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March 1996 Features

"I Was an 8MB Weakling!"

Avoid the ridiculous claims. Increase your RAM
the smart way. Your system will thank you.

By Rich Levin

Every day, we're surrounded by claims ranging from the implausible to the ridiculous. Think back to childhood. How many of us really believed that Charles Atlas could turn a 98-pound weakling into a muscle-bound powerhouse in just seven days?

Now, in the digital age, the claims have gone high tech. Try this technique and triple your performance. Add this product to your system and watch the old clunker rev up its engines.

Microsoft claims that Windows 95 requires 4MB of RAM. For someone using few applications, this is plausible, but most power users will prefer using Windows 95 on a system with a bit more elbow room--8MB or more.

It's easy to see why manufacturers have been eager to market RAM-increasing products. Consumers are desperate for ways to transform their systems from 98-pound weaklings to Win95 powerhouses without spending a mint. A host of lower-cost solutions has appeared to fill that need. But how good are those solutions?

Running in Place

The performance difference between an 8MB and a 16MB system is striking. While an 8MB system might spend the better part of a day grinding the hard disk to oblivion, 16MB systems run smoothly.

Windows 95 uses dynamic virtual memory to swap programs from RAM to disk and back again, as the amount of available memory changes. Load a monster program on an 8MB system, and Windows makes room by flushing everything else to disk, while you wait and wait and wait.

The more memory you dedicate to Windows 95, the less swapping you'll have to endure. If you run more than one major program at a time (Microsoft Word, CorelDRAW, Photoshop, Lotus 1-2-3), 16MB is required for good performance.

There are four ways to increase your PC's memory: expand the size of your Windows swap file, use RAM compression software, recycle your old SIMMs or buy new SIMMs. Of these options, the only one that's guaranteed to work is buying new SIMMs. But let's look at the other three options first.

The dynamic virtual memory (VM) swap file in Windows 95 is hard disk space used to simulate extra RAM. This swap file grows and shrinks as demand requires, and is managed automatically by Windows. However, you can change the settings in Control Panel/System to specify a static (unchanging) swap file. This will allocate whatever amount of virtual memory you specify.

Under Windows 3.x, virtual memory settings are static. You can change the setting using Control Panel, under the 386 Enhanced option. Windows 3.x allows you to specify a swap file larger than the recommended size, but it won't tap into that extra memory, so it behooves you to stick to the recommended amount.

Double Trouble

Another possibility is RAM compression. This new software category emerged in the weeks preceding Windows 95s rollout. RAM compression programs sell for as little as $49. Proponents claim this is the cheapest way to double your RAM capacity. To take an 8MB system to 16MB, it would cost about $400 for SIMMs--$350 more. But does RAM compression work and, if so, how?

Products like Stacker and DriveSpace are compression programs for your hard disk. They reduce the size of data files and double your storage capacity. When applied to disk files, data compression is a tested and trustworthy technology. But it took a while for developers to work out the kinks.

RAM compression claims to perform the same tasks for memory. This technology, however, is a new frontier. Dozens of players staked a claim in this brand new market, but the efficacy of RAM compression software has been questioned since the first products were released.

In fact, one best-selling program, Synchronys' SoftRAM, was followed by the national press as independent investigators studying the source code proclaimed that it showed no improvement under Windows 95 and was merely a hodgepodge of publicly available programs. RAM compression software, although an inexpensive alternative to hardware upgrades, currently offers marginal improvements at best, and should be viewed with skepticism.

Well-placed industry sources say the manufacturer's claims for SoftRAM are just plain false, and that Microsoft never approved the Windows 95 logo emblazoned on the SoftRAM boxes.

In a series of tests, WINDOWS Magazine Editorial Director Fred Langa tried SoftRAM, Connectix's Ram Doubler, and Quarterdeck's MagnaRAM on five different Win95-equipped systems, ranging from a lowly 486/66 with 8MB of RAM up through a Pentium 90 with 24MB. He was disappointed.

