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Upgrading and Repairing PCs: Memory

Scott Mueller examines what memory is, where it fits into the PC architecture, and how it works. Then he looks at the various types of memory, speeds, and packaging of the chips and memory modules you can buy and install.
This chapter is from the book

Memory Basics

This chapter discusses memory from both a physical and logical point of view. First, we'll examine what memory is, where it fits into the PC architecture, and how it works. Then we'll look at the various types of memory, speeds, and packaging of the chips and memory modules you can buy and install.

This chapter also covers the logical layout of memory, defining the various areas of memory and their uses from the system's point of view. Because the logical layout and uses are within the "mind" of the processor, memory mapping and logical layout remain perhaps the most difficult subjects to grasp in the PC universe. This chapter contains useful information that removes the mysteries associated with memory and enables you to get the most out of your system.

Memory is the workspace for the processor. It is a temporary storage area where the programs and data being operated on by the processor must reside. Memory storage is considered temporary because the data and programs remain there only as long as the computer has electrical power or is not reset. Before the computer is shut down or reset, any data that has been changed should be saved to a more permanent storage device (usually a hard disk) so it can be reloaded into memory in the future.

Memory often is called RAM, for random access memory. Main memory is called RAM because you can randomly (as opposed to sequentially) access any location in memory. This designation is somewhat misleading and often misinterpreted. Read-only memory (ROM), for example, is also randomly accessible, yet is usually differentiated from the system RAM because it maintains data without power and can't normally be written to. Although a hard disk can be used as virtual random access memory, we don't consider that RAM either.

Over the years, the definition of RAM has changed from a simple acronym to become something that means the primary memory workspace the processor uses to run programs, which usually is constructed of a type of chip called dynamic RAM (DRAM). One of the characteristics of DRAM chips (and therefore most types of RAM in general) is that they store data dynamically, which really has two meanings. One meaning is that the information can be written to RAM repeatedly at any time. The other has to do with the fact that DRAM requires the data to be refreshed (essentially rewritten) every few milliseconds or so; faster RAM requires refreshing more often than slower RAM. A type of RAM called static RAM (SRAM) does not require the periodic refreshing. An important characteristic of RAM in general is that data is stored only as long as the memory has electrical power.

When we talk about a computer's memory, we usually mean the RAM or physical memory in the system, which is mainly the memory chips or modules the processor uses to store primary active programs and data. This often is confused with the term storage, which should be used when referring to things such as disk and tape drives (although they can be used as a form of RAM called virtual memory).

RAM can refer to both the physical chips that make up the memory in the system and the logical mapping and layout of that memory. Logical mapping and layout refer to how the memory addresses are mapped to actual chips and what address locations contain which types of system information.

People new to computers often confuse main memory (RAM) with disk storage because both have capacities that are expressed in similar megabyte or gigabyte terms. The best analogy to explain the relationship between memory and disk storage I've found is to think of an office with a desk and a file cabinet.

In this popular analogy, the file cabinet represents the system's hard disk, where both programs and data are stored for long-term safekeeping. The desk represents the system's main memory, which allows the person working at the desk (acting as the processor) direct access to any files placed on it. Files represent the programs and documents you can "load" into the memory. For you to work on a particular file, it must first be retrieved from the cabinet and placed on the desk. If the desk is large enough, you might be able to have several files open on it at one time; likewise, if your system has more memory, you can run more or larger programs and work on more or larger documents.

Adding hard disk space to a system is similar to putting a bigger file cabinet in the office—more files can be permanently stored. And adding more memory to a system is like getting a bigger desk—you can work on more programs and data at the same time.

One difference between this analogy and the way things really work in a computer is that when a file is loaded into memory, it is a copy of the file that is actually loaded; the original still resides on the hard disk. Because of the temporary nature of memory, any files that have been changed after being loaded into memory must then be saved back to the hard disk before the system is powered off (which erases the memory). If the changed file in memory is not saved, the original copy of the file on the hard disk remains unaltered. This is like saying that any changes made to files left on the desktop are discarded when the office is closed, although the original files are still preserved in the cabinet.

