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RAM it in there!

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 27, 2013 5:45 am Post subject: No icon RAM it in there! Reply with quote

Ok folks, you have my sincere apologies for the VERY long delay in this thread. If I had the choice between limitless time or money I would choose time. Too many family issues, work issues and well, time got away from me.  I will go over my previous posts in this section and add anything that needs adding since I wrote them. This installment, if you hadn't guessed is about RAM.

RAM, or Random Access Memory, has been around since the 70's, and like most other computer technology, is little understood. So what is RAM and what does it do?

The programs and applications you use don't just magically do what they do. In the background they are storing instructions, instructions that tell the program what to do and how to interact with you, the user. It stores those instructions in RAM. Also, programs need access to data. Take Photoshop for example. It need access to filters, all of the changes you made so you can "undo" a mistake, plug-ins and tons of other data. Like instructions, that data is stored in RAM. The faster the RAM, the faster your programs get the data and instructions they need and the faster your machine will "feel".

But what is "fast"? Like I said in my first post here, the numbers associated with RAM, like all other hardware, can be hard for the novice to understand. Take DDR3, the current iteration of computer memory, for example. You will see it marketed by it's "speed" AND  "Peak transfer rate". Follow the link below and look at the RAM there and come right back.  


The RAM in this add has a "Peak transfer rate" of 12800 mb/s (megabits per second.) This is often mistaken as it's speed, which in this case is DDR 3 1600Mhz. These are the predominant numbers you will see RAM marketed under. You will have to look deeper for other specs and numbers that are far more profound than the "speeds".

If you look at the specs of this advertised RAM you will find the Latency numbers. These are the most important numbers by far and what divides different RAM modules from one another. To understand this I need to explain a little about what latencies are. Simply put, the data stored in RAM is stored in and looked for in columns and rows, much like a spread sheet. When data or instructions are requested by the CPU, it looks for the proper column and row. There is a wait time between the last request and when a new one can be processed, measured in clock cycles. That wait time is latency. So a RAM stick with a latency of 9 means that there is a wait of 9 clock cycles between requests. The lower the latencies, the faster things get processed. This is why two different RAM modules with rated speeds of 1600Mhz can perform vastly different. If you look at some RAM ads in Newegg you will quickly notice that the faster the RAM gets the higher the latencies get. Generally speaking. There are exceptions. With some very high end RAM, the manufacturer will "hand pick" the RAM chips for modules that performed the best in post production testing. (The RAM I used in Josh and Dan's rigs were of this "hand picked" variety.)  Please keep in mind I have simplified this to make it more readable. There are more than one latency but over-geeking this by going into great detail about them would defeat the purpose of this tutorial. (Anyone really interested is welcome to PM me.)

The other semi-important factor with modern RAM is channels. Most modern motherboards and CPU's support "Dual channel" RAM. Some, like the first i7's from Intel supported triple channel and the current Sandy Bridge-E CPU's support quad channel RAM. Channels are a bit easier to understand. The data that travels between the RAM and CPU goes through a "bus". You can think of a bus kind of like a pipe. The wider the bus or pipe, the more data that can travel through it. A channel is 64 bits wide, meaning 64 bits of data can travel through it at a time. Dual channel would be 128 bits, triple, 192 bits and quad 256 bits. I said semi-important factor in the beginning because the bus speeds are "theoretical maximums". Whenever you see the term "theoretical maximum" take it with a grain of salt. Theoretical maximums are rarely hit and don't last long when they do. They are far more important for marketing than anything else. Even though Dual channel or higher will rarely hit it's theoretical maximum it is better to have than not, just don't make it the deciding factor when the other more important numbers are concerned.

I decided to explain what DDR means last because at this point in computer history it is kind of a moot point since all RAM is DDR of some sort and as such not as important to understand than the stuff I have already explained.

DDR stands  for "Double Data Rate". Old SDRAM could only transfer data on the rising OR falling edge of the clock cycle and therefore allowing only one operation per clock cycle.  DDR (Or DDR1) could transfer data on the rising AND falling edge of the clock cycle, allowing for two operations per clock cycle. (Sometimes referred to as double pumping by uber geeks who are trying to impress lesser geeks) DDR2 allowed for, you guessed it 2 operations on the rising edge of the clock cycle and two on the falling edge of the clock cycle, allowing 4 operations per cycle. DDR3 is a little trickier. It allows for two operations on the rising and falling edges but has a quadrupled clock signal allowing for 8 operations per cycle.  Again, simplified a bit to help make this readable.

DDR4, scheduled for release in late 2013 or early 2014, will be vastly different than earlier DDR technologies so I will cover that when it comes out in a tutorial of it's own.

Well that's it kiddies. Everything you ever wanted to know about RAM, and probably more! I hope it helps.

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