Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Gaming with Netbooks Guide to RAM Upgrades

Every good netbook user knows that a RAM upgrade makes a night-and-day difference in overall usability. From simple web browsing and word processing to complex image editing and gaming, having more RAM will reduce system lagginess and improve your overall experience. This guide will help you determine which RAM to buy for your specific netbook.

Before You Buy: Determine What You Already Have

When it comes to netbooks, few things are more annoying than buying RAM only to find that it's incompatible. That's why it's essential to find out what type of RAM is already installed in your netbook. To do that, head on over to the CPU-Z homepage and download either the installer or the .zip archive, whichever you prefer. Open CPU-Z and click on the SPD tab. If all the fields are grayed out, select a different memory slot to read info from.
Once you have the correct slot selected, look at the fields I have highlighted above. The first 3 fields are the important ones (and they happen to be listed in order of importance). Let's take a look at each:
Memory Type: This, in the vast majority of netbooks, will be either DDR2 or DDR3. Remember that, as you'll need to use the same type of RAM in the new stick.
Module Size: This one's a no-brainer. It's the amount of RAM that the stick has. In low-end netbooks, this will be 1 GB or even 512 MB. The new stick of RAM should obviously have a higher capacity than the old stick, unless you're upgrading for pure speed, which is neither worth the hassle nor the money.
Max Bandwidth: This is how fast the RAM can transfer data. The value in parentheses is actually half of what the stick is rated for, so my 800 MHz rating is actually 1600 MHz (because DDR stands for double data rate, hence the 1:2 reported/actual ratio). Note that the rated speed of the RAM is not always, or even usually, the speed the RAM will operate in your netbook, but we'll get to that later.

Capacity

Once you know the type of RAM you have, it's time to decide how much to buy. Some netbooks can utilize more RAM than others, so refer to the table below to see how much your netbook can hold.
*Official limit for N2600 is 2 GB, but 4 GB sticks have been found to work without issues **Config depends on # of physical RAM slots in netbook ***32 GB possible in the future (16 GB/stick doesn't exist yet)
Now, no one's holding a gun to your head and forcing you to buy the maximum amount of RAM for your netbook. If you don't want to pay for 8 GB of RAM and don't feel you need it anyway (say, for an E-450 netbook), you don't need to. 4 GB is perfect match for a modern netbook as it won't create a bottleneck, but there are always those that preach the 'more is better' mantra. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Speed and Bandwidth

Now that you've chosen how much RAM you want/need, the next step is looking for sticks that provide the fastest speed your memory controller supports. Once again, direct your eyes to the following table:
*Atom N450 and N470 do not support DDR3, only DDR2/667; Atom N435 supports DDR3/800 but only DDR2/667 **DDR3/800 for N2600, DDR3/1066 for N2800 ^E-450, E2-1800, E2-2000, and A4-1250 support DDR3/1333; all others limited to DDR3/1066 ^^DDR3/1333 only for E1 series
Giving the memory controller maximum bandwidth/speed allows integrated graphics to give their best performance, which, as you know, is crucial for gaming. While having slow RAM hampers performance, RAM that is faster than the memory controller supports won't hurt anything. The RAM will simply slow down so the controller can keep up, and no problems occur. I currently have a stick of DDR3/1600 running in my N2600 netbook with no problems, it just runs at 800 MHz rather than 1600.

Latency

If you've been shopping online for RAM lately, you'd see that all good RAM has its CAS latency listed. But what is it? CAS latency (or CL) is the delay between when the memory controller asks for data stored in RAM and when the RAM makes that data available. CL is measured with a single number, with typical values being 7 for DDR3/1066 and 9 for DDR3/1333, etc. Lower numbers are better, because the RAM can give the memory controller what it needs faster, although in real-world scenarios, low latency RAM doesn't make a noticeable difference against standard latency RAM. 

OS Version

In addition to hardware limitations, the version of Windows you're using also has a say in how much RAM you can use. Windows 7 Starter puts a cap of 2 GB on your RAM; add a 4 GB stick for example, and you'll have 2 GB of RAM functioning and 2 that sit idle because the OS won't let you use it. In order to use more than 2 GB, you have to fork over money to Microsoft to upgrade to Win7 Home Premium or higher. The "bitness" of your OS also determines your RAM ceiling. A 32-bit version of Windows can only handle up to 4 GB of RAM, but a 64-bit copy can go up into the hundreds of gigabytes of RAM, more than you'll ever need. A visit to the 'System' applet in the Control Panel will give you the bitness of your OS.

Other Considerations

Some netbooks have RAM built into the motherboard that can't be upgraded, like the Asus VivoBook X202E or Eee PC X101CH. A Google or YouTube search for reviews of your particular netbook model should reveal whether or not the RAM is upgradable.

If you have a Nvidia ION netbook with 2 RAM slots, you can utilize the ION chipset's dual-channel memory architecture and install two identical sticks of RAM for maximum graphics performance. Some ION netbooks have 1 RAM slot but have additional RAM soldered onto the motherboard. I'm unsure as to whether or not the dual-channel architecture will work in that scenario. I'm fairly certain, though, that a 4 GB stick of RAM won't work in netbooks like these.

The brand of memory you choose won't play a role in performance of RAM, but it might make a difference in reliability. As common sense will tell you, go for a highly regarded brand with plenty of good reviews.

It's better to have a large single stick of RAM than two smaller sticks, i.e. one 4 GB stick vs. two 2 GB sticks in all but ION netbooks. This way, the memory controller only has to pull data from one stick instead of two. Remember that the Brazos (2.0) family of netbooks only support sticks up to 4 GB, so you can't plop in a single 8 GB stick and call it a day.

Memory Recommendations by Platform

Diamondville
Kingston HyperX 2 GB DDR2/533 CL3
For Diamondville netbooks, nothing is faster than this Kingston RAM, and for $39 new (or $27 used), it won't drain your wallet.

Pineview/ION 2 DDR2
Mushkin Essentials 2 GB DDR2/667 CL4
If your netbook only supports DDR2/667, this Mushkin RAM is perfect for you. It runs at a low latency and costs only $33.
Team 2 GB DDR2/800 CL5
If your netbook can go up to DDR2/800, you can step up performance while stepping down in price with this Team RAM for $28. I wanted to find CL4 RAM, but that was only available for desktop RAM.

Pineview/ION 2/N2600
VisionTek Black Label 2 GB DDR3/1600 CL9
While it's not DDR3/800, this VisionTek RAM will underclock just fine, and it's significantly cheaper than DDR2, at $21.

N2800
 
Corsair Vengeance 4 GB DDR3/1600 CL9
Since the Atom N2800 can officially handle 4 GB of RAM, why not max it out? This Corsair RAM is as fast as you can get for $39.

Zacate/Ontario/Brazos 2.0

ADATA XPG Gaming Series 2x4 GB DDR3/1600 CL9
 If your AMD netbook has 2 RAM slots (and many do), you can go crazy with this ADATA RAM kit, but it doesn't come cheap at $73.

Temash/Kabini

Crucial Ballistix Sport 2x8 GB DDR3/1600 CL9
 OK, no one really needs 16 GB of Crucial RAM in a netbook, but there's something to be said for bragging rights. To get this much RAM, you'll have to fork over a hefty $148. Ouch.

Keep in mind that all of these recommendations are based purely on performance. It will be quite easy to find RAM that isn't as fast but is much cheaper. If you don't feel you need to go hog wild with your RAM, don't. It's quite easy to find something more conservative. Also remember to shop around so you can find the best price.

If you have any other questions about RAM upgrades (or if I missed something important), feel free to leave a comment!

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