- I like using Crucial.com; easy-to-use website
- Buy the same-speed RAM as your older chips
- No need to buy the fastest RAM unless you are replacing all chips
- No need to go hog-wild and max-out the capacity
When I bought my Gateway FX 530s, in early 2007, RAM was expensive enough to warrant a second look. At that time, you could buy Vista systems with 1G, 2G and 3G of RAM -- I chose the middle of the road, and soon that 2G was considered the minimum.
If you mainly surf and email, 2G is adequate. Even on my machine, where I normally run 100-page word processing documents, databases, a compiler and a photo-editor all at the same time, I've never noticed a memory problem or excessive paging. As busy as my machine is, it typically hovers around 45% memory utilization. In other words, 2G was (and is) fine.
With the advent of x64 Windows 7, machines can now take advantage of far more memory than x32 vista or XP -- and now 6G-machines are common. But this is more memory than most people need (at least for the time being) and that 6G is still relatively expensive, adding several hundred dollars to a machine's cost.
My belief is this: When you need that much RAM, operating systems will have changed and you will want a faster computer anyway. When you buy that faster computer, 8G will be the base-model, with a 12G upgrade option. Don't bother spending a premium on memory now; wait until you actually need it (the same goes with top-of-the-line hard disks and video cards).
However, this week I was fixing a friend's XP computer and I noticed it only had 512MB of RAM. Even for XP, that is a little weak. I decided to order more RAM for my machine and I could re-cycle some of my old memory into her computer. In the end, I went from 2G to 3G and she jumped to 1.5G; it was a win-win for both of us.
I ordered the memory from Crucial.com (Micron), and as always, their site is a pleasure to use. Pick your machine, and it recommends the proper RAM:
By default, the site offers the fastest and most dense RAM your system can hold. Naturally, this is the most expensive and is vaguely deceiving. Don't let the initial price scare you. Ignore this first recommendation and click "See all compatible parts". In the new list, you will find smaller chips and slower speeds. Aim low.
In my case, I could choose 2GB DDR2 PC2-8500 or the slower 1GB DDR2 PC2-5300 chips. Since I was keeping 1G of my older memory, and it was a slower speed, I chose the slower chip. If you mix fast and slow chips in the same machine, the faster memory has to slow down to match the slower speed, so nothing is gained. According to Tom's Hardware.com memory tests, there is only a few percent differences between the two speeds and most people would be hard-pressed to see the difference.
Even if I hoped to buy a newer, faster computer in the near future, I wouldn't be able to move this new RAM to the new computer because, like all new computers, they use a different (and faster) type of RAM. This has been true since the dawn of Personal Computers.
On a late Monday night, 11:30PM, I placed an online order for 2x 1GB DIMMs. The chips arrived 36 hours later by second day air. The irony is they shipped from Meridian, Idaho and I live in Boise, a mere 7 miles away.
When installing the new memory chips, always install in pairs, which means always buy two matching sticks. On my machine, I pulled two of my four 512MB chips and replaced them with two 1GB chips, keeping matched sets in the same "bank." Most motherboards now color-code the DIMM slots to remind you of this.
I noticed that Staples Office Supply only charges $39.00 to install RAM. If you can open the case and press two white levers, you can do this yourself and save enough money for a nice dinner. Installing RAM is easy; the hard part is buying it. Crucial's website solves that problem and they guarantee it will work in your machine. Do it yourself.
Total cost for two 2G DIMMS was $65, and for that price, I jumped from (2-gig at 45% utilization) to (3G at 35% utilization). This was a relatively minor upgrade, but my friend got a monumental jump from 1/2G to 1.5G.
The upgrade from 2G to 3G is nice; but it would have been nice to jump to 4 -- but with no compelling reason, and because I was watching the costs, I stayed at 3. Since I had to buy RAM anyway (for the other computer), I piggy-backed on the order. If I ever need that extra Gig of Ram, I'll toss the remaining two 512MB sticks and buy two more DIMMS for the same price (or lower, by then).
All-in-all, ordering from Crucial is a good experience. After getting past the initial sticker-shock, and realizing they were showing the fastest and densest chips first, I found reasonable prices.