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Memory Gone Bad
One of those most annoying things to run into on a computer is bad RAM, or memory. Your PC may seem to be working fine, then suddenly you get a BSOD (blue screen of death) or programs randomly crash. Narrowing the problem down to the memory usually involves a battery of tests, but thankfully there is a free utility called Memtest86+ that takes the guesswork out of the equation. If you have a computer that is suffering from stability problems and you can't figure out what's causing it, Memtest86+ may be able to help solve your problem.
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What is RAM?
Some people often confuse the computer's memory with the storage capacity of its hard drive. I can understand how they can be confusing since they use the same units of measurement, but they are two completely different mediums. Hard drive storage space is measured in gigabytes and it deals with permanent file storage. RAM, or random access memory, is made of sticks of memory inserted into the motherboard of your PC. RAM does not permanently store anything, which is why you may lose a file you haven't saved to the hard drive if your have a power failure. One of the reasons why rebooting a PC is often recommend is to flush the RAM.
To be clear, this article is about troubleshooting sticks of RAM and has nothing to do with hard drive storage space. The image to the right is a picture of a stick of Kingston brand RAM.
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POST Beep Codes and RAM
If you turn on your computer and it starts beeping, then your computer is trying to tell you it has a problem. Sometimes you can 'hit F1 to continue' and the PC will still boot up, and other times it won't do anything at all. Those beep sequences are called a POST beep code and are there for diagnosing problems. If you are getting POST beeps, one of the first things you should try to do is pull and reseat the memory. This means you flip out the little tabs holding the RAM in place, then physically remove the sticks from the slot and plug them back in. Sometimes it helps to swap them out with each other in case you are using more than one stick. You may also want to try using one stick at a time to isolate the troublesome memory.
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Memtest86+ is a completely free utility you can download from memtest.org. It lets you create a bootable CD, USB drive, or floppy disk that runs the Memtest software. It works by scanning every physical aspect of your RAM by running a series of tests through the memory. The process usually takes a couple of hours depending on how much memory you have, but it's incredibly thorough. If it encounters any problems whatsoever, it is recommended that you replace your memory.
The best way to test a PC's memory with Memtest86+ is to let it run overnight so that it can cycle through the entire test multiple times. I have used this software both at home and at work to troubleshoot a variety of issues, and it helped me locate some bad memory when every other thing I tested would not reveal the problem.
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Replacing Bad RAM
If you find yourself needing to replace or upgrade the RAM in your PC, you should consider adding at least 3 gigabytes total if you are using Windows XP or Vista. Your system will run better and faster, plus the cost of the upgrade is usually less than a hundred dollars, if that much. The decision to upgrade is up to you, but I highly recommend you give your operating system as much memory as possible.