The Gamers Guide to RAM

RAM is a type of memory used for short-term data access, and while some think that the amount of RAM in a PC is all that matter, there’s much more to it, especially for users who have a PC with top of the line specs.

How RAM is used

While hard drives and SSDs are used for long-term storage, RAM is used when we need access to some data. For instance, when your operating system boots up, there’s lots of data being transferred from hard drive or SSD to RAM, in order for that data to be immediately accessible for the OS. This is why SSDs are great for installing OS on them since booting up sequence is almost immediate. Or when you play a movie, the whole file (or part of it, if it is a high-quality recording) will be transferred to RAM in order for a user to be able to shift through a movie from beginning to end quickly. While this cannot be easily noticed if having an SSD, when you run a high-quality, and huge, video file on your PC (let’s say it takes 15GB) and you have only 8GB of RAM, you would have to wait a couple of seconds if skipping to the end of the video file.

Simmilarly, when you start a program, the CPU transfers all the data it needs from storage to RAM so that it can easily and quickly access it. Further, when a program is closed, the data stays in memory until something else overwrites it (for instance, until we start a highly demanding game that eats up lots of RAM) so we can quickly access it later. Like when you close your internet browser, the data (opened tabs and other information) stays in RAM so the next time you open the browser, it takes way less time to run than it needs the first time after you boot up your PC.

And games technically are programs, and one of the most resource-intense applications, so having lots of RAM in order to run them smoothly is very important. You see, every time a level is loading (or in the case of open-world titles, when you load a game at the start), your CPU transfers files needed to run the game (assets, 3D models, and other stuff, all except textures, which are handled by video RAM on your graphics card, which is even faster than regular RAM) to RAM and that’s why we have to wait for the game to load. If you have an SSD and your game is installed on it, you still have to wait a while before it’s loaded, even if just a couple of seconds.

So, that’s the way RAM works; it is similar to operating memory with humans, which enables us to lead our everyday lives by remembering stuff we experience, enabling our mind to function without hiccups.

How much RAM is enough for smooth gaming

This is debatable and was debatable since the dawn of PC gaming. As the old saying goes “the more, the merrier,” the more RAM you have, the better experience you will have, in case your other hardware pieces are up to the task.

For instance, if you purchased 4 gigs of RAM back in, let’s say, 2006 after we got Xbox 360 and PS4 (the current console generation often dictates general game requirements), the amount was enough for smooth gaming for almost a decade. Only during 2015, with titles like the Witcher 3, Fallout 4 games started asking for 8GB of RAM in order to run. Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule, like is the case with Battlefield 4, a game that didn’t want to limit itself for the PC, and that asked for 8GB of RAM for a smooth experience back in 2013.

Today though, the question is a bit more complicated than before. Firstly, 1080p was a resolution of choice for the vast majority of gamers for more than a decade, but today we can say that 1440p is slowly taking the title of the mainstream resolution (although it still is years from getting ahead of 1080p), with 1080p still being the most popular one. This can be said even though 1080p is featured on more than two-thirds (76%) PCs on Steam. 4K, while being there, still is reserved for enthusiasts (0.42%) who can afford to buy the best possible components.

Steam hardware survey also is great to see how much RAM the majority of PC gamers are using. And the data says that more than a half (53.2%) of all Steam uses have 8GB of RAM under the hood with almost a third (31.56%) having 12GB or more (we are presuming that most of them are using 16GB or RAM).

So, for most games when played in near-max or max details and 1080p resolution, 8GB of RAM should suffice. But, since there are either those titles that aren’t optimization kings like Batman Arkham Knight, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, or Dishonored 2, you should consider getting 16GB of RAM if your budget allows for it. Also, if you like playing huge multiplayer titles like PUBG or Battlefield 1, 16GB or RAM is recommended. Of course, even with just 8GB of RAM, you should get solid results if you install a game on an SSD, since in that case data transfer and loading of game assets will be massively improved.

Now, if you game on 1440p 16GB of RAM is highly recommended, and if you play in 4K well, we are sure you already have 32GB of RAM or more. Overall, it is better to buy 16GB of RAM if you have the money (the best option is to get a 2×8GB kit) in order for your rig to be future-proof, at least when it comes to RAM.

There are more than one type of RAM

The term DDR means double data rate, and along with a number suffix, it is used to mark different generations of memory. Today, only DDR3 and DDR4 RAM is used, but with the release of Ryzen processors from AMD, all current CPUs support DDR4 RAM. And no, you can’t fit DDR3 RAM on a DDR4 motherboard because their slots have a different number of pins.

But, while most modern processors have support for DDR4 RAM modules, some motherboards (older, or budget models) come with DDR3 or DDR3L support even if the CPU socket supports DDR4. In that case, you cannot install DDR4 RAM and have to go with DDR3. But since all current CPUs have support for DDR4 and even the cheapest modern motherboards come with DDR4 support, we will talk just about DDR4.

Working frequencies

At the moment, there are six different DDR4 memory types, ranging from DDR4 2133 to DDR4 3200. You should notice that numbers aren’t working frequencies but data transfer rates in megabits per second (Mb/s) but for the purpose of easier understanding we will call data transfer rates “working frequencies.”

And while advertisements or different manufacturers are probably talking about how faster RAM modules provide much better gaming experience, the truth is entirely different. Usually, the difference between the slowest and the fastest DDR4 modules is up to 10 percent, but in many cases, the difference in frames per second is even smaller. This means that you shouldn’t look for the fastest RAM modules available unless you want top performance and willing to pay the price.

