RAM 101: Your Guide to Understanding RAM

This discussion has a more recent version.
edited September 2022 in Computer Hardware

Written by @Julia_V

Not sure what computer memory is, or not sure what to look out for when it comes to memory? RAM, also known as Random Access Memory, is an essential part of the computer. To try and make things easier, we put together a quick explainer of some distinguishing features of RAM and what to look out for. 

How to Read RAM

 When choosing RAM, you might see a kit of desktop RAM with a label similar to this one: 

Corsair Vengeance RGB Pro SL

16GB (2 x 8)

DDR4-3200 PC4-25600

CL18 Dual Channel Desktop

There are four things to pay attention to: manufacturer, capacity, speed, and latency. The first part denotes the manufacturer of the memory. This kit is manufactured by Corsair, and it comes with RGB lighting. The second part denotes the capacity; this kit is 16GB total, with two sticks of 8GB. Then, you can see the generation (DDR4) as well as the speed (3200Mhz). CL18 denotes the latency of the RAM.   

But what does that all mean? Let’s break it down a bit further.


The first thing to know about RAM, and what matters the most to you, the end user, is the capacity that it carries. RAM gives applications a place to store and access data on a short-term basis. Meaning, the more RAM you have, the more information you can store and access quickly. The common capacities you see on the market are 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB. With more RAM, you can have more things running on your PC at once–internet browsing tabs, games, music player, and everything else. More RAM also correlates to higher-end systems such as servers and workstations. Some computers can get up to as much as 256GB of RAM! 


Another thing you will see on RAM is, whether it’s DDR3, DDR4, or DDR5. DDR stands for Double Data Rate and the number after stands for the generation. For example, DDR4 stands for “Double Data Rate Fourth Generation.” Older systems typically use DDR3, but they are rarer nowadays; the most common type of RAM you will find is DDR4. Many new machines that are being released today use DDR5. Between generations of RAM, the power efficiency, speed, and overall performance is increased.

Speed and Latency

RAM performance is determined by its speed and latency. The highest performing kits of RAM usually come with a high speed and low latency. At a basic level, latency refers to the time delay between when a command is entered and when the data is available. RAM speed is measured in Megahertz (MHz). The faster the RAM speed, the faster information is transferred to other components in your PC. In other words, with faster RAM, you can achieve faster processing speeds with your CPU.  

Desktop vs Laptop RAM 

Desktop RAM, typically known as DIMM (Dual In-line Memory Module) has a longer form factor compared to laptop RAM. Laptop RAM is also known as SO-DIMM (Small Outline Dual In-line Memory Module). The difference between the two is easy to tell when you have both modules side by side. The desktop module is much longer than the laptop one. Both desktop and laptop memory have different capacities and generations, as well as speeds and latencies. Some desktop memory nowadays also comes with an RGB heatsink. With the RGB heatsink, you can adjust the lighting on the RAM and give the system a customized look. 

Error-Correcting Code, or ECC, Memory

Error-Correcting Code Memory, also known as ECC Memory, is usually found in enterprise-level workstations. This memory variant minimizes memory errors and fights data corruption for businesses and professionals with critical data. Consumer-level motherboards and desktops generally cannot handle ECC memory or will run the memory without the ECC capability at best. 

And that’s RAM in a nutshell! The type of RAM you’re going to need will vary based on your motherboard and type of build, be it a gaming rig, family PC, or enterprise workstation. If you’re not sure what one is right for you, or want to confirm that it will work for your setup, stop in your local Micro Center and one of our associates will be happy to set you up with the RAM perfect for your needs!

More from the Micro Center Community:

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