"All the software showed me flashy graphics telling me my RAM was doubled," he says, "but in real-life day-to-day use, I couldn't detect the slightest improvement. I saw no speed increase, no reduction in disk activity--none of the things you'd expect if RAM were functionally doubled."

What's more, all three products seemed to introduce incompatibilities to the Win95 systems. "Various system applets in Win95 would crash when the RAM compressors were running," Langa says. "I'd get errors with Defrag and the Compression Agent, for example. I don't know what the problem was, but I do know the crashes stopped when I removed the compression software."

Syncronys Softcorps later admitted SoftRAM95 doesn't compress memory under Windows 95, and pledges to "fix" the problem in a future upgrade. The company maintains the product works as advertised under Windows 3.x.

In fact, all these products do help increase system resources under Windows 3.x. However, they are in effect a band-aid fix to a fundamental architectural limitation in that operating system. For more or less the same price as a RAM compressor, you can upgrade to Windows 95 and permanently solve the problem of resource limitations while also gaining all the rest of Win95's benefits as well--a much better way to gain more headroom for your Windows applications.

Even if Windows 3.x systems do gain useful RAM space from these compressors, compression and decompression take time. In fact, RAM doubling software often takes back in processing time what it gives in extra memory capacity. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch--or free RAM.

Clearly, though, RAM compression is an infant technology that needs time to mature. My advice: Use discretion with RAM compression.

Get a Kludge?

SIMM recycling is another upstart in the RAM upgrade arena. Ads in trade publications urge readers to reuse old SIMM modules in new PCs. Photos of Rube Goldberg-style contraptions converting 30-pin SIMMs to 72-pin, or mounting SIMMs back-to-back, attempt to validate the technique.

This isn't fine engineering. It's kitchen-table marketing. These designs don't account for differences in SIMM access times, parity checking (or lack thereof), power consumption and heat dissipation. Furthermore, using recycled SIMMs will likely void your computer's warranty.

Motherboards are carefully engineered to support one module per socket. SIMM converters draw extra power, and generate more heat, than motherboards can tolerate. As a result, retrofitting hot, slow SIMMs can actually be dangerous. The savings, if any, over factory-recommended memory upgrades clearly aren't worth the risk.

Nothin' Like the Real Thing

When you need more memory, there's no substitute for the real thing. But if the thought of tearing open your computer makes you shudder, relax. RAM upgrades were "plug and play" long before Microsoft adopted the term. It's been years since users had to mount dynamic RAM chips (DRAM) individually on motherboards or on gigantic expansion boards. Today, you simply open your PC, snap in a SIMM and reboot. Installation couldn't be easier.

The hard part is deciding which SIMM module to buy. You need to determine how much memory your system has, how much it's capable of supporting and how many SIMMs you'll need. You also have to determine what kind of SIMM your PC requires, including characteristics such as the memory speed and whether it uses parity or nonparity chips. In some cases, you may have to remove your existing SIMMs to make way for your upgrade modules.

Most SIMM designs have 30 pins or 72 pins that plug into the motherboard. While the 72-pin SIMM is the industry standard for desktop PCs, subtle variations in size, speed, power consumption and capacity can mean the difference between a successful upgrade and an unbootable PC. For example, some SIMMs are taller than others, while others piggyback DRAMs.

Avoid SIMMs with uncommon designs, as they won't fit on a crowded motherboard or daughtercard. If you have a system from a vendor that uses proprietary memory modules, such as Compaq or Hewlett-Packard, you may be limited to ordering modules from that vendor.

In addition to form factors, every SIMM has an access time, measured in nanoseconds. The SIMM's access time reveals how long it takes the CPU to read from or write to the memory chips. An 80ns SIMM takes 80 billionths of a second to transfer information, so a 60ns chip is 20ns faster. Lower numbers mean better performance.

No Underachievers

Put fast RAM in a slow PC if you must, but never put slow RAM in a fast PC, even if it saves you hundreds of dollars. If the RAM is slower than the motherboard requires, you'll lose data. Conversely, installing faster RAM than the motherboard needs won't speed up your computer, but it also won't hurt. The CPU will continue to access memory at the speed for which the motherboard was originally designed.

