RAM Upgrades Installation

Adding memory to a system is one of the most useful upgrades you can perform and also one of the least expensive—especially when you consider the increased capabilities of Windows 9x/Me, Windows NT/2000/XP, and OS/2 when you give them access to more memory. In some cases, doubling the memory can practically double the speed of a computer.

Upgrade Options and Strategies

Adding memory can be an inexpensive solution; at this writing, the cost of memory has fallen to about half a cent per megabyte or less. A small dose can give your computer's performance a big boost.

How do you add memory to your PC? You have two options, listed in order of convenience and cost:

  • Adding memory in vacant slots on your motherboard

  • Replacing your current motherboard's memory with higher-capacity memory

If you decide to upgrade to a more powerful computer system or motherboard, you usually can't salvage the memory from your previous system. Most of the time it is best to plan on equipping a new board with the optimum type of memory that it supports.

Be sure to carefully weigh your future needs for computing speed and a multitasking operating system (OS/2, Windows 9x, Windows NT, Windows 2000, or Linux, for example) against the amount of money you spend to upgrade current equipment.

Before you add RAM to a system (or replace defective RAM chips), you must determine the memory chips required for your system. Your system documentation has this information.

If you need to replace a defective memory module and do not have the system documentation, you can determine the correct module for your system by inspecting the ones that are already installed. Each module has markings that indicate the module's capacity and speed.

If you do not have the documentation for your system and the manufacturer does not offer technical support, open your system case and carefully write down the markings that appear on your memory chips.

Then contact a local computer store or module vendor, such as Kingston, Micron (Crucial), PNY, or others, for help in determining the proper RAM chips for your system. Adding the wrong modules to a system can make it as unreliable as leaving a defective module installed and trying to use the system in that condition.

Selecting and Installing Memory

If you are upgrading a motherboard by adding memory, follow the manufacturer's guidelines on which memory chips or modules to buy. As you learned earlier, memory comes in various form factors, including SIMMs, DIMMs, and RIMMs.

No matter which type of memory modules you have, the chips are installed in memory banks. A memory bank is a collection of memory chips that make up a complete row of memory. Your processor reads each row of memory in one pass. A memory bank does not work unless the entire row is filled with memory chips.

Installing extra memory on your motherboard is an easy way to add memory to your computer. Most systems have at least one vacant memory bank where you can install extra memory at a later time and speed up your computer. If your system requires dual-channel memory, as some high-performance systems do, you must use two identical memory modules (same size, speed, and type).

Purchasing Memory

When purchasing memory, there are some issues you need to consider. Some are related to the manufacturing and distribution of memory, whereas others depend on the type of memory you are purchasing. This section covers some of the issues you should consider when purchasing memory.


Many companies sell memory, but only a few companies actually make memory. Additionally, only a few companies make memory chips, but many more companies make memory modules such as SIMMs, DIMMs, and RIMMs. Most of the companies that make the actual RAM chips also make modules containing their own chips.

Other companies, however, strictly make modules; these companies purchase memory chips from several chip makers and then produce modules with these chips. Finally, some companies don't make either the chips or modules. Instead, they purchase modules made by other companies and relabel them.

I refer to memory modules made by the chip manufacturers as first-party modules, whereas those made by module (but not chip) manufacturers I call second-party modules. Finally, those that are simply relabeled first- or second-party modules under a different name are called third-party modules.

First-party manufacturers (where the same company makes the chips and the modules) include Micron, Samsung, Infineon (formerly Siemens), Mitsubishi, Toshiba, NEC, and others. Second-party companies that make the modules (but not the chips) include Kingston, Viking, PNY, Simple Tech, Smart, Mushkin, and OCZ Technologies.

At the third-party level you are not purchasing from a manufacturer but from a reseller or remarketer instead. Although I call this third-party memory, some people call these modules major on third, which is British slang used to indicate that the memory modules are sourced from a third-party manufacturer (which might be unspecified) even though they are using name brand chips.

It is derived from saying that a given memory module is made from memory chips supplied by a "major" memory chip manufacturer "on third"-party manufactured SIMM/DIMM boards. That particular slang term is not often used in the United States.