Memory temporarily stores programs when they are running, along with the data being used by those programs. RAM chips are sometimes termed volatile storage because when you turn off your computer or an electrical outage occurs, whatever is stored in RAM is lost unless you saved it to your hard drive. Because of the volatile nature of RAM, many computer users make it a habit to save their work frequently—a habit I recommend. Many software applications perform periodic saves automatically in order to minimize the potential for data loss.

Physically, the main memory in a system is a collection of chips or modules containing chips that are usually plugged into the motherboard. These chips or modules vary in their electrical and physical designs and must be compatible with the system into which they are being installed to function properly. This chapter discusses the various types of chips and modules that can be installed in different systems.

To better understand physical memory in a system, you should understand what types of memory are found in a typical PC and what the role of each type is. Three main types of physical memory are used in modern PCs. (Remember, I'm talking about the type of memory chip, not the type of module that memory is stored on.)

  • ROM—Read-only memory
  • DRAM—Dynamic random access memory
  • SRAM—Static RAM

The only type of memory you normally need to purchase and install in a system is DRAM. The other types are built in to the motherboard (ROM), processor (SRAM), and other components such as the video card, hard drives, and so on.


Read-only memory, or ROM, is a type of memory that can permanently or semipermanently store data. It is called read-only because it is either impossible or difficult to write to. ROM also is often referred to as nonvolatile memory because any data stored in ROM remains there, even if the power is turned off. As such, ROM is an ideal place to put the PC's startup instructions—that is, the software that boots the system.

Note that ROM and RAM are not opposites, as some people seem to believe. Both are simply types of memory. In fact, ROM could be classified as technically a subset of the system's RAM. In other words, a portion of the system's random access memory address space is mapped into one or more ROM chips. This is necessary to contain the software that enables the PC to boot up; otherwise, the processor would have no program in memory to execute when it was powered on.

The main ROM BIOS is contained in a ROM chip on the motherboard, but there are also adapter cards with ROMs on them as well. ROMs on adapter cards contain auxiliary BIOS routines and drivers needed by the particular card, especially for those cards that must be active early in the boot process, such as video cards. Cards that don't need drivers active at boot time typically don't have a ROM because those drivers can be loaded from the hard disk later in the boot process.

Most systems today use a type of ROM called electrically erasable programmable ROM (EEPROM), which is a form of flash memory. Flash is a truly nonvolatile memory that is rewritable, enabling users to easily update the ROM or firmware in their motherboards or any other components (video cards, SCSI cards, peripherals, and so on).


For more information on BIOS upgrades, see "Upgrading the BIOS," p. 328 (Chapter 5, "BIOS").


Dynamic RAM (DRAM) is the type of memory chip used for most of the main memory in a modern PC. The main advantages of DRAM are that it is very dense, meaning you can pack a lot of bits into a very small chip, and it is inexpensive, which makes purchasing large amounts of memory affordable.

The memory cells in a DRAM chip are tiny capacitors that retain a charge to indicate a bit. The problem with DRAM is that it is dynamic—that is, its contents can be changed. With every keystroke or every mouse swipe, the contents of RAM change. And the entire contents of RAM can be wiped out by a system crash. Also, because of the design, it must be constantly refreshed; otherwise, the electrical charges in the individual memory capacitors will drain and the data will be lost. Refresh occurs when the system memory controller takes a tiny break and accesses all the rows of data in the memory chips. The standard refresh time is 15ms (milliseconds), which means that every 15ms, all the rows in the memory are automatically read to refresh the data.


See "Chipsets," p. 198 (Chapter 4).

Refreshing the memory unfortunately takes processor time away from other tasks because each refresh cycle takes several CPU cycles to complete. In older systems, the refresh cycling could take up to 10% or more of the total CPU time, but with modern systems running in the multigigahertz range, refresh overhead is now on the order of a fraction of a percent or less of the total CPU time. Some systems allow you to alter the refresh timing parameters via the CMOS Setup. The time between refresh cycles is known as tREF and is expressed not in milliseconds, but in clock cycles (see Figure 6.1).

Figure 6.1

Figure 6.1 The refresh period dialog box and other advanced memory timings can be adjusted manually through the BIOS Setup program.

It's important to be aware that increasing the time between refresh cycles (tREF) to speed up your system can allow some of the memory cells to begin draining prematurely, which can cause random soft memory errors to appear.

