Does RAM speed really matter? What to know before overclocking RAM?

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RAM is one of the main components of a PC. It is important that you have a certain amount of RAM standing, ready to meet the necessary tasks. However, RAM has more to offer than just capacity: Clock speed and latency.

The question is whether RAM speed matters, especially since 12th-generation Alder Lake CPUs released in late 2021 can use both DDR4 and DDR5 RAM. The official maximum clock speed of DDR4 is 3200MHz, while DDR5 starts at 4800MHz, a 50% increase.

Although latency has increased significantly, from CL14 on most 3200MHz DDR4 kits to CL40 on most 4800MHz DDR5 kits, DDR5 is still said to be faster.

So is RAM speed really important?

What makes RAM fast?

RAM speed is affected by three main factors: higher frequency, lower latency, and more channels. Each of these aspects is different and has different implications for RAM performance.

Frequency or clock speed is the simplest: you increase the frequency, the performance increases. 

Increasing the frequency increases the memory bandwidth, or the amount of data that can be transferred at any given time. It’s pretty simple, and overclocking RAM basically works the same way as overclocking a CPU or GPU.

Latency is another thing, because lower latency does not increase the amount of data transferred per second, but reduces the amount of time it takes for the CPU and RAM to communicate. 

Reducing the delay manually is much more complicated and difficult than increasing the frequency. Either way, you should just enable XMP, which will set your RAM to the highest frequency and lowest latency for which the RAM is rated.

One more thing to keep in mind about frequency and latency: improving one often comes with a price to pay for the other. It’s hard to increase the frequency and still increase the delay and vice versa. 

Here’s another reason for the problem: if you want to overclock, increasing each frequency is usually better than improving both frequency and latency together.

Memory channels are not something you can change in the settings menu but instead they depend on your CPU and how many sticks of RAM you have. 

Motherboards and processors typically only provide two memory channels. If you have 2 or 4 sticks of RAM, they will run in dual-channel mode. 

If you only have a single stick, your RAM will run in single-channel mode, which will severely affect memory bandwidth.

How to make RAM faster?

That depends on the CPU, which needs access to a lot of data that can be transferred quickly. The CPU does have its own dedicated high-speed memory, known as cache, but it’s only quite small (even the Ryzen 7 5800X3D only has 96MB of shared cache). 

The CPU will inevitably ask RAM for some data, and when that happens, RAM becomes a bottleneck in the process, so, theoretically, faster RAM means more efficiency. better capacity.

But in reality, not all software is the same, not all apps and games depend on RAM in the same way. It’s the same way that not every app and game benefits from more CPU cores, faster individual cores, or faster graphics. Your experience with faster RAM will depend on what you do with your PC.

Performance benchmarks

So, exactly how much performance gain will you get by switching from single-channel to dual-channel memory, increasing frequency or reducing latency? It’s difficult to answer this comprehensively, so we’ll just focus on mainstream apps and games.

Unfortunately, not many people or publications compare single- and dual-channel memory, mainly because people only use 2 sticks of RAM. 

However, for laptops, this is really important, because many laptops use single-channel memory by default or have half of the memory soldered to the board and the other half in the RAM slot. 

The Asus Zephyrus G14 falls into the latter category, and Ultrabook Review ran some tests on this machine to see how bad the single-channel memory is.

The switch from dual to single channel memory affects the performance of most applications, from synthetic benchmarks to games. 

Gaming benchmarks are particularly interesting as we would think that the G14’s RTX 2060 Max-Q GPU is the most limiting factor. 

However, the performance drops by almost 20% in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. If this is a test using a faster laptop or desktop that can run games at higher frame rates, you’ll see a much larger difference between single- and dual-channel memory benchmarks.

In benchmarks that specifically focus on frequency and latency on both DDR4 and DDR5 memory, TechSpot tested a variety of apps and games on Intel’s 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs. In general, frequency and delay are usually not so important.

In Adobe Photoshop 2022, there is a noticeable difference in performance between slower and faster RAM, although these differences are rather modest. 

In most games, the fastest DDR5 6200MHz memory is not significantly faster than the slowest DDR4 2400MHz. 

However, Cyberpunk 2077 and Hitman 3 showed 6200MHz RAM achieving 29% and 15% more frames, respectively.

While faster RAM does not always mean better performance, you should still buy a suitable fast RAM kit. At the time of writing, there is virtually no price difference between a 16GB DDR4 2400MHz RAM kit and a 16GB DDR4 3600MHz RAM kit. So paying a few extra dollars for 3600MHz is totally worth it.

As for DDR5 memory, it’s almost twice as expensive as DDR4 and only supports at least on Alder Lake, maybe the extra money isn’t worth it. Maybe, DDR5 is more deserving of the Ryzen 7000 and Raptor Lake, but Alder Lake users will be fine with DDR4, unless you’re aiming for absolute top performance, no matter the price.

Of all the things that affect memory performance, dual-channel mode is definitely the most important factor. Not only is it easy to activate (you only need 2 or 4 sticks of RAM) but it also gives a significant performance boost in both apps and games. Meanwhile, frequency and latency are sometimes important but not so much in terms of overall day-to-day performance.

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