Most of the large manufacturers don't sell small quantities of memory to individuals, but some have set up factory outlet stores where individuals can purchase as little as a single module. Two of the largest memory manufacturers in the world, Samsung and Micron, both have factory outlet stores you can use.


When purchasing SIMMs, the main things to consider are as follows:

  • Do you need FPM (Fast Page Mode) or EDO (extended data out) versions?

  • Do you need ECC or non-ECC?

  • What speed grade do you need?

Most Pentium systems after 1995 used EDO SIMMs that were non-ECC and rated for 60ns access time. If your system is older than that, you might need regular FPM versions. The FPM and EDO types are interchangeable in many systems, but some older systems do not accept the EDO type.

If your system is designed for high-reliability using ECC, you might need (or want) ECC versions; otherwise, standard non-ECC types are typically used. You can mix the two, but in that case the system defaults to non-ECC mode.

Unfortunately, FPM and EDO SIMMs are obsolete by today's standards, so they are much more expensive than newer, better, and faster types of memory. This can make adding memory to older systems cost prohibitive.


When purchasing DIMMs, the main things to consider are as follows:

  • Do you need SDR or DDR versions?

  • Do you need ECC or non-ECC?

  • Do you need registered or unbuffered versions?

  • What speed grade do you need?

  • Do you need a specific column address strobe (CAS) latency?

Currently, DIMMs come in single data rate (SDR) and double data rate (DDR) versions, with most newer systems using the DDR type; look for the first DDR2 modules and systems in late 2003. They are not interchangeable because they use completely different signaling and have different notches to prevent a mismatch.

High-reliability systems such as servers can use ECC versions, although most systems use the less-expensive non-ECC types. Most systems use standard unbuffered DIMMs, but file server or workstation motherboards designed to support very large amounts of memory might require registered DIMMs.

Registered DIMMs contain their own memory registers, enabling the module to hold more memory than a standard DIMM. DIMMs come in a variety of speeds, with the rule that you can always substitute a faster one for a slower one, but not vice versa. As an example, if your system requires PC2100 DDR DIMMs, you can install faster PC2700 DDR DIMMs but not slower PC1600 versions.

Another speed-related issue is the column address strobe (CAS) latency. Sometimes this specification is abbreviated CAS or CL and is expressed in a number of cycles, with lower numbers indicating higher speeds (fewer cycles). The lower CAS latency shaves a cycle off a burst mode read, which marginally improves memory performance.

Single data rate DIMMs are available in CL3 or CL2 versions, with the CL2 being faster. DDR DIMMs are available in CL2.5 or CL2 versions, with CL2 being the faster and better version in that case. You can mix DIMMs with different CAS latency ratings, but the system usually defaults to cycling at the slower speeds of the lowest common denominator.


When purchasing RIMMs, the main things to consider are as follows:

  • Do you need 184-pin (16/18-bit) or 232-pin (32/36-bit) versions?

  • Do you need ECC or non-ECC?

  • What speed grade do you need?

RIMMs are available in 184-pin and 232-pin versions, and although they appear to be the same size, they are not interchangeable. Differences exist in the notches that prevent a mismatch.

High-reliability systems might want or need ECC versions, which have extra ECC bits. As with other memory types, you can mix ECC and non-ECC types, but systems can't use the ECC capability.

Replacing Modules with Higher-Capacity Versions

If all the memory module slots on your motherboard are occupied, your best option is to remove an existing bank of memory and replace it with higher-capacity modules. For example, if you have a motherboard that supports two DIMM modules (each representing one bank on a processor with a 64-bit data bus), you could remove one of them and replace it with a higher-capacity version.

For example, if you have two 64MB modules giving a total of 128MB, you could remove one of the 64MB modules and replace it with a 128MB unit, in which case you'd then have a total of 192MB of RAM.

However, just because higher-capacity modules are available that are the correct pin count to plug into your motherboard, don't automatically assume the higher-capacity memory will work. Your system's chipset and BIOS set limits on the capacity of the memory you can use.

