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How to upgrade RAM - and why

Analysis: It's a great time to upgrade RAM

In case you haven't noticed, memory prices have dropped through the floor. There's never been a better time to upgrade your PC or laptop's RAM.

I've been busily upgrading every computer I can get my hands on. For example, my 2009 MacBook Pro has been maxed out to 8GB, which involved buying two 4GB SODIMM modules. The cost? Just $97 (similar purchases could be made in the UK for around £76). I dare say I could have got them even cheaper if I'd shopped around.

That's a huge amount of cutting-edge, DDR3 PC3-8500 RAM for a laughably tiny fee. This time last year an 8GB upgrade was little more than a pipe dream for anybody other than high-end users with extremely fat wallets.

Prices are set to fall even more as 2011 wears on, according to new research, which is great news for consumers, but bad news for manufacturers.

A decline in PC shipments

The problem is caused by a decline in PC shipments, along with oversupply from manufacturers. It's a perfect storm that favours consumers, both in terms of upgrades and in purchases of new computers, which feature larger amounts of RAM. I wouldn't settle for anything less than 4GB in a new machine right now, but if you're buying a new computer, beware of older stock that might still feature a miserly 2GB.

Indeed, the situation has got so bad that performance manufacturer OCZ has decided to exit the RAM market completely, and reported significantly lower revenue from RAM in the third quarter of 2010 - from $22m (about £14m) in 2009 to just $6m (£3.8m) in 2010.

Time for an upgrade?

So is it time for a RAM upgrade? It's worth bearing in mind that, unless your computer is lacking in RAM, performance boosts will be modest. You'll just be able to run more programs at the same time, although you might find that some applications you've recently closed open almost instantly, because they're able to be cached in RAM.

If you're running Windows 7 or Vista with less than 2GB of RAM, then more RAM will certainly make things quicker, but if you already have 4GB then the rewards are likely to be smaller. However, upgrading could be seen as future proofing against upcoming operating system releases - there hasn't yet been a release of Windows that's required less RAM than its predecessor.

On a 4GB system you're more likely to see more performance gains by upgrading to a faster hard disk, or even a solid state disk, if your budget can afford it (sadly the price drop only affects DRAM chips; flash memory, such as that used in SSDs, remains as expensive as ever). Also worth investigating are the various hybrid hard disks that mix flash chips and traditional mechanical disks.

However, anybody who performs memory-intensive tasks such as video and photo editing or desktop virtualisation is likely to enjoy the benefits of packing in as much memory as the computer can take.

Next page: How to upgrade your RAM >>

See also:

How to upgrade the memory in a 6-year-old PC

Upgrade Advisor

The 15 easiest laptop upgrades

How to build a PC: Part 4 - how to add RAM and cards

Workshop: How to build your dream PC

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