Gaming Build: Guide to RAM

Gaming Build: Guide to RAM

Building a PC is now more accessible than ever. There are many ways to find compatible parts, and a quality rig can typically last you longer than any console. As someone who, primarily, has been a console-based gamer for most of my run, I understand the perception that building a PC is intimidating or complex—so much so that I've gamed on consoles because I think they're as close to "plug-and-play" as is possible today. Luckily however, building a PC is not as difficult as you might think; the hard part is doing the research and figuring out what you want from your machine. With a little bit of know-how, you'll come to see the connections between different parts are straightforward. In this guide, we'll take a closer look at motherboards, specifically.

Random-access memory, usually shortened to RAM or just memory, is an essential component of any PC build or computing device, whether it’s a laptop, phone, or tablet. The kind of RAM we associate with a PC build is called DIMM or dual in-line memory module. These sticks are larger than SO-DIMM (small outline dual in-line memory module) and are designed for desktop motherboards. They are what we'll usually be referring to in the rest of this guide when we use the word "RAM."

To start, install your modules or sticks of RAM into slots on your motherboard. Your PC can now quickly access that RAM and use it to store short-term data for things like your operating system, applications, or games. Its faster than if your PC had to access, for example, your storage device every time instead. RAM is also different from traditional storage in that it’s "volatile," meaning it stops storing data if ever disconnected from power. Having enough RAM can also ensure your system doesn't get too bogged down when you're asking it to do a lot of things at once. Like most of your other components, RAM can differ based on factors like generation or speed, but we'll take a closer look at those further along in this guide.

Form Factor and Compatibility

The kind of RAM most available to purchase today is technically known as SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory). Like processors, GPUs, and motherboards, there are multiple generations of RAM and "DDR5" is the current standard for most PCs today. DDR5 stands for “Double Data Rate 5” and is the fifth generation of DDR technology. If you’re building a new PC or upgrading RAM today, chances are the RAM you purchase will most likely be DDR4 or DDR5. If you're planning around your budget know that DDR5 was considerably more expensive when it first released but prices have decreased a bit these days. It's probably worth going the DDR5 route unless you're absolutely trying to clamp down on your wallet, in which case DDR4 is still a great alternative.

You should know that choosing a motherboard will generally lock you into a certain type of memory as well. The choice of motherboard and processor can affect things like DDR generations, capacity, and speed. Always check to see if your parts are compatible because you can’t always use a newer generation DDR memory in a motherboard that supports a previous generation and vice versa. Motherboards can also vary in the type of RAM or number you can install depending on the form factor. If you're new to building, PC Part Picker is a great resource to help plan your build and determine the compatibility of different parts.

Although not directly tied to RAM, VRAM (video random-access memory) is still worth mentioning because it’s another term you'll see thrown around especially, in relation to games. It's easy to confuse the two if you're a new builder but VRAM is the dedicated memory that's allotted specifically for your graphics card and not your entire system. That's covered more in our GPU guide in case you were curious about the difference.

Specs to Know

The first spec you'll notice when looking at RAM is usually the capacity, measured in gigabytes (GB). Generally speaking, the higher the capacity the more applications or tasks can run simultaneously. Games also utilize RAM much the same way, storing large amounts of temporary data for a variety of reasons. Having more RAM is never necessarily a bad thing, other than for your wallet, but you should know that depending on what you're actually using your PC for, getting the most amount of RAM won't automatically net you better performance past a certain threshold.

While having a lot of RAM may cap our returns, we can use speed as another measurement to compare different RAM too. RAM speed is usually measured in megahertz (MHz) or megatransfers per second (MT/s) and it’s often one of the first things you'll see notated on a typical product listing, like this kit from Corsair. Like a CPU's clock speed, higher speed ratings usually mean improved performance. Ideally, you want to look for the right balance between capacity and speed and not overspend on more RAM than your system needs.

Corsair 32GB VENGEANCE RGB DDR5 6400MT/s DIMM Memory Kit
Corsair 32GB VENGEANCE RGB DDR5 6400MT/s DIMM Memory Kit

There are other specs, like RAM timings, that can affect performance. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds comparing RAM modules based on timings, so just know that the actual returns aren't as significant these days when it comes to gaming, and this is just for your own information. RAM timings are typically listed as a sequence of numbers separated by dashes; e.g., 9-9-9-24 is a generic DDR3 memory timing.

RAM timing example
Click to enlarge

Each number is a measure of latency or how long it takes to execute a certain action or command. One of the timings that is most frequently referenced is the Column Address Strobe (CAS) Latency, which is the number of clock cycles it takes for your RAM to send data. You'll often see this number listed in the specs on its own, too, usually in a format like "CLXX" where XX is the number of cycles. If you want the gist of it, while newer RAM modules tend to have higher CAS latency than previous generations, their faster clock speeds usually more than make up for the difference. This spec becomes more relevant if you're trying to overclock.

Another term you'll see in reference to RAM is "dual channel." What that means in the simplest terms is that your RAM can communicate with your CPU via two lanes, effectively allowing your PC to read and write to two sticks simultaneously. Most motherboards today support dual channel if you install your RAM into the correct slots. Don't sweat it too much, though, since most motherboards will clearly specify which slots to use for installation.

How Much Do I Need for Gaming?

That answer really depends on a lot of factors, but conventional wisdom would probably place you somewhere between 16GB and 32GB. For gaming, we would recommend at least 16GB of RAM to be in line with the baseline requirements for most titles today. RAM requirements will probably only slowly creep up from here, and a world in which 32GB becomes the new standard probably isn't THAT far away, but do what you will with that information.

Performance improvements can also completely vary from game to game, with some experiencing greater performance boosts than others, but it all ties back to factors like whether or not a game is CPU-intensive, like we discussed in that guide. Regardless, if you're also planning on doing more than just running a game, you might want to consider 32GB of RAM. This gives your PC the breathing room it needs to simultaneously run other programs, such as a livestream. Like we mentioned earlier, having more than the minimum amount of RAM is important because, since your entire system uses it, you want to be sure you have enough overhead for everything to run smoothly. Again, it's a balancing act because it’s also better to have higher-speed RAM than a ton of slow RAM.

Hopefully, with a better understanding of some of the above factors, you should have no problem eventually finding the right RAM for your build. This is by no means a comprehensive guide and is really meant to help you understand how to compare basic RAM specs. It’s also so easy to buy more RAM than you might actually need, so consider your goals carefully and save money for other components if your build allows for it!

Even more so, I hope I've been able to at least impart the wisdom that no component in a build exists within its own bubble. Choosing one part will affect your choice of others and while that can seem confusing at first, for those willing to put in a bit of time, piecing together your PC part by part can be worthwhile in the end! Not only will you save money in the long run, but you’ll also have a more granular understanding of how it all works together.

Let us know how your building journey is going in the Comments section, below!