CAS latency

Aside from working frequency, RAM modules also come with different latencies – CAS (Column Access Strobe) latency is defined as “the delay time between the moment a memory controller tells the memory module to access a particular memory column on a RAM module, and the moment the data from the given array location is available on the module’s output pins.”

While that may sound important, it isn’t. Lower CAS latencies theoretically give a performance boost, but that boost is negligible, and if someone tells you they notice the difference between higher and lower latency RAM modules, they are probably lying.

Heatsinks and LED lighting

It looks cool but does nothing else.
It looks cool but does nothing else.

There are memory modules that come with huge heatsinks, but they are mostly for showing-off. The same can be said for LED lighting. Only consider those only if your case is transparent and you like all those LEDs and colors. Really unless someone will ever see them, it’s a total waste of money.

Single and dual rank

One thing you might also see out there is something called single and dual ranked RAM. Basically all this means is, the chips all on one side (single rank), or both sides (dual rank). In the end it doesn’t matter all that much, single rank is technically a little faster though.

Dual, triple and quad-channel memory modes

A quad channel motherboard.
A quad channel motherboard.

You probably heard about dual-channel memory configurations, so let us explain this. Dual-channel memory configuration means that two memory sticks are accessed on the same channel, theoretically doubling their data transfer rate. Since each memory module is a single 64bit device, running two in dual-channel mode with make them appear as one 128bit device and running quad-channel mode with make them appear as one 256bit device. In reality DDR4 dual-channel mode doesn’t bring noticeable performance jumps in games, like higher DDR4 memory frequencies.

Similar as with dual-channel mode, triple-channel triples the data rate, and quad-channel quadruples it. But again, performance gains are minimal, at least when it comes to gaming. Also, motherboards supporting triple-channel memory mode are extremely rare to find, while those supporting quad-channel mode are very expensive since they usually have eight memory slots, which usually is reserved for top-of-the-line models.

But if you want to enable dual-channel memory setup always buy two memory modules that are exactly the same. They should have same manufacturer, same frequency, same latencies. The best way is to buy a memory kit since with it you will have the highest chances to run your memory in dual-channel mode but since each and every memory stick is unique, even getting memory kit made out of two identical sticks may not work in dual-channel mode.

Next, once you bought two identical RAM modules (again, it is best to buy a two-modules kit), you have to put them in two same colored slots (if you have a motherboard with four DIMM slots for memory), and in case your motherboard has just two DIMM slots it should also support dual-channel mode so just stick them in. Dual-channel (and triple and quad-channel mode) is enabled automatically once you place modules in right slots and boot your system. In order to check out if your system runs in dual-channel memory mode, just download CPU-Z, open it and go to “Memory” tab and once there find “Channels #” label. If your system runs in dual channel, it should read Dual next to the “Channel #” label.

How to find your supported RAM

We have said that different motherboards support different DDR4 memory, and in order to see which ones you can install on your motherboard, just type its name in web search and you should find the list with supported speeds in your model’s specs usually found on manufacturer’s website. Another way is to download this tool from Crucial that scans your system and shows which memory is supported by your motherboard.

Conclusion

So, to conclude. If you want to buy DDR4 memory more is always better. You should target at least 8GB, and 16GB would be preferable. If you got the cash, feel free to fill up all your RAM slots with memory.

Next, even quality DDR4 2133 is enough for most gamers since performance boost from running faster modules is almost negligible. On the other hand, if you are a professional who uses their PC for 3D modeling, photography or video editing you could find faster RAM modules to give more than a couple of percents of performance increase. In such case aim for DDR4 3200.

If buying more than one module, it is always best to buy a memory kit with multiple modules. Buying multiple modules in a pack a bit cheaper than buying two separate memory modules. Keep in mind how many ram slots you have as well and how many you will fill now vs possible expansions in the future.

For best results don’t mix and match memory modules, they should all be the same brand, frequencies, and timing.

Before deciding which DDR4 memory to buy, check out which frequencies are supported by your motherboard. If you don’t know which motherboard model you have, just download this handy app from Crucial and find out.

Recomendations

Budget pick

HyperX FURY 2133MHz DDR4
HyperX FURY 2133MHz DDR4

On the budget end we’d recommend Kingston HyperX Fury 2133MHz DDR4 RAM. It comes in a variety of configurations and would fit any budget gamer. Really good basic, no frills DDR4 RAM.

Higher end pick

G.Skill 3200MHz DDR4 TridentZ
G.Skill 3200MHz DDR4 TridentZ

On the higher end I’ve always used and love the G.Skill ram. Runs at spec and better, always been overclockable if that’s your things, but can be really hard to find some times. The G.Skill 3200MHz DDR4 TridentZ is a perfect pick. It’s got a nice clean looks at a great price.

I like to pimp my rig pick

G.Skill TridentZ RGB
G.Skill TridentZ RGB

No guide would be complete without pointing out how you could just add more RGB style lighting to your rig. If you get you giggles from colors check out the G.SKILL TridentZ RGB Series. Not only will you get great ram, you also get rainbow disco balls of light!

A psychologist turned freelance writer and reviewer, Goran is a hardcore gamer with more than twenty years of experience, and interested in all kinds of technology. He also likes Sci Fi novels and basketball.
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