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Questions to Ask before You Upgrade Your Computer’s Memory

written by: John Garger•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 5/19/2011

Often, computer owners blame memory shortages as the cause of a computer's recent declining performance. Before you add more or different memory to your computer, ponder these questions to avoid disappointment.

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    Upgrading memory is the number one upgrade for both desktop and laptop computers. Recent drops in memory prices over the last five years or so have made RAM upgrades not only economical, but one of the biggest bangs for your buck when it comes to upgrading a computer.

    There are two ways to upgrade memory in a desktop or notebook computer. One way is to add more of the RAM you already have installed in your computer. The second way to upgrade computer memory is to install a higher class of RAM such as when upgrading from DDR2 to DDR3 memory.

    However, many computer owners who upgrade their computer’s RAM are disappointed by the resulting change in their computer’s performance. Unless you have a low amount of memory in your computer, upgrading to more or a higher class of RAM may not give your desktop or laptop computer the boost you were hoping for. Before you shell out your hard-earned money on a memory upgrade, ponder the following three questions to get the most out of your upgrade.

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    1 – Can I Even Add More Memory to My Computer?

    A Motherboard with Only Two Memory Slots Assuming you are interested in adding more of the same memory you already have in your computer, you must assess whether your computer is capable of using additional RAM. There are two reasons why you may not be able to add more memory to your computer. The first is a hardware issue.

    All motherboards ship with a finite number of memory slots. The manufacturer of your computer may have filled all of your motherboard’s memory slots leaving none for upgrades (see picture at left). In this case, you will have to abandon the RAM you have now and replace it with all new memory modules. This may drive your memory upgrade over the amount of money you want to spend.

    The second reason why you may not be able to add more memory to your computer is a software limitation. Certain version of the Windows operating system, for example, can recognize only a certain amount of memory.

    For example, the 32-bit version of Windows 7 can only recognize a total of 4 Gigabytes of cached memory. This means that your 32-bit Windows-based computer can only recognize about 2.8 to 3.2 Gigabytes of RAM. If you are already over that limit, adding more RAM will do nothing for your computer. 64-bit versions of Windows 7 can recognize up to 192 Gigabytes of RAM so that limitation is largely irrelevant for users of 64-bit version of the operating system.

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    2 – Is the RAM in My Computer Really the Bottleneck I Think It Is?

    Many computer users erroneously blame the memory for sluggish computer performance. They routinely assume that their computer is “running out of memory" and is slow as a result. Often, this is not the case.

    There are many components in a computer. Unless you have a paltry amount of RAM in your computer, it is unlikely that you are “running out of computer memory." It is of course possible that your computer memory is all used up when running data-intensive applications such as when rendering video during editing, playing graphics-intensive games, or testing very complicated models using specialized statistical software.

    However, you should really look to see if your computer is slow for another reason altogether. Much like a car, your computer needs regular maintenance. In particular, your computer’s hard drives needs to be defragged on a regular basis. A highly fragmented hard drives is often the culprit when computer users notice that their computer isn’t as fast as it used to be. In addition, look to a hard drive that is nearly full for the source of your computer’s slow down. It is a well-known fact that Windows-based computers run fastest when there is an ample amount of free space on the hard drive where the operating system and page filing system reside.

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    3 – What Would a Faster Class of Computer Memory Really Do For Me?

    Corsair DDR3 Memory Modules Another way to upgrade your computer’s memory is to completely replace it with a faster class of RAM such as upgrading from DDR2 to DRR3 memory. Unfortunately, this kind of upgrade can be expensive because motherboards are rarely able to accommodate different classes of RAM. Upgrading your class of memory will likely necessitate a motherboard upgrade as well.

    Assuming, however, that you are set on upgrading your class of RAM, consider the cost to benefit ratio of buying and installing new RAM and a new motherboard. As mentioned above, the bottleneck in a computer is likely elsewhere besides the RAM. If you are considering upgrading both RAM and motherboard, perhaps it would be more cost effective to buy a completely new computer rather than placing a band-aid on an out-of-date desktop or laptop computer.

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    Upgrading RAM can be tricky business because computer owners who do so are rarely satisfied with the results. Memory is one of the faster components in your computer. Unless you have an unusually small amount of memory, it is not likely the cause of a slow computer.

    Look to components that are known to be bottlenecks such as hard drives, video cards, and other major components. Also, don’t be afraid to consider a completely new computer rather than trying to squeeze out more life from a dying desktop or laptop computer.