RAM Installation: Guidelines and Troubleshooting
A computer can never run too fast or perform too well—that's just the law of the land. That being the case, it isn't surprising that I regularly get calls and e-mail messages from customers and friends complaining that their computers are performing poorly or running too slowly. The first recommendation for them would be doing a little maintenance. Perform “cold” reboot; delete unnecessary files and programs; see what applications are running in the background that they don't need; and run Disk Cleanup, Disk Defragmenter, and Registry Defragmenter. If problems persist, they should check the amount of random access memory (RAM), which is a frequent problem source for multiple computer-generated errors.
Yes, RAM is one of the most crucial elements installed in the computer. RAM temporarily holds data that applications need, and applications use RAM to perform tasks quickly. The more RAM a system has the less it has to access the hard drive to swap out data, the longer the hard drive will last, and the faster the system will perform.
If you do decide you need more RAM, you have to figure out how much you can add, what type you need, where to buy it, and how to install it.
Most new off-the-shelf computers come with 256 MB (or more) of RAM, and 256 MB is the minimum you should have to run Windows XP. Although the System Requirements page suggests 128 MB or higher, if you only have the minimum amount, you'll run into problems with third-party software and when working with large files. Just because Windows XP can run on 128 MB of RAM doesn't mean all third-party programs can. For instance, Adobe Photoshop CS requires 192 MB of RAM (256 MB is recommended), and without it, the program either will not install properly or will not work properly once installed.
Third-party software isn't the only reason to have extra RAM though. Movie Maker 2 recommends 256 MB to function as its best. That's because applications need a place to store data temporarily while you're editing a photo or rendering a movie, or even printing a file or picture, and that temporary storage area is RAM. When RAM gets full, data gets swapped out of RAM to the hard drive to make room for the incoming data. Getting the old data back from the hard drive takes much longer than getting it from RAM, so when this happens there's a noticeable slowdown.
The RAM issue in a nutshell: if you have less than 512 MB of RAM on your Windows XP-based computer and you use any of the media tools that come with Windows XP including Windows Media Player and Movie Maker, or if you use third-party image editing tools, or run multiple programs at once, you probably need more RAM. And if you only have 128 MB of RAM and can't add more, avoid running multiple programs at once and editing large image files.
The latest Windows 7 already requires more RAM for the smooth handling of all operations. Minimum amount would be considered as 1 GB, but recommended will go to 2 GB and higher, certainly depending on the type of the applications and activities you are engaged on your PC.
You must have available open memory slots to add memory. In extreme cases when only one slot exists, you may have to remove, for example, a 256-MB memory module to add a 512-MB one.
Once you have the correct RAM, you should follow the manufacturer's instructions for installing it. These instructions can be found on the manufacturer's Web site or in the manual that came with your computer. In some instances, installing your own RAM will void the warranty, so it's important to make sure you understand the rules before starting the procedure. If you don't have a manual, if the computer is homemade (generic), you'll need to follow the guidelines that come with the RAM itself.
Note that some computers make use of dual-channel RAM that works in pairs. In this case, the most benefit from new RAM installation can be obtained if the total amount of RAM is bought in two sticks, rather than a single stick. For example, if 2 Gigabytes (GB) total are desired, it would be better to get two 1 GB dual-channel sticks, rather than a single 2 GB stick.
Motherboard memory banks should be filled in order, as stated in the manual. There might be four banks total, for example, and if the installer will only be using two banks, banks one and two should be used rather than banks three and four. Check documentation that came with the motherboard or laptop to see how the banks are numbered.
For the most part, the procedure is as follows:
1. Turn off the computer, monitor, and all accessories, including printers, speakers, and external hard disks. If a laptop, remove the battery pack. The memory banks can be accessed by opening the computer case or by removing the protective plate on the underside of the laptop.
2. Memory chips are susceptible to damage by static discharge built up in the body. Before beginning RAM installation, it is important for the installer to ground himself. This can be done in a number of ways, but wearing a grounding wrist strap is recommended. These are widely available and quite inexpensive. With the computer plugged in, at least, you should touch a metal part of the computer case to ground yourself so you don't "shock" any of the computer's internal parts.