A soft error is a data error that is not caused by a defective chip. To avoid soft errors, it is usually safer to stick with the recommended or default refresh timing. Because refresh consumes less than 1% of modern system overall bandwidth, altering the refresh rate has little effect on performance. It is almost always best to use default or automatic settings for any memory timings in the BIOS Setup. Many modern systems don't allow changes to memory timings and are permanently set to automatic settings. On an automatic setting, the motherboard reads the timing parameters out of the serial presence detect (SPD) ROM found on the memory module and sets the cycling speeds to match.

DRAMs use only one transistor and capacitor pair per bit, which makes them very dense, offering more memory capacity per chip than other types of memory. Currently, DRAM chips are being prepared for production with densities up to 4Gb (512MB) per chip, which at one transistor per bit requires at least 4 billion transistors. The transistor count in memory chips is much higher than in processors, because in a memory chip the transistors and capacitors are all consistently arranged in a (normally square) grid of simple repetitive structures, unlike processors, which are much more complex circuits of different structures and elements interconnected in a highly irregular fashion.

The transistor for each DRAM bit cell reads the charge state of the adjacent capacitor. If the capacitor is charged, the cell is read to contain a 1; no charge indicates a 0. The charge in the tiny capacitors is constantly draining, which is why the memory must be refreshed constantly. Even a momentary power interruption, or anything that interferes with the refresh cycles, can cause a DRAM memory cell to lose the charge and thus the data. If this happens in a running system, it can lead to blue screens, global protection faults, corrupted files, and any number of system crashes.

DRAM is used in PC systems because it is inexpensive and the chips can be densely packed, so a lot of memory capacity can fit in a small space. Unfortunately, DRAM is also relatively slow, typically much slower than the processor. For this reason, many types of DRAM architectures have been developed to improve performance. These architectures are covered later in the chapter.

Cache Memory: SRAM

Another distinctly different type of memory exists that is significantly faster than most types of DRAM. SRAM stands for static RAM, which is so named because it does not need the periodic refresh rates like DRAM. Because of how SRAMs are designed, not only are refresh rates unnecessary, but SRAM is much faster than DRAM and much more capable of keeping pace with modern processors.

SRAM memory is available in access times of 0.45ns or less, so it can keep pace with processors running 2.2GHz or faster. This is because of the SRAM design, which calls for a cluster of six transistors for each bit of storage. The use of transistors but no capacitors means that refresh rates are not necessary because there are no capacitors to lose their charges over time. As long as there is power, SRAM remembers what is stored. With these attributes, why don't we use SRAM for all system memory? The answers are simple.

Compared to DRAM, SRAM is much faster but also much lower in density and much more expensive (see Table 6.1). The lower density means that SRAM chips are physically larger and store fewer bits overall. The high number of transistors and the clustered design mean that SRAM chips are both physically larger and much more expensive to produce than DRAM chips. For example, a high-density DRAM chip might store up to 4Gb (512MB) of RAM, whereas similar sized SRAM chips can only store up to 72Mb (9MB). The high cost and physical constraints have prevented SRAM from being used as the main memory for PC systems.

Table 6.1. Comparing DRAM and SRAM













Even though SRAM is impractical for PC use as main memory, PC designers have found a way to use SRAM to dramatically improve PC performance. Rather than spend the money for all RAM to be SRAM memory, they design in a small amount of high-speed SRAM memory, used as cache memory, which is much more cost-effective. The SRAM cache runs at speeds close to or even equal to the processor and is the memory from which the processor usually directly reads from and writes to. During read operations, the data in the high-speed cache memory is resupplied from the lower-speed main memory or DRAM in advance. To convert access time in nanoseconds to MHz, use the following formula:

  • 1 / nanoseconds x 1000 = MHz

Likewise, to convert from MHz to nanoseconds, use the following inverse formula:

  • 1 / MHz x 1000 = nanoseconds

Today we have memory that runs faster than 1GHz (1 nanosecond), but up until the late 1990s, DRAM was limited to about 60ns (16MHz) in speed. Up until processors were running at speeds of 16MHz, the available DRAM could fully keep pace with the processor and motherboard, meaning that there was no need for cache. However, as soon as processors crossed the 16MHz barrier, the available DRAM could no longer keep pace, and SRAM cache began to enter PC system designs. This occurred way back in 1986 and 1987 with the debut of systems with the 386 processor running at speeds of 16MHz to 20MHz or faster. These were among the first PC systems to employ what's called cache memory, a high-speed buffer made up of SRAM that directly feeds the processor. Because the cache can run at the speed of the processor, it acts as a buffer between the processor and the slower DRAM in the system. The cache controller anticipates the processor's memory needs and preloads the high-speed cache memory with data. Then, as the processor calls for a memory address, the data can be retrieved from the high-speed cache rather than the much lower-speed main memory.

