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Random Access Memory (RAM) is a form of ’short-term’ memory unlike the semi-permanent memory storage of a hard drive.  It comes in the form of ’sticks’ that fit into slots provided on your motherboard.  In general, the more RAM you have, the better your computer system will perform as a whole.  RAM allows programs to be stored in a temporary location as they are being run.  Let’s say you want to run a program.  Instead of running it off the hard drive, a large portion of the program’s executable code is loaded from the hard drive into the RAM.  From there, the processor can work directly with the RAM to execute instructions.  The data bus between RAM and the CPU is something like 60,000 times faster than between the hard drive and the CPU.  Thus, the more RAM you have, the more programs you can fit into it, and the faster your computer will run.

RAM comes in several flavors.  The three most important specifications are memory size, pin count, and frequency.  The memory size simply lists the amount of storage on the memory module.  Typical sizes range from 128 MB up to 1 GB per stick.  The average computer user only needs 512 MB of RAM, usually in the form of two 256 MB modules.  Higher end computers need 1 GB of RAM or more.  The pin count will dictate the form factor of the module.  These are industry standards and will also depend on the slots provided with your motherboard.  Just refer to your motherboard’s manual to find out what kind of RAM you need.  You can’t install RAM backwards because there are a few notches cut into it that fit a certain way into the RAM slot.

The last category of frequency is where all the troubles begin.  All of the newest systems use what is known as Double Data Rate (DDR) RAM.  By taking advantage of a principal known as the falling-edge of the clock cycle, a DDR RAM module can operate at twice the effective frequency of a normal RAM module.  So let’s get this straight: a DDR RAM module running at 200 MHz will perform as if it were a 400 MHz RAM module since it handles twice as many operations per cycle.

The industry standards have caused a bit of confusion because RAM specifications for frequency are not notated by frequency.  Major standards like PC1600, PC2100. PC2700, and PC3200 don’t really reflect any particular frequency.  The four standards that I mentioned run at 200MHz, 266Mhz, 333Mhz, and 400Mhz, respectively.

When it comes to RAM, you don’t really have a choice as to the standard.  Your motherboard will dictate the specification of the RAM.  You can only choose the brand, and in this case it’s only high-end users who need major brand labels.  For regular users, you won’t have to pay more than $100 for a good amount of RAM.