Parity checking is another issue. In the golden age of PC computing, DRAM soft-error rates were quite high. Nowadays, computers use parity checking to monitor the accuracy of stored data. The computer stops cold when an error is detected.

If you've ever seen the error message, "Parity error--System halted," you've seen parity checking. Parity checking seems like a good thing until you consider its behavior. How would you like a car collision avoidance system that alerts you after you've had an accident? That's precisely how parity checking operates. When parity errors are reported, it's already too late to recover your unsaved data.

Because modern DRAMs are so reliable, many manufacturers have eliminated parity checking, or provide a BIOS option to disable it. One benefit of disabling parity is that your computer will run faster. If your computer uses parity checking, make sure you order SIMMs "with parity." Specify SIMMs with "no parity" for computers that don't use parity checking. (For more on parity checking, see Karen Kenworthy's Power Windows column in the February issue.)

Riding the Bus

The CPU's data bus is another consideration. Intel's 486 processors access memory 32 bits at a time, while Pentium CPUs grab 64 bits. Pentium 72-pin SIMMs provide 32 bits of memory access, so they have to be installed in matched sets to establish a 64-bit data path. In other words, a 64-bit data path consists of two 32-bit SIMMs.

If you own a Pentium PC, this means you can't buy one 4MB SIMM if you have two 4MB SIMMs already installed. You'll have to buy two SIMMs at a time, and they must match what's on the motherboard. If they don't, you'll have to remove your existing SIMMs, and replace them with the new SIMMs.

Some low-cost PC manufacturers install four 1MB SIMMs in PCs with only four SIMM sockets. This forces users to toss all four factory-issue SIMMs whenever they upgrade. Watch for this trap when you're buying a PC by making sure your new system has at least two unused SIMM sockets.

Some SIMM dealers and brand names are better than others in terms of quality, return policies and technical support. Some of the more unscrupulous mail-order vendors and traveling computer shows sell remanufactured or used SIMMs as new. Others have been known to relabel chips with faster access times.

Notebook computers are another matter, as many notebooks use proprietary memory. This means you can't simply buy a few SIMMs and slap them into your system. Instead, you need to call the manufacturer or local dealer and buy the factory-brand memory upgrade. However, proprietary RAM costs considerably more than conventional SIMMs. Luckily, if portable RAM is too costly for your wallet, many memory manufacturers sell both brand-name and clone versions of proprietary memory.

The safest and surest way to pump that weakling PC into a Charles Atlas wonder in just a few simple steps? See Seven Steps to a Better Memory, where we tell you exactly how to install new SIMMs.

It Ain't Rocket Science

Adding memory to your computer is a straightforward process for anyone with empty SIMM slots. To upgrade memory, simply buy two SIMMs that match what's already installed in your computer, snap them in and reboot.

As tempting as the RAM doubling programs may seem, performance claims for these products are about as plausible as those "x-ray specs" you saw advertised in the comics all those years back. The various recycling technologies are interesting in theory, but many of them either don't work, or worse, can harm your PC. A larger swap file is a workable solution, but a slow one that won't win any points for speed or efficiency.

The best sort of upgrade is to just break down and add new SIMMs, augmenting your existing memory capacity. Windows 95 will never feel better.

Rich Levin is an Associate Editor with InformationWeek, a sister CMP publication. He also produces a computer radio show for KYW Radio. Click Here to find the e-mail IDs for our editors, who can put you in touch with this author.

Double-Dealing with RAM

You add memory to your Windows-based PC for two reasons: To run more programs simultaneously, and to achieve faster performance by reducing or eliminating virtual memory usage. But when is a RAM upgrade preferable to getting a faster CPU?

The answer depends on how you use your computer. If you already own a computer with a Pentium processor, adding memory makes sense.

If you own a 486 PC, you should also add RAM, as opposed to installing a CPU upgrade. Windows 95 runs well on a 486DX/33 with 16MB of RAM and accelerated video. Cut the memory down to 8MB, or worse, 4MB, and Windows 95 slows to a crawl. Windows 3.x runs acceptably in 8MB, but more memory is always a good idea here as well.

