Buying Guide: Memory For Your New PC

12/14/2012 2:54:52 PM

You have money for RAM, but what’s the best thing to spend it on? Let’s find out in this helpful guide

Whatever type of system you’re building, you’re going to need lots of memory. If you’re building a system just for browsing the internet, you’ll need lots of memory for storing multiple browser tabs and all of the embedded content. If you’re building a system for running office applications, you’ll need lots of memory to handle all the multi-tasking. If you’re building a system to run games, you’ll need lots of memory to ensure that data can be cached and served smoothly when the processor is running at full tilt.

For that matter, if you’re building a PC that runs a complex operating system of any kind (i.e. more sophisticated than a command line), you’ll need lots of memory to handle all of the background services and information. So don’t think that you’re building the kind of PC that doesn’t benefit from having a lot of RAM. They simply don’t exist.

However, budgeting for RAM leaves you with a conundrum. Do you go for quality or quantity? Hopefully, if you follow our recommendations, you won’t have to stray too far from either.

No-Frills RAM

The difference between ‘affordable’ RAM and other, more expensive forms can be quickly summed up in two simple words: quality control. Sure, RAM designed for gamers and performance enthusiasts has extra features, but at the most basic level, cheap RAM will break if it’s stressed too hard and expensive RAM won’t. If you buy the cheapest sticks available, the best you can hope for is that they’ll work with no problems at their listed speeds.

Even so, cheap RAM is more likely to have manufacturing errors that become evident soon after purchase, and it’ll often struggle to run at its rated speeds under benchmark conditions. If you’re building a gaming PC, basic RAM is far less hardy when it comes to overclocking - not just because of the quality of the materials and manufacturing, but because it lacks the extra cooling features (such as heat spreaders, or fan attachments) to keep it running at its optimum temperature.

Still, it is possible to save money by buying cheaper RAM if you’re looking to minimize your budget. The effects of memory speed on most operations are negligible, especially when you compare the impact other components can have.

Going for the cheapest RAM can be a bit of a gamble, because manufacturers compromise on materials quality and QA testing in order to keep the price low. Test it thoroughly for defects as soon as you install it, and you’ll be able to identify any flaws immediately, meaning you can get a replacement sorted before any future system crashes become an issue.

Budget Brand: Kingston ValueRAM

Kingston ValueRAM

Kingston’s ValueRAM is aimed at those building entry-level systems, and compared to generic RAM, the Kingston name gives it at least some kind of reputation worth mentioning. A combination of low prices, good support (lifetime guarantee!) and reliable performance means it hits all of the main requirements without making you pay over the odds.

Even so, it’s clear that ValueRAM is at the absolute low end of the spectrum. There’s no heatsink, no fancy PCB coloring, no LEDs - just a standard stick of RAM with the chips fully exposed. The idea is presumably to save money by not spending anything on improving the appearance of the modules, but here’s the rub: RAM prices have dropped so much that the savings are practically invisible unless you’re buying in bulk. The fact is that if you’re not building a large number of systems, then for a few pounds more you can find RAM offering much better performance.

If you do opt for it, you can expect to find the 1333MHz sticks setting you back around $48 for two 4GB sticks. Practically speaking, you’ll notice no difference between 1333MHz RAM and 1600MHz RAM unless you’re actively taxing your system, so don’t feel bad that it isn’t the fastest.

Even so, unless you’re building so many systems that $4.8 per unit can stack up to a substantial amount, there’s very little reason to consider ValueRAM for any serious use.

Recommended Brand: Corsair Vengeance

Corsair Vengeance

Corsair Vengeance RAM costs barely more than the most bog-standard sticks, with two 4GB modules available between $48 and $64 a pair, but the jump in performance is substantial enough to make it worth recommending over any generic or no-frills RAM. Assembled with overclockers in mind, the RAM is capable of handling a little stress testing and even has heat-spreaders to keep them at optimum operating temperature - although let’s face it, the sheer size of them suggests they’re mostly there to look good, which is why there’s a choice of red, blue or black.

With strong performance and pricing and the capacity to be overclocked, Corsair Vengeance is RAM you can be proud to have in your PC, but which won’t empty your wallet. Although we wouldn’t recommend it to people hoping to do a lot of overclocking, it should fit the needs of all but the most specialist PC users, and if you were in that category, you wouldn’t need us to tell you.

Gaming RAM

Budget Brand: Crucial Ballistix Tactical

Crucial Ballistix Tactical

If you’ve decided you want to spend money on high-quality memory, the sky’s the limit. That said, there are brands around that are reassuringly expensive but won’t bankrupt you. Positioned towards the upper-end of Crucial’s Ballistix line, Ballistix Tactical RAM will set you back about $72 for two 4GB sticks. The heat spreader looks good, and the standard kit is PC3-12800, clocked at 1600MHz.

Performance is solid for the price range, but the real reason it costs a bit more than other brands is because it also offers some fancier decoration (you get a black PCB and on-board LEDs), so do be aware that some of your money is going into the appearance, not the performance. That’s consistent with the ethos of gaming components, however, which are, of course, designed to look good when viewed through a case window. Crucial Ballistix Tactical is pleasing to use and pleasing to look at, so in the end there are no complaints here.

Recommended Brand: Corsair Dominator

Corsair Dominator

Corsair Dominator RAM is aimed at people who like the fastest possible setup regardless of performance-to-cost ratio. If we told you that Corsair’s Dominator GT memory was launched to coincide with the release of last year’s Sandy Bridge-E platform, that should give you an idea of the kind of systems it’s aiming for: expensive and fast, rather than value for money. To illustrate that assertion, you can expect two 4GB sticks to cost around $144.

The 2133MHz clock speed is impressively fast, while latencies are solidly low and the transfer rating is very high: it’s PC3-17066 memory. The retail kit also includes a Corsair Airflow fan and free connector for the temperature monitor, which you can purchase separately. It’s guaranteed to run fast, and overclocking isn’t just possible; it’s practically encouraged. Indeed, at these speeds, the biggest concern is whether the CPU is capable of keeping up with the memory clock speed, as you’ll need a processor that can handle such high-end performance, but if you’re looking at RAM this pricey, it’s fair to say you do.

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