June 22, 2001

RAM: cheap, fast, and easy

Author: JT Smith

- By Jeff Field -

So, maybe you are sitting in front of a Linux box that is
feeling a little laggy, and don't have the money to put down on a motherboard
and CPU upgrade right now - what can you do? With RAM prices so low, increasing the amount of memory in your
computer is one of the easiest ways to gain improved performance. But just how much performance can you gain, and how much RAM do you really need?
I remember when I got my first RAM upgrade - I jacked my 386SX16 up from one megabyte of RAM to a whopping 8 megs. Fast forward a decade to today, and machines routinely have 64, 128 and 256
megabytes of RAM. Adding RAM doesn't
require new drivers, or very difficult installation; anyone with a bit of common
sense and the ability to follow directions can do this upgrade. In fact, you can compare RAM for computers to gasoline for automobiles: it makes a big difference in how it runs, requires little effort, and the prices
fluctuate a good bit, sometimes wildly.

RAM prices are at extreme lows, making now the best time to buy it. If you are thinking about waiting a couple months, seeing if maybe it goes down some more, don't. A couple months in this industry could mean an earthquake, or a fire, or any
number of other disasters at the RAM factory that could make prices skyrocket again.

So if now is the time, then the question becomes, how much and what kind of RAM
to purchase? First find out what kind of RAM your machine
takes - DIMM or SIMM, EDO, FPM, SDRAM, or DDR. PC66, 100, or 133, or something else - by consulting your system or
motherboard manual, or by checking the hardware summary the BIOS gives at boot.

Once
you decide what kind you need, you must also figure out how much extra space you
have. My laptop came with 64 megabytes of memory built into it, and 64 megs of
RAM in the expansion slot, and could accept a SODIMM of up to 256 megs in size, allowing for a maximum of 320 megs, more than I need the machine to have. But since it's so cheap, I went ahead and bought a 256 megabyte PC133 SODIMM for about $100 and maxed it out. That's the nice thing about the current market - you can afford to purchase enough RAM to plan ahead.

While planning for the future, consider buying the "best" RAM that will work in your machine - if you have an old 300MHz Pentium II that has PC66 RAM at the moment, go for the PC133 anyway, that way there is a better chance it will work in any new PCs you buy, unless they need DDR or RDRAM.

Most people looking to upgrade today will have SDRAM, so I will focus on that. Buying RAM now can be little confusing because there is a flood of extremely low priced memory that does not work in all motherboards - I personally recommend you not buy this RAM. If you do not know who made it, and it only has a 15 day warranty, it is not worth your money. Instead, buy memory from a realtively well known manufacturer - Micron, Kingston, Corsair, IBM and others.

A Micron 256MB DIMM, for instance, will cost you roughly $45 with shipping, and comes with a lifetime warranty. Crucial, a division of Micron, sells direct to the public for relatively low prices - but expect to pay $15 or so more. The benefit is that you can get it replaced should something go wrong. If you are looking for the absolute best price, you should always check Pricewatch. Always take the deals you find there with a grain of salt however - not every vendor is as reliable as the next.

How much RAM should you buy? If all you are doing on your box is running X to browse the web and play some games, 64mb is adequate, and 128 is optimal. If you are getting by with 64mb or less and think your machine is being a bit sluggish, I would go ahead and spend the money on a 256 megabyte DIMM - more than you might need, but certainly better than not enough.

In order to show how one task functions with varying memory levels, I tested different amounts of RAM with a kernel compile task:

32 Megs - 11 Minutes, 12 Seconds
64 Megs - 7 Minutes, 42 Seconds
128 Megs - 7 Minutes, 40 Seconds
256 Megs - 7 Minutes, 38 Seconds
512 Megs - 7 Minutes, 37 Seconds

Kernel compiles are relatively small and do not benefit greatly from more than 64 megabytes of RAM being added, although there was a large jump in efficiency from 32 to 64 megs.

Another example is this - web browsing may not seem like much of a complex task, but running Mozilla 0.9.1 with six windows open uses 30 megs of RAM all by itself, including browser and the optional Java support. Add to that a few terminals, which takes up another 2 megs, xchat which takes 3, gaim which takes another 2, and it really adds up.

Before I upgraded the RAM from 128 to 320, I would get a lot of swap disk usage, which means more disk access, and among other things decreased battery life (on a laptop). After upgrading to 320, I rarely use any swap space, and it is a noticeable difference.

So, while Linux can be a very conservative OS when it comes to system requirements, do not underestimate the benefits of running it with more RAM. Go out and get your computer a little treat. I imagine many people will be running around with 512 megs in their machine, just because they can. It's the "Need for Speed," I guess.

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