3. Open the computer case using the appropriate tools, remove the cover, and remove the existing memory if necessary. Slow, gentle pressure should be applied to the metal or plastic clips at either end of the bank or slot to push them outward, away from the stick. The RAM should pop out of the bank. In some cases, the RAM will need to be gently pulled out. Make sure the clips at both ends are free, and gently lift at either end to pull the stick out evenly. In laptops, RAM is installed at an angle, and should be removed at the same angle.
4. Whether removing old memory or handling new memory, avoid touching the gold pins on the bottom of the sticks. Also avoid touching the memory chips. When possible, hold a memory stick by its edges.
5. Locate the open memory slots, and find the lowest numbered slot if more than one exists. If no numbers are shown, use the slot closest to the already installed memory.
6. Once the memory banks are free, install the new RAM by filling bank number one first, then two, and so on. Be sure the RAM stick is pressed firmly into the slot, gold pins down, by applying even pressure all along the top edge of the stick using several fingertips evenly spaced. When the stick is inserted correctly, very little gold along the top edge of the slot or bank should be seen, and the RAM should be inserted evenly. The clips should spring into place to lock the stick in, though in some cases, the clips may need to be pressed up and into the locking notch at the edge of the stick. The memory module may go straight in, or it may have to be tilted first and then installed by popping it at a 45-degree angle.
7. Turn your computer back on, and verify the memory is displayed on your startup screen. If your startup screen is hidden, right-click My Computer, click Properties, click the General tab, and verify the memory is recognized.
8. Carefully replace the cover if the memory is recognized and the computer seems to be functioning correctly.
After installing the new RAM, if the RAM is not recognized by your system, or if you get a long beep or sequence of beeps at startup, you'll have to do some troubleshooting. Most problems are caused by purchasing the wrong memory, installing it incorrectly, or damaging the memory module by handling it improperly.
More advanced problems exist too, especially with older computers and when memory banks are involved. When a computer's motherboard uses memory banks, it may require that two identical modules be installed in the two slots of a single memory bank, and installing two different models will cause problems. Sometimes these banks can hold different size (in MB) modules though, as long as they are from the same manufacturer, but often they can't. To uncover and resolve these problems (both common and advanced), work through the following sections in the order presented.
Check the Installation
When a problem occurs with newly-installed RAM, you should first make sure it's installed correctly. The modules should be secure in their slots, lined up properly with the notches in the slot, should fit properly, and the retaining clips or ejector clips, if they exist, should be firmly secured. When this is achieved, the memory is said to be seated correctly.
If these items are not the problem, reread your computer manual and the installation instructions for the memory you purchased. Some memory has to be installed directly next to existing memory, and an open space between modules will cause the memory to not be recognized. Other times, memory must be from the same manufacturer, and the memory modules must all be the same size (all must be 512 MB, for example). The instructions that came with the RAM should include this information.
Miscellaneous Installation Troubleshooting
If problems still exist, and you've verified you selected and properly installed the correct RAM, you'll need to try a few more obscure procedures. Reseating the memory modules often works; simply remove and replace them. If multiple modules are installed, you can also try switching their places on the motherboard. Put module 1 in slot 2, and module 2 in slot 1. Finally, try installing a single module in slot 1 (making sure it is enough RAM to successfully start the computer, at least 128 MB), restart your computer, and verify that the memory is recognized, remove it, and do the same with the other modules. You may find you have a defective memory module.
Visit the Manufacturer's Web Site
If you're still having problems, you should visit the manufacturer's Web site. Most sites have troubleshooting Web pages, articles on resolving known issues, and information about defective RAM and returning it if it doesn't work. Most also have free technical support, often by phone, and many have online diagnostic tools to help you in the process. These are good resources and should be part of the troubleshooting sequence.
Use the Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool
Microsoft has released a software memory diagnostic tool, the Windows Memory Diagnostic that tests RAM on the computer for errors, or any other memory testing tools, offered on this site (check the listing in Site Content on the side bar of this blog.
Choosing VRAM for your Computer
Another question is how much VRAM you want on your video card. Almost all cards that you can buy today have at least 16 MB of RAM. This is normally enough to operate in a typical office environment. You should probably invest in a 32-MB or better graphics card if you want to do any of the following:
- Play realistic games
- Capture and edit video
- Create 3-D graphics
- Work in a high-resolution, full-color environment
- Design full-color illustrations
When shopping for video cards, remember that your monitor and computer must be capable of supporting the card you choose.
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