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Checking your Machine's Configuration:
Macintosh: Check the Apple System Profiler in the Applications: Utilities folder (OSX) for system information. In addition to the speed of the machine and the processor type, in the Hardware: Memory section it will tell you what RAM is currently installed. You'll see something like PC3200U in the Memory area. Knowing this can help in the case where there are different Mac models with overlapping speeds.
Types of RAM:
Memory Terminology: This is a simplified overview of RAM terms and definitions
100 pin memory
Typical DDR CAS values are CL3, CL2.5 and CL2 . There are other latency measurements but CAS Latency is the most important. See our article on choosing memory speed.
In older SDRAM (PC66, PC100, PC133) , a CL2 module is not always faster than a CL3 module - the effective speed is determined by the memory controller on the motherboard of the computer, and in some cases a CL3 module matches an older motherboard's timing better and performs faster than a CL2 module.
Non-Synchronus memory isn't measured the same way - it has a memory response speed in nanoseconds, and the computer waits for the RAM chip to be ready. Synchronous RAM, in contrast, synchronizes its operations to the computer's memory buss clock.
SDRAM can be CAS 2 or CAS 3
DDR-3 RAM has CAS latencies in the range of 7 to 9. This means that the latency penalty versus DDR-2 RAM negates some of the advantage of DDR-3 running at higher clock speeds. This is expected to improve over time.
DDR - Dual Data Rate RAM
DIMM - Dual Inline Memory Module
DRAM - Dynamic Random Access Memory - the general description of almost all computer memory.
Dual Channel memory - In Dual-Channel Mode, (whether in a PowerMac G5, Mac Intel, or modern PC motherboards), the memory controller addresses a pair of matched modules as if they were one big module. This doubles the theoretical bandwidth of the memory. Benchmark improvement of memory performance can be up to 40%, typically around 20%, but real-world improvement to application performance will be between 6% and 8% because your machine spends a lot of time on tasks other than waiting for the memory. wikipedia definition
In order for dual channel to work, the two memory modules have to be identical in size, speed, and composition -- that is, the number and capacity of chips and the organization of the rows and columns on the chips. Note that they don't HAVE to be the same brand and model, as long as all the other things match... but it is much easier to assure that they will match if two of the same modules are bought together at the same time or as a dual-channel kit. It's important to note that there is no difference to the individual memory module whether it is single or dual channel - Dual Channel refers only to the use of two modules as a matched pair.
If a motherboard does not support dual channel, there is no way to add the function, and installing matched pairs will not result in any performance increase.
ECC - Error Correcting RAM - also called Parity RAM
If you have a machine that can take either ECC or Non-ECC and are unsure what to order, either check the RAM that is already installed, or check your purchase invoice for the machine, which should indicate whether ECC was installed or not initially. Do not mix ECC and Non-ECC if you can avoid it.
Reading memory chip part numbers: You can sometimes read from the part number whether the RAM in your machine is ECC (Parity). ECC RAM often has a number in the part number that is a multiple of 9, where Non-ECC would have a multiple of 8. Example, RAM that has x18 or x36 or x72 in the number would be ECC, compared to Non-ECC with x16 or x32 or x64.
Registered vs. unregistered (unbuffered)
Because of the added expense of the modules and the performance hit, the use of buffered or registered memory is confined mainly to servers and high end workstations (and some early Athlon 64 motherboards). All non-ECC memory is unbuffered.
If a machine requires registered memory (or unregistered memory) do not install RAM of the opposite type. Even if it supports both, never mix registered and unregistered modules in the same machine.
Non-ECC RAM also called Non-Parity RAM - this is the standard memory used in desktops and laptops.
Extended Data Out
Memory Speed: Measured in megahertz (MHz). Putting in faster RAM will not necessarily make the machine run any faster. The memory is accessed at the speed set by the machine's memory controller. RAM with a faster speed rating will simply be run at the controller's normal speed. The motherboard must support adjusting to higher memory bus speeds (either manually through a BIOS setting, or automatically with Intel's PAT technology) for there to be any advantage to faster rated RAM. See our article.
PC66, PC100, PC133:
However there are a number of earlier PC66 and PC100 machines that are incompatible with modern PC133 modules for reasons of both memory chip density and differences in the supporting chips on the memory module. Always cross-reference compatibility before ordering.
RAMBus, RIMM (RAMBus Inline Memory Module), also
Most manufacturers have discontinued RAMBus, PC1066 is largely unavailable, for the time being there are still supplies of PC800 RAM, and the faster PC800-40ns RAM can sometimes be used to substitute for PC1066. Always cross-reference compatibility with your specific machine before ordering.
32-bit RAMBus modules have been introduced which can be installed singly - however the motherboard has to specifically support 32-bit RAMBus to use these. 32-bit RAMBus (sometimes called PC4200) has been discontinued and is completely unavailable.
It is not possible to convert a RAMBus motherboard to use any other type of RAM. Although you could swap in a modern motherboard with some computers, there are problems with mismatches in power supplies and in Pentium processor pinouts - most RAMBus motherboards use an obsolete CPU socket, so the CPU cannot be swapped into a new motherboard. Ultimately, replacing the machine with a new one is the answer.
SIMM - Single Inline Memory Module:
SDRAM - Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory - the general discription of most modern RAM. Although DDR and DDR-2 RAM is technically Synchronous memory, the term SDRAM is sometimes used for PC66, PC100 and PC133 RAM to distinguish them from DDR memory. Synchronous refers to the fact that starting with PC66 memory, the memory module no longer ran 'free' according to the refresh rate of its chips, but instead took its timing from a clock pulse from the motherboard. Once memory modules were designed to synchronize to an external clock, manufacturers were able to produce ever faster RAM that could transfer large amounts of data reliably.
SO-DIMM (SODIMM)- Small Outline Dual Inline Memory Module:
VRAM - VideoRAM:
Shared VRAM is a misnomer - this really refers to motherboards with built-in graphics chips with no dedicated VRAM. The graphics system "steals" 4 to 128 Mb of memory from main system memory. This results in lower performance for video, and a loss of RAM available to the operating system. An easy speed up for inexpensive machines with shared, or integrated, video systems is to install a separate AGP or PCI-e video card (if the machine has a suitable slot) and disable the built-in graphics system. Of course, the least expensive machines won't have an AGP or PCI-e socket either, so you're stuck on those ones.
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