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Understandably, many PC owners want to get the
maximum speed from their equipment. What’s harder to understand
is which of the many specifications and numbers make a difference to
the real performance of the computer.
In this article, we’ll address memory speed and timing, and help
you decide where your money is best spent.
(Macintosh owners and laptop
owners can largely ignore the debate over memory speed, as the memory
buss speeds are usually determined by the computer manufacturer and are not adjustable, so as long as you get the
correct memory for your model, you’re
There is a relationship between the computer's
Front Side Buss (FSB), the memory speed, and the processor (CPU) speed.
FSB carries the
signal between the memory and the CPU, so it affects the performance
of nearly every function of the computer. FSB speeds range from 66,
100, 133, 167 and 200 Megahertz (MHz) and higher with new processors. The CPU, motherboard and
all have to agree on the FSB speed to work efficiently. A CPU will
state the FSB speed it supports, usually expressed in a number
4 times the
actual FSB speed. Memory also states its speed, depending on its
type: SDRAM uses the bus speed directly, Dual Data Rate (DDR, DDR2 and DDR3) RAM lists
the FSB value as its MHz rating because it can do 2 operations on
each "tick" of
the clock. RAMBus (or RDRAM – which is all but discontinued),
is labeled at 4 x buss speed. Here is a list of popular speed ratings:
CPU FSB Rating
Celeron 2.0 GHz
100 or 133 MHz
100 or 133 MHz
PC100 or PC133 (SDRAM)
Pentium 2.2 GHz
Pentium 2.4 GHz
Pentium 2.53 GHz
(16 bit) PC1066 (RDRAM)
Pentium 3.2 GHz
Athlon XP 3200+
The above is a brief sample only, there is a staggering array of different
processors available from Intel and AMD at different CPU speeds and FSB
The overall motherboard speeds, and the ratios between bus speeds, are
adjustable on some motherboards. Changing the motherboard settings is
called "Overclocking" and is for the knowledgeable and brave
- we'll cover overclocking a little later.
Common sense prevails here
as well – the effect of higher computer
performance is seen mostly when you are using demanding applications,
such as digital audio or video production, 3-D games, professional
graphics or calculation-intensive programs. A low-demand application
will show little performance difference. Any upgrades should be measured
against the uses you intend to put your machine to.
Rule number one is: Get enough memory.
It doesn't matter how fast your memory is, if you run more software and data at one time than the physical amount of memory, then your machine will swap memory space on and off your hard drive, which is many time slower than memory. Having enough memory for the way you use your machine is paramount. Windows XP and Mac OS X don't start running efficiently until they have 512 Mb or more of RAM. Then, add your programs. An average computer user will need between 1 Gb and 2 Gb RAM, gamers, graphic artists, and those running advanced audio, video or engineering programs will want 2 - 4 Gb of RAM.
The first concept is the speed of the memory in
MHz. Contrary to popular belief, the speed of memory is not controlled
by the memory
but by the memory controller on the computer's motherboard (you’re
married to your memory controller, the only way to change it is to
replace the motherboard). You can install 400 MHz memory into a
a 266 MHz memory controller speed, and you won't get an ounce of
extra performance. The machine will just run the RAM at the slower
Remember that the speed rating of memory is simply the highest
speed that the
memory is guaranteed to work at - it's the memory controller that
is in the driver's seat.
However, if you install a piece of RAM
that is slower than the speed
the motherboard is set to, one of two things will happen: all of
the memory will slow down to the lowest common speed, or the machine
try to use the slower memory at higher-than-rated speed, potentially
leading to data errors and shortened lifespan. Don't under-buy
to save $5.00.
So rule number two is: Buy RAM rated at the highest buss speed
your motherboard supports, no higher.
The second memory concept, latency, receives less
attention than MHz, but may be more important. Latency is the amount
a memory read or write operation and the next operation. The memory
chip needs this time to "recharge" the chips, and if
new data comes along before the chip is ready, data errors will
latency is 3. This means that after sending a memory operation to
the chip, your CPU sits around twiddling its thumbs for two more
of the clock, until the memory is ready to accept the next data
on the third
click. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that 2/3 of your computer's
processing time is spent doing nothing, waiting for the memory.
we were to lower the waiting time (lower the latency) then your machine
would be faster without doing a thing to change the MHz speed
of the CPU or the busses.
Most of the next section concerns Dual Data
Rate (DDR) memory, as it is the most popular memory type and the current
DDR memory is available in CAS latencies (CL)
of 3.0, 2.5 and 2.0. (DDR executes an operation on each of the rising
clock pulse, making it possible to be timed to “half” of
a clock tick as in CL2.5) Some modern motherboards will automatically
adjust their memory latency timings for best performance, or the
settings of the motherboard can be adjusted by going into the BIOS
While making these changes is fairly easy, some BIOS adjustments
can disable your computer or lose data, so please refer to your
motherboard manual or manufacturer's website for recommendations
on SETUP changes.
