Back To Basics: Memory

Upgrading your computer's RAM is one of the simplest ways to increase performance, and Back To Basics will show you how.

Not having enough RAM in your system is one of the most common performance bottlenecks. If your computer runs out of memory space during use, your programs will store temporary data on your hard disk instead, and this will slow your system down dramatically. The good news is that upgrading your RAM is a straightforward process, so read on.

How much do you have?

Before you rush to open up your PC, you need to know just how much RAM you have installed already, and there are two ways that you can do this. The first is to watch the screen carefully when you first turn your PC on. You should see a rapidly counting figure towards the top. The figure that it finishes on is how much you have installed (See a screen shot.). Some newer PCs may skip this count and go straight to the total

You may also find that this figure is listed in kilobytes, so you'll need to divide the amount by 1024 to give you the about in megabytes (1MB = 1024KB), which is how RAM is typically measured.

Alternatively, you could just boot up your PC and right-click on the My Computer icon (which can either be on your desktop or in your Start Menu) then select Properties. In the panel that pops up, you'll see a brief description of your system, and it'll list the amount of RAM you have installed at the bottom (See a screen shot.).

If this figure reads 512MB or higher, then you already have enough RAM installed for general use. But if you have 128MB or less, then adding more RAM is likely to make a significant difference to your PC's performance - especially if you're running more than one application at a time, or using memory-intensive programs like games or video editing software.

On a side note, Windows 95, 98 and ME aren't very good at handling large amounts of memory, so don't try to upgrade to over 512MB of RAM unless you have a PC with Windows 2000 or XP installed.

The next thing to do is find out exactly what kind of RAM you have installed, and there's no way to do this without opening up the case and taking a look inside. Just remember what you learnt last time, and touch a grounded metal surface to discharge any static electricity before handling PC components.

As we've mentioned before, RAM comes on slim circuit boards called sticks, but these can also be described as DIMMs, or dual inline memory modules. If your PC is getting on a bit, you may find that it's fitted with SIMMs (the shorter, single inline memory modules), but this is unlikely, and we'll be focusing on DIMMs in this feature.

You'll generally find your memory sitting in slots near your PC's processor (See a screen shot.), and it's possible that you'll have more than one stick of RAM installed. If so, make a note of this, as well as counting the number of memory slots you have on your motherboard. In our case, we have two sticks of RAM and four memory slots.

Don't be surprised if your RAM looks different to the configuration shown here. This is a high-performance memory module fitted with a silver-coloured heatspreader to keep it cool during use. Yours may have bare chips instead.

We know from our earlier checks that our system has 512MB of RAM installed, so this means that we have two sticks with 256MB on each. But this still isn't enough information, so it's time to take a closer look.

Setting it free

At present, your RAM is locked into place, and needs to be released before you can remove it. To do this, find the white plastic catches at either end of the slot and push these carefully outwards with your thumbs. This not only releases the RAM, but should also lift it out of the slot so you can remove it easily. When it's out, you'll find a sticker attached to one side that contains the information you'll need when it comes to ordering more. What we're looking for here is the RAM identifier, which is "PC" followed by a three- or four-digit number like PC100 or PC3200 (See a screen shot.). Make a note of this, and any other information listed here and then put the stick back where it came from.

Make sure it's lined up correctly, with the contacts at the bottom and the notch lined up with the corresponding tooth on the slot, otherwise it won't fit. Press down firmly until you see both retaining clips pop back into place. If the slot is a little stiff, you may need to press one side in at a time, but be careful not to apply any sideways pressure, as this can be disastrous (See a screen shot.).

Now you've got all the information you need to order your new RAM. The easiest way to upgrade is to add to the memory that you already have. However, if you find that there are no free slots on your motherboard, you'll need to replace part, or all, of your existing RAM with larger memory modules.

Look carefully at your mother­board and you'll find that the slots are numbered. Fill the lowest-numbered slots first. You may also find that the slots are colour-coded, which usually means that your motherboard supports dual-channel configurations (check your manual to make sure). In which case, adding a pair of matched memory sticks to the corresponding slots will provide higher bandwidth and improved performance.

Either way, you add the RAM as before, making sure the retaining clips are open, the contacts are facing down and the notch is lined up correctly. Press downwards firmly until you see the clips pop back into place, and your RAM is now installed. Now all you have to do is put the case back on, boot up your PC and enjoy the faster performance that this simple upgrade will provide.

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