The CPU versus RAM issue is even clearer when you're in the market for a new PC. If you're looking for a home computer, buy the fastest processor you can afford, even if it means cutting back on memory. Home PC users typically run one program at a time. An 8MB system with a 100MHz Pentium processor is ideal for the home. You can always upgrade the memory later.

For business users, it's wise to invest in 16MB machines, at the expense of CPU clock speeds. Business users commonly overload their workstations and so will likely benefit the most from a memory increase.

The bottom line is, a Pentium/66 or 75 with 16MB of RAM is a better business solution in the long run than an 8MB Pentium/133.

Terms of RAM-dearment

BEDO: Burst extended data out RAM requires zero wait states to read or write. This increases uncached system efficiency by roughly 13 percent on a 66MHz 486 PC, and more on Pentium-class computers. Manufacturers should offer BEDO-equipped systems early this year.

Cache RAM: This high-speed SRAM is dedicated to storing information most likely to be required by the CPU, and is often present in 64KB, 128KB, 256KB or 512KB capacities.

Conventional RAM: After BIOS programs load, 640KB of conventional RAM remains available for real-mode (DOS) user programs.

DIMM: The dual in-line memory module is an emerging form factor with two banks of RAM chips soldered to a single circuit board. A DIMM resembles a SIMM, but delivers twice the storage capacity.

DRAM: Dynamic RAM is the most common form of computer memory. These are the chips found on mostSIMM modules. When we say "memory," we mean DRAM. DRAM is rated in terms of storage capacity (in megabytes) and access time (in nanoseconds). A 60ns DRAM requires 60 billionths of a second, and two CPU wait states to save or return information.

EDO: Think of extended data out RAM as fast DRAM. EDO RAM requires only one wait state, and 60ns, for read/write operations. Conventional DRAM requires two CPU wait states with access times of 60ns to 80ns. EDO RAM delivers 10 percent to 13 percent performance gains on systems with less than 256KB of L2 (level 2) cache.

Flash RAM: PDAs, PCMCIA cards and flash BIOS setup programs employ this high-speed nonvolatile memory. Flash RAM requires only a trickle of electrical power to retain memory contents over extended periods of time. It's used mostly for long-term storage of small data amounts.

Shadow RAM: This portion of conventional RAM stores setup and video BIOS code. Moving BIOS code from slow ROM to fast RAM turbocharges PC performance.

SIMM: Single in-line memory modules are the prevailing industry-standard RAM form factor. SIMMs consist of a row of RAM chips soldered to a circuit board, and provide a complete memory upgrade on a single card.

SIP: The single in-line pin module is an alternate industry-standard form factor for delivering RAM upgrades. It has lately lost popularity.

SRAM: Static RAM is similar to DRAM, but it retains memory contents without refreshing. SRAM is faster and more expensive than DRAM and is generally used for CPU cache memory.

VRAM: Conventional DRAM chips allow one read or write operation at a time. Video RAM supports simultaneous read/write, read/read and write/write operations. It's most often used in graphics accelerators.

Seven Steps to a Better Memory

You can upgrade most desktop PCs with little fuss. Basically, all you have to do is figure out how much RAM the PC can handle, see how much is currently installed, buy the RAM and snap it in. Here's how to do it.

1. Check how much RAM is installed. To do so, run MS-DOS's MEM program. Note the total memory size.

2. Check your computer's memory requirements. You'll need to know how much RAM it can handle, the type of modules (30-pin or 72-pin), and your PC's RAM speed. Check your owner's manual, ask your dealer or call the PC's manufacturer.

Safe bet: Many Intel 486s use 30-pin, 70-nanosecond SIMMs. Most Pentium PCs use 72-pin, 60ns SIMMs. If you can't find your PC's memory access time, you can safely install 60ns SIMMs in any Pentium-based PC, and 70ns SIMMs in 486 PCs--even if your other SIMMs have slower access times. If access time is faster than required, it'll still work.