(Important Note: lowering latency settings of
a motherboard below what
the RAM is designed for is an extremely bad idea and will result
in instability and data loss.)
The effect of lowering memory latency
can be measured. If both your motherboard and your memory support
CL2.0 timings instead
you get a memory
speed gain of 33%, without the risk and heat involved in overclocking.
By comparison, increasing the memory bus from 400 MHz to 500 MHz
while remaining at CL3.0 gains 25%. But here's the catch: Faster-rated
that can survive being clocked to 437 MHz ("PC3700"),
or 500 MHz ("PC4000") are almost all CL3, because it
is difficult and expensive to build a chip that is both high MHz
and low latency. The speed benefits of lowering latency are also influenced by how fast the processor is, and how the L2 and L3 caches, memory controller, and buss interact with the memory.
DDR2: Almost all DDR2 memory is CL5, because faster chips have not reached mass production yet (as of July 2006). Remember that a DDR2-667 MHz module at CAS Latency 5 may run CL4 at DDR2-400 MHz or even CL3 at 400 MHz. That's irrelevant, the only CL value that matters is the one at the speed your machine will operate the RAM.
So rule number three is: buy RAM matching your motherboard bus speed
at the lowest latency that you can reasonably afford.
For most modern DDR based machines, PC3200 CL2 RAM
will give the best performance, particularly with motherboards based
on the popular i865 and i875 chipsets which make
automatic timing adjustments.
Most modern motherboards support Dual-Channel memory, which splits
the RAM access operations across two separate memory modules in paired
sockets. This provides a theoretical doubling of memory bandwidth,
because one chip can be accessed while it’s “twin” is
recharging. Actual performance improvement is not that drastic (6% - 8%), but when you
have a choice, install
matching pairs of RAM into the corresponding slots (check your motherboard’s
manual for the slot layout). Two 512 Mb DDR modules with Dual Channel
operation are faster than a single 1 Gb module. However, Dual-Channel is not worth it if it means settling for less RAM.
So rule number
four is: If your machine supports it and it has sufficient memory slots, install matched pairs
of RAM instead of singles.
More on latency - the tech talk:
There are actually four specific measurements
of timing that you will see on DDR RAM, A memory spec might look like “PC3200
CL2: 2-3-2-6”. The 2-3-2-6 number breaks down in four parts like
- 1st: CAS (Column Address Strobe) is the most important, and
this is what is referred to as CAS Latency 2 (CL2)
- 2nd: tRCD (RAS to CAS Delay) has a small effect on performance
- 3rd: tRP (RAS Precharge) has an effect on performance when very
large transfers are being made
- 4th: tRAS (Active to Precharge Delay) has a small effect on performance,
and lowest is not necessarily better. Dedicated performance seekers
will test a range of tRAS values from 5 to 11 to determine the best
with a specific motherboard.
- You may also see "-1T" at the end of the timings, this
is irrelevant because it is common to all DDR RAM.
All else being equal,
you would choose a 2-3-2-6 CL2 memory over a 2-4-4-8 CL2 memory, but
the most important by far is the first figure, CAS Latency.
Overclocking is the technique of increasing
the clock speed of the motherboard and/or altering the ratios between
buss speeds, to run
CPUs, RAM and video cards at higher than their designed speeds.
We have to mention that overclocking can void warranties, generate
and increase stress on parts, sometimes to the point of instability,
and shorten the life of components. Proceed at your own risk.
Lowest latency may not be
desirable for overclocking - in order to remain stable as you increase
MHz speeds, you commonly have
timings from 2.0 to 2.5 or 3.0. This means that what you gain
in memory MHz is often lost on longer latency (although there may
be other gains
in CPU and graphic performance). The key point to overclocking
RAM is to choose RAM with high rated speed, then slowly increase
testing thoroughly and adjusting latency as you go, and back
off on the speed as soon as you start getting instability or errors.
There are plenty of enthusiasts’ sites on the web that go deeply
into overclocking, cooling systems, discussions of the overclocking
potential of motherboards, CPUs and RAM, so we won't cover that
here. There is
as much artistry as science in achieving the ultimate combination
of processor, bus and memory speeds.
Kingston, Corsair and Shikatronics
all have enthusiasts’ memory
with either low latency or higher clock speeds, please
email us for a quote email@example.com .
The Bottom Line for most modern machines:
For optimum performance, buy 2 Gb or more of memory, in matched pairs, at the highest RAM MHz your motherboard
is rated to support.
- If you are a light-duty computer user, leave
it at that.
- If you use your machine heavily and want to spend extra for speed,
look for lower latency ratings on your memory modules. This will
get you the fastest, most stable configuration for your computer without overclocking.
- If you have the time and the cash, you can dive into overclocking,
which can be a challenging and satisfying hobby of its own.