d personally recommend DDR4-2933 that has a DDR4-2666 secondary XMP and DDR4-2400 SPD, such as Kingston’s HX429C15PB3A (HyperX Predator RGB DDR4-2933) series. A set that this writer tested functioned properly on every older platform tried and blew past DDR4-4000 on newer platforms. So manual overclocking remains viable to those who find their CPUs exceeding our justified low expectations here.

▶ Intel Z270, H270, and B250 Chipset Motherboards (With 7th Generation Core CPUs)

Intel’s 7th Generation Core processors are getting on in years now. But they were (and remain) DRAM overclocking monsters, with many motherboards pushing data rates beyond DDR4-4000. Making DDR4-3600 run stably is usually no more difficult than just enabling XMP on overclocking-enabled Z270 motherboards.

DDR4-3200 could be a better choice for users who can’t afford DDR4-3600 at CAS 18 or lower latency, though. And given the age of these platforms, even slower (and thus, cheaper) memory could be appropriate. Investing in premium RAM for a venerable PC may not make sense within your budget, especially if you think you might upgrade the whole system before long.

Neither the H270 chipset nor the B250 supports memory overclocking, and DDR4-2400 is Intel’s default frequency limit across all 7th Generation Core CPUs.

▶ DDR3 Motherboards

DDR3 is the sign of a geriatric PC, and spending to the max on performance-minded RAM for a platform that is fast disappearing in the rearview mirror may be false economy. Most DDR3 motherboards supported at least DDR3-1600, with later examples such as the AMD 990FX and Intel Z97 often exceeding DDR3-2133 and DDR3-2800, respectively.

That said, check those specs carefully. Many early platforms limit you to installing only up to 4GB per module, while later ones might support 8GB with a proper firmware update. Challenging examples, such as the notebook shown in the screenshot at the start of this article, put additional pressure upon buyers to use the compatibility lists of various memory sellers to find better options than those available from the outdated support lists of system manufacturers. Indeed, if you are shopping for a RAM upgrade for a DDR3-only PC, spending the least money possible is your best value play.

How much RAM do you need?

As of this writing in 2021, 16 GB is considered the sweet spot for price-to-performance considerations in the context of mainstream work-related computing tasks. If you have several applications running simultaneously and a dozen Chrome tabs open you still should have plenty of headroom before you notice any lag in performance.

Anything more than 16 GB would make sense for workstation computers that are used for graphics rendering, scientific modeling, and CAD applications. It is not uncommon for 3D design workstations to have up to 32 GB of RAM.

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