3. Check your computer's RAM hardware. Ground yourself, turn off the computer and unplug it from the wall. Turn off all peripherals. Remove the computer's case. Check the motherboard for SIMMs. They're about the size of a stick of gum, usually mounted on an angle and have DRAM chips lined vertically.

Jot down the number of SIMMs and empty sockets. Divide the amount of reported memory by the number of SIMMs installed. This will tell you the capacity of each SIMM. Suppose MEM reported 8MB of RAM available, and you see two SIMMs on the motherboard. The 8MB of RAM divided by two SIMMs means you have two 4MB SIMMs installed. If the numbers don't add up, it could be because some motherboards have soldered memory chips in addition to the expansion sockets, or the sockets include varying combinations (2MB and 4MB, for example) of chips.

If there are no empty SIMM sockets, you'll have to remove both 4MB SIMMs, and replace them with 8MB SIMMs, to upgrade to 16MB. If you have two or more empty SIMM sockets, on the other hand, you can keep the two existing 4MB SIMMs, and install two more 4MB SIMMs for a total of 16MB.

4. If you don't know your SIMMs' access time, look at the code numbers on the chips. You'll find the number 100, 80, 70 or 60, preceded by a dash. Sometimes manufacturers drop the zeros, representing 60ns as -6, or 100ns as -10. For example, the code number MT4C42580J-7 indicates a 70ns SIMM. Be forewarned: If you install SIMMs with a slower access time than your computer requires, you'll lose valuable data.

5. Shop around before you buy your memory upgrade. You'll often find a better price at a distributor or direct marketer than at local computer stores. Buy from a reputable vendor. Don't accept anything less than a complete money-back guarantee. Use your credit card for purchases, as the credit company will often guarantee a refund if the chips don't work.

6. Now it's time for the installation. Ground yourself, turn off the PC, unplug it from the wall, turn off all peripherals and open the case. Position yourself so the SIMM sockets face you horizontally. Look closely at a SIMM socket for a small notch, slightly off center. Align the identical notch on your SIMM with the one on the socket.

SIMMs snap in only one way, to protect against incorrect installation. By lining up the notches, you'll be certain to insert the chips properly. Gently place the SIMM in the socket. Push it in slowly until the retaining pins on either side snap into place.

Repeat this procedure for every SIMM you're installing. When you're done, replace the computer's cover and reconnect all peripherals.

7. Turn your computer on. Most PCs will automatically recognize the new memory. You should notice the increased memory capacity as your computer goes through its self-check. If your computer doesn't see the new memory, you'll have to run your BIOS setup program, and tell the computer how much memory is installed.

After a RAM upgrade, some computers will generate a nonfatal error message at start-up that reads, Incorrect Configuration Information--Run Setup. If this happens, you'll be given the option of pressing F1 to continue or F2 to enter Setup.

Review the BIOS settings. The computer will now display the correct amount of RAM. All you have to do is save settings and exit. In the rare event the computer didn't figure out the new memory settings, enter them manually and reboot.

Shopping on Memory Lane

You can purchase memory upgrades at computer superstores, local computer dealers and through direct marketers. Start by calling your computer's manufacturer and asking for a list of authorized dealers in your area. Verify the type of memory you need. Request their prices and compare them with the prices offered by mail-order vendors advertising in popular computer magazines.

Don't pay a local dealer or superstore more for your RAM upgrades than a mail-order vendor. RAM prices are consistent, regardless of the sales channel. If mail-order dealers quote an average of $50 per megabyte, expect to pay the same locally.

The following dealers have excellent reputations for selling memory upgrades direct to consumers. These dealers can help you determine the kind of memory you need and how much you should pay. Best of all, they handle both desktop and portable RAM upgrades.

Computer Discount Warehouse, 800-886-4CDW
Epoch Sales, 800-922-2397, 415-864-1696
Kingston Technology Corp., 800-337-8410, 714-435-2600
PCs Compleat, 800-669-4727, 508-480-8500

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