Cache effectiveness can be expressed by a hit ratio. This is the ratio of cache hits to total memory accesses. A hit occurs when the data the processor needs has been preloaded into the cache from the main memory, meaning the processor can read it from the cache. A cache miss is when the cache controller did not anticipate the need for a specific address and the desired data was not preloaded into the cache. In that case the processor must retrieve the data from the slower main memory, instead of the faster cache. Any time the processor reads data from main memory, the processor must wait longer because the main memory cycles at a much slower rate than the processor. As an example, if the processor with integral on-die cache is running at 3.6GHz (3,600MHz) on a 1,333MHz bus, both the processor and the integral cache would be cycling at 0.28ns, while the main memory would most likely be cycling almost five times more slowly at 1,333MHz (0.75ns). So, every time the 3.6GHz processor reads from main memory, it would effectively slow down to only 1,333MHz. The slowdown is accomplished by having the processor execute what are called wait states, which are cycles in which nothing is done; the processor essentially cools its heels while waiting for the slower main memory to return the desired data. Obviously, you don't want your processors slowing down, so cache function and design become more important as system speeds increase.

To minimize the processor being forced to read data from the slow main memory, two or three stages of cache usually exist in a modern system, called Level 1 (L1), Level 2 (L2), and Level 3 (L3). The L1 cache is also called integral or internal cache because it has always been built directly into the processor as part of the processor die (the raw chip). Because of this, L1 cache always runs at the full speed of the processor core and is the fastest cache in any system. All 486 and higher processors incorporate integral L1 cache, making them significantly faster than their predecessors. L2 cache was originally called external cache because it was external to the processor chip when it first appeared. Originally, this meant it was installed on the motherboard, as was the case with all 386, 486, and first-generation Pentium systems. In those systems, the L2 cache runs at motherboard and CPU bus speed because it is installed on the motherboard and is connected to the CPU bus. You typically find the L2 cache physically adjacent to the processor socket in Pentium and earlier systems.


See "Cache Memory," p. 64 (Chapter 3, "Processor Types and Specifications").

In the interest of improved performance, later processor designs from Intel and AMD included the L2 cache as a part of the processor. In all processors since late 1999 (and some earlier models), the L2 cache is directly incorporated as a part of the processor die, just like the L1 cache. In chips with on-die L2, the cache runs at the full core speed of the processor and is much more efficient. By contrast, most processors from 1999 and earlier with integrated L2 had the L2 cache in separate chips that were external to the main processor core. The L2 cache in many of these older processors ran at only half or one-third the processor core speed. Cache speed is very important, so systems having L2 cache on the motherboard were the slowest. Including L2 inside the processor made it faster, and including it directly on the processor die (rather than as chips external to the die) is the fastest yet. Any chip that has on-die full core speed L2 cache has a distinct performance advantage over any chip that doesn't.

A third-level or L3 cache has been present in some processors since 2001. The first desktop PC processor with L3 cache was the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, a high-end chip introduced in late 2003 with 2MB of on-die L3 cache. Although it seemed at the time that this would be a forerunner of widespread L3 cache in desktop processors, later versions of the Pentium 4 Extreme Edition (as well as its successor, the Pentium Extreme Edition) dropped the L3 cache, instead using larger L2 cache sizes to improve performance. L3 cache made a return to PC processors in 2007 with the AMD Phenom and in 2008 with the Intel Core i7, both of which have four cores on a single die. L3 is especially suited to processors with four or more cores because it provides an on-die cache that all the cores can share. I expect L3 cache to be a staple in future multicore processors.

The key to understanding both cache and main memory is to see where they fit in the overall system architecture. See Chapter 4 for diagrams showing recent systems with different types of cache memory.

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