How to find RAM speed, size and type

If you want to upgrade memory, you need to know what you already have...

As the demands we place on our desktops and laptops increase, so too does the need for your machine to have a decent amount of memory.

Random Access Memory, or RAM, is a key component of any computer, and usually comes in the form of removable sticks which slot into the motherboard. There’s a difference between this and storage, but the two often get mixed up - so let’s use a handy metaphor to explain the distinction.

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Storage is the computer’s long term memory. That’s the hard drive which records all your programs and files. RAM is more like our short-term memory. It’s the equivalent of the bit of your brain where you keep all the things you have to do at that second - eat, breathe, cook dinner - that sort of thing.

In a computer’s case, the more RAM it has, the more “headspace” it has to do multiple things at once. So you can have more programs open at the same time without it slowing down or locking up (in humans we’d often call that a brain-fart’). Luckily, most desktop machines allow you to upgrade the RAM without having to buy a whole new computer every time yours starts slowing down.

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Even if you can upgrade your machine’s memory, the bad news is that RAM comes in a ludicrous number of shapes and sizes and if you get the wrong one, even if it physically fits in the machine, it may not work. So, before we can buy new RAM, we need to see what we’re dealing with. Windows 10 can help us here. 

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Open your computer’s Control Panel and click on System and Security. Then click on ‘View amount of RAM and processor speed’. The screen that pops up is full of useful information about your PC’s specifications. The important bit for us is about halfway down where it says ‘Installed memory (RAM)’. There’s a similar screen in macOS in the About This Mac section, but keep reading - there are caveats. 

Although many RAM manufacturers offer an assessment tool on their website, it ties you down to that manufacturer. Using our method will mean you can shop around for the best deal.

Unless you’ve got a really old computer, you’ll have at least 2GB of RAM - the absolute minimum you need to run Windows 10 properly. Most manufacturers currently recommend at least 4GB for day-to-day computing. Gaming and other graphic intensive operations require quite a bit more. A high-end laptop can have 16GB, or even 32GB. Desktops can go even further - in fact, some 64-bit editions of Windows will accommodate up to 6TB of RAM - if there’s room, of course - though you’d not get the benefit unless you also used an insanely powerful processor.

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Now, before we go shopping, we need a bit more information. CPUID’s free CPU-Z utility is a great option for gathering this data. Install it on your computer, run it, then go to the Memory tab.

There’s a lot of details in this tab that we don’t need to know for our purposes. The main things to note are:

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  • the number of memory slots your motherboard has (usually two, sometimes one, occasionally four)
  • what type of memory it uses (this is usually something involving the letters DDR)
  • the frequency of the memory (in other words, how fast it is)

Armed with all that information, you can start searching for RAM. We’d always recommend getting it new, unless it has a cast-iron guarantee, as RAM chips are pretty fragile - simply touching them at the wrong moment can fry them.

Additionally, if you have more than one slot, to get the full benefit, all slots should have an identical amount of memory, running at the same speed. If you have four slots, you can either populate one slot, two or four - but as always, if you’re using more than one slot, put identical chips in every slot. That means, unless you are 100% sure what you’re doing, don’t be tempted to buy a single stick of RAM to go with the bit that’s already in there - that can actually leave you with a less stable computer than you started with.

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It really is worth investing in a matching pair of identical chips - same speed, same RAM, same brand. This is one of those jobs that is worth doing well. We’d also recommend a top brand like Samsung, Crucial or Kingston, bought from a reputable supplier - counterfeit RAM abounds, and it can do some serious damage to your machine, and you won’t know you’ve been ripped off until it’s too late.

If you really want to, you can use any RAM chips you have lying around and more often than not, the machine will boot, but you may find it’s slower and less stable than before you messed with it. RAM chips come with different frequencies - in other words, their speed. If you don’t keep a consistent speed, it’s a bit like if a Formula 1 track had a sudden chicane - the slow chip will cause a tailback of data from the new one and you’ll get even more freezes and crashes. Check the support pages for your machine and look for the fastest frequency RAM your machine will support for best results. 

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If you’re using a more unusual form factor - a Windows tablet, a netbook, and indeed in some cases, a low-end laptop, be aware that the RAM is probably glued/soldered to the motherboard, in which case, you’re stuck with it. Many models of Mac are the same, and where you can replace the RAM, it’s a specific size and shape, different to Windows.

Remember, RAM is fragile stuff and needs to be handled with the best possible care. That’s why getting it right the first time is so important - retailers are often reticent about taking back RAM, as once it’s been out of the protective bag, it can break if mishandled even slightly.

The good news is, RAM upgrades can bring a sluggish computer back to life, and even make a cheap, low spec computer feel more top-shelf. It’s easy to fit, and you should feel a difference in responsiveness the very next time you turn it on.

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