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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | COMPUTER BASICS / KIM KOMANDO

Extra RAM Can Make a Memorable Addition

December 23, 1996|KIM KOMANDO

Memory. That seems like a simple enough term. You probably already know how much random access memory is in your computer. So adding more should be easy, right?

In fact, adding memory is simple. The real questions are whether you truly need more memory in your PC and, if so, how much? Sorry. There's no psychic hotline to call for the answer. You need to make these decisions yourself.

And with terms flying around such as conventional memory, high memory, expanded memory, extended memory, virtual memory and nanoseconds, you get the feeling that memory isn't so simple after all.

Today's 486- and Pentium-based PCs usually can address up to 4 GB (a gigabyte equals about 1024 MB). Microsoft Windows helps harness all that power. Windows 3.x handles most memory distinctions, but Windows 95 truly shatters barriers. Windows 95 considers all RAM the same type. It can place both data and programs in any memory location. The only problem is that state-of-the-art programs running on state-of-the-art equipment generally require a lot of RAM.

When you buy new software, the box usually lists its RAM requirements. The package's requirements only mean that the program should run well in a configuration with that much RAM. If you only run one application at a time, go with the highest recommended RAM for the programs you use.

Things get more complicated when you want to run more than one program simultaneously. One of the greatest strengths of Windows 95 is its ability to multitask. That's a techie term for "run more than one program at a time." But this also means that you must have enough RAM to accommodate all these programs at once.

If running several programs at the same time is part of your regular routine, start with 16 MB of RAM and add more if you start seeing a lot more of the Windows hurry-up-and-wait-sign, the hourglass.

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If you only need extra RAM once in a while, consider virtual memory. Virtual memory sets aside a portion of your hard drive and tricks your computer into thinking that it's RAM instead. Windows 3.x and Windows 95 include tools that allow you to set virtual memory.

You may be tempted to buy memory-optimizing software to help speed things up. Software with names such as QEMM, SoftRam and Ram Doubler tweak memory settings and compress data that's stored in RAM, letting applications that need RAM borrow it from other applications.

The programs do help Windows use RAM more efficiently, but it does nothing for, say, a Windows application that needs 8 MB when you have only 4 MB. For that, you need the real thing. Memory-optimizing software is ideal, however, for the Windows laptop user with 4 or 8 MB of RAM when adding real RAM is difficult or impossible.

For about the same price as memory-optimizing software, you can get real RAM. RAM prices have never been so low; it costs about $10 per MB. Do some shopping and you may find even lower prices. I have seen RAM advertised for as low as $5 per MB.

All current model computers use what are called SIMMs for memory expansion. SIMM stands for single in-line memory module. A SIMM places a group of memory chips on a single miniature expansion card, or a "bank," that you can easily pop in and out of its SIMM slot.

RAM comes in different flavors. Dynamic RAM, or DRAM, is the blanket term given to all PC memory. Newer PCs use Extended Data Out DRAM that is faster than vanilla DRAM. Unlike RAM of the past, EDO DRAM lessens the time the CPU spends twiddling its thumbs while waiting for information to be sent to it. If your PC uses DRAM, you can upgrade the memory with EDO DRAM.

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The most important thing to know in adding RAM is the speed of the RAM your PC already uses. Check your PC manual for this. Memory speed is measured in nanoseconds (ns: one-billionth of a second, or the time that it takes a beam of light to travel about 12 feet). The lower the ns rating, the faster the memory chip is. The SIMMs you add should be at least as fast as the memory that's already in your computer. Some motherboards are so finicky that all of their chips have to be from the same manufacturer.

The type of motherboard and the kind of SIMMs that you are using are directly related to how many slots are in a bank. Rule No. 1 about memory banks is that a bank must either be completely full or completely empty. But having all banks full is not absolutely necessary. Once you know the speed needed and how much you can add and where, know the next rule of memory upgrades: The slowest memory chip in a bank is the fastest speed the entire bank will work. For example, if your current RAM consists of 80-ns chips, you could add 80-ns SIMMs, or even 60-ns SIMMs if you want, but the entire bank will only work at 80-ns.

I'd recommend going with the faster RAM. Although you'll spend a couple extra dollars and it won't speed up your current PC, buying the faster RAM increases the chances that you'll be able to move that memory over from this computer to your next one.

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Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host, founder of the Komputer Klinic on America Online. E-mail Kim Komando topics you'd like covered in future columns at komando@komando.com

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