Check your system or motherboard documentation to see which size modules work with it before purchasing the new RAM. You should make sure you have the latest BIOS for your motherboard when installing new memory.

Installing Memory

This section discusses installing memory—specifically, new SIMM or DIMM modules. It also covers the problems you are most likely to encounter and how to avoid them. You also get information on configuring your system to use new memory.

When you install or remove memory, you are most likely to encounter the following problems:

  • Electrostatic discharge

  • Improperly seated modules

  • Incorrect memory configuration settings in the BIOS Setup

To prevent electrostatic discharge (ESD) when you install sensitive memory chips or boards, you shouldn't wear synthetic-fiber clothing or leather-soled shoes because these promote the generation of static charges.

Remove any static charge you are carrying by touching the system chassis before you begin, or better yet, wear a good commercial grounding strap on your wrist. You can order one from any electronics parts store.

A grounding strap consists of a conductive wristband grounded at the other end through a 1-meg ohm resistor by a wire clipped to the system chassis. Be sure the system you are working on is unplugged.

Each memory chip or module must be installed in a specific orientation. Interference fit notches and tangs are designed to prevent improper installation of the module into the socket. As long as you are observant and don't try to force anything, the proper orientation should be fairly easy to figure out.

As you insert the module, be sure the notches align with the appropriate tangs on the socket. I would hope it goes without saying, but before installing memory, be sure the system power is off! You should make sure the system is unplugged from any power outlets just to be sure.

If you were to install memory while the power was on (even if the system was in a sleep mode), you would probably fry not only the memory but possibly the entire motherboard as well. Most newer systems incorporate standby power connections, so they are partially powered on even when the system is powered off.

The only way to ensure such systems are really powered off completely is to unplug them from the wall socket. You remove SIMMs, DIMMs, or RIMMs by releasing the locking tabs and either pulling or rolling them out of their sockets. The installation is exactly the opposite.

After adding the memory and putting the system back together, you might have to run the BIOS Setup and resave with the new amount of memory being reported. Most newer systems automatically detect the new amount of memory and reconfigure the BIOS Setup settings for you.

Most newer systems also don't require setting any jumpers or switches on the motherboard to configure them for your new memory. After configuring your system to work properly with the additional memory, you might want to run a memory-diagnostics program to ensure that the new memory works properly.

Some are run automatically for you. At least two and sometimes three memory-diagnostic programs are available for all systems. In order of accuracy, these programs are as follows:

  • POST (power on self test)

  • Disk-based advanced diagnostics software

The POST is used every time you power up the system. Many additional diagnostics programs are available from aftermarket utility software companies.

Installing SIMMs

SIMM memory is oriented by a notch on one side of the module that is not present on the other side, as shown in Figure 1. The socket has a protrusion that must fit into this notched area on one side of the module. This protrusion makes installing a SIMM backward impossible unless you break the connector or the module.

The notch on this SIMM is shown on the left side

Figure 2 details the notch and locking clip.

This figure shows the SIMM inserted in the socket with the notch aligned

Installing DIMMs and RIMMs

Similarly, DIMMs and RIMMs are keyed by notches along the bottom connector edge that are offset from the center so they can be inserted in only one direction, as shown in Figure 3.

DIMM keys match the protrusions in the DIMM sockets

The DIMM/RIMM ejector tab locks into place in the notch on the side of the DIMM when it is fully inserted. Some DIMM sockets have ejector tabs on both ends. Take care not to force the module into the socket. If the module does not slip easily into the slot and then snap into place, the module is probably not oriented or aligned correctly.

Forcing the module could break the module or the socket. If the retaining clips on the socket break, the memory isn't held firmly in place, and you likely will get random memory errors because the module can't make consistent electrical contact if it is loose.

Installing RIMMs

RIMMs install in exactly the same manner as DIMMs, although in different sockets. The ejector tabs on the sides are similar, and they go in at a straight 90° angle just like DIMMs. The key notches on the RIMM prevent backward installation and aid alignment when inserting them. You'll also need to fill any empty RIMM sockets with a continuity module.