Getting the right RAM for your build isn’t as simple as grabbing a couple of sticks off the shelf and tossing them into your build. Buying RAM for your build is actually pretty easy to get wrong. Not only does the RAM you buy have to be compatible with your entire system, but the sticks also have to be compatible with each other. This guide will go over the basics of how to pick RAM for your build and how to ensure that you get the best performance out of the type you pick.
What is RAM?
Before I go diving into how to buy RAM, it’s good to have a baseline idea of what it does and how it functions in a system. Having this information will make it easier to make an informed decision when you do decide to spec out your next build.
Most RAM is “DDRSD RAM.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t stand for Dance Dance Revolution. It stands for Double Data Rate Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it has a rather simple yet important job in any given system. It serves as a common memory bank for your computer. Your PC will pull frequently-used data from your RAM for many tasks. It’s not for long-term storage like an SSD or HDD. Your RAM works synchronously (hence the “Synchronous” in the name) with your processor.
The faster and more efficient that this communication occurs means better performance in applications. This performance is measured by the rated clock speed of your RAM, which is measured in Megahertz (MHz). The higher the MHz the faster that a RAM module can process and exchange data.
DDR Generations of RAM
You may have noticed that different RAM modules have different prefixes such as “DDR 3” or, more commonly, “DDR4.” These numbers stand for the generation of RAM. Higher is better here. Each generation has improved upon the last with better clock speeds, better reliability, and greater power efficiency. And those generations require a compatible motherboard. DDR3 RAM is not compatible with a newer DDR4-compatible motherboard and vice-versa. The same will be true with the next iteration of DDR5 RAM and subsequent motherboards.
However, you shouldn’t expect a complete and instant shift to DDR5 in 2021. Though 2022 will likely see many more processors and boards compatible with DDR5. For now, DDR4 is still the dominant version in the space. And, luckily, these DDR generations don’t come around very often. DDR4 should still be a reliable and functional generation for at least the next few years.
DIMM vs SO-DIMM Form Factor
If you’re building a standard desktop PC then the RAM form factor likely won’t be an issue. Most PCs use the more popular DIMM (dual in-line memory module) size. They are the long sticks that you’re often more used to seeing in a build. They seat right into the standard 288-pin connections on your motherboard, which are aptly called “DIMM slots.”
SO-DIMM (small outline dual in-line memory module) models are made for laptops and other portable computers that use 260-pin connections. While you can’t mess up and install the wrong kind into your PC, be sure to double-check the form factor before buying. As a beginner, it’s easy to overlook the size and purchase the wrong form factor for your build.
Clock Speed Compatibility
Here comes the trickiest bit. You need to make sure that the RAM sticks you buy have the same clocked speed and are preferably the same brand. This may sound like a no-brainer, but this is key to watch out for if you’re upgrading a system with RAM already installed. Be sure to get the same brand and clocked speed or you could run into issues.
It’s also worth checking your CPU to see what RAM speeds it natively supports. These aren’t hard-caps, but be sure that the RAM clock speeds line up with the supported speeds of your CPU. If you’re the ambitious sort who wants to overclock your RAM, be sure to check your motherboard’s specifications for max-supported RAM speeds. However, you shouldn’t run into any issues there if you’re not overclocking.
For RAM, size is important. And size is different from the form factor. More specifically, this refers to the capacity of the stick. Check your motherboard to see what the maximum capacity supported is. It can vary from as low as 32GB all of the way up to the hundreds of GBs.
While RAM capacity and speed aren’t as crucial to gaming performance as other system components, 16GB is a decent sweet spot to shoot for. With just 8GB, you may run into performance hiccups while web browsing or using creative software. Anything higher should be reserved for specific use cases like video editing, rendering, and other intensive tasks.
Single vs Dual-Channel Configuration
Generally speaking, you’ll get better performance out of two low-capacity sticks rather than a single high-capacity stick. Having two sticks is called dual-channel, and most motherboards actually color-code the DIMM slots to show you how to configure your RAM in this way. It doesn’t matter when using more than two sticks since the whole array of slots will likely be filled up. However, if you’re using a pair of RAM modules you will want to check your motherboard specifications to ensure that you configure them in dual-channel mode.
This means that your RAM sticks will work together and use fewer resources as a pair compared to a single high-capacity stick. For example, two 8GB sticks in dual-channel mode will perform better than a single 16GB stick.
Do I Need a lot of RAM for Gaming?
No. Aside from meeting the minimum requirements to launch a game, RAM will not have much of an impact on your overall gaming performance. While you can get away with 8GB of RAM on a gaming-focused rig, it’s always good to have a little bit more for other tasks. If you’re on a tight budget, putting money towards the GPU or CPU will net better performance boosts.
Can I Buy any RAM for my Build?
No, you have to make sure that the clock speed, brand, and capacity are compatible with your CPU and motherboard. Additionally, make sure to get RAM sticks of the same brand, speed, and capacity for optimal performance.
Is there a Difference Between DDR3 and DDR4 RAM?
Yes. Different generations of RAM are not compatible with previous-generation components. Make sure you are getting parts that are compatible with your RAM of choice.