Thanks for the Memory

It’s all well and good having the greatest gadgets and gizmos, the hottest hardware or the slinkiest software, but if your memory lets you down from time to time, your computing experience will be severely hindered. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at your RAM.

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By  Vijaya George Published  June 30, 2002

RAM versus Storage|~||~||~|When a PC slows down under the pressure of several memory-guzzling applications, an end user’s first instinct is to point a finger at the processor. Before you junk your processor, which may, incidentally, be working just fine, it might be time to take another look at your memory. Running a 64 MB RAM (Random Access Memory) with a Pentium III or IV processor might be a gross injustice to your CPU. Surely, it’s time for a memory upgrade?

Once upon a time, the industry standard used to be 64 MB RAM. But not anymore. The minimum recommended memory today is 128 MB RAM. Like the saying goes, you can never really have enough RAM, and if your PC is running an operating system such as Windows XP — with multimedia applications, imaging software and games — lack of sufficient memory will slow down your computer considerably.

Sadly, little attention is paid to memory, as a result of which consumers are easily duped into settling for downgraded modules. While there are no fool-proof methods to ensure that you haven’t been conned into purchasing a shoddy product, there are some measures that will enable you to make wise memory-purchasing decisions.

But first, what is the role of Random Access Memory (RAM) and how is it different from storage? Storage is often referred to as permanent memory and is a place where you can store your data, switch off your machine, come back the next day and find it where you left it. Storage areas would typically be non-volatile memory spaces such as the hard disk, floppy disk, CD-ROMs and external devices such as memory sticks, flash memory cards and diskon keys.

But memory in a PC refers to a temporary space allotment that only functions when your PC is running. This is where your operating system, programmes and any data currently in use are kept so that they can be quickly accessed by the processor. If, instead of doing this, your computer’s CPU had to constantly access storage media like the hard disk to retrieve every piece of data it needed, it would operate more slowly.

||**||Role of RAM|~||~||~| To understand the function of RAM better, let’s start from scratch. When you switch a computer on, it loads data from a read-only memory (ROM) and performs a quick check to ensure that all the major components are in working order. Then, it loads the BIOS from the ROM. The BIOS provides basic information about storage devices, boot sequence, security, and plug-and-play devices. Next up, the operating system is loaded from the hard drive onto the RAM. All crucial applications of the OS are then maintained in the RAM for as long as the PC remains switched on. This allows the CPU quick access to the OS and, in turn, enhances the performance and functionality of the overall
system.

Moreover, any application that you open gets loaded into the RAM first. To conserve precious RAM space, most applications are designed to load only the essential parts of the programme initially and then load other pieces as needed. After an application is loaded, any files that are opened for use in that application are also loaded into the RAM. Once a file is saved and closed, it is written into a more permanent storage device such as a hard disk and this is removed from the RAM. But once an application is closed, it is not stored in the RAM.

Meanwhile, a continuous cycle goes on in the background where the CPU keeps requesting data from the RAM, and processes it and writes new data back to it. In most computers, this continuous movement of data between the CPU and the RAM occurs millions of times every second. However, if you have less memory, the processor is forced to go to the hard disk continuously and replace old data in the RAM with the new before accessing it. This is because RAM never runs out of memory. Unlike the hard disk, which will not accept any data once it has reached maximum capacity, RAM will continue to operate but much more slowly.

||**||The case for branded|~||~||~|This is why the memory module or RAM, as it is more popularly called, plays a significant role in determining whether you twiddle your thumbs while each application opens up or whether you can work on multiple programmes simultaneously.

It isn’t enough to purchase any memory module from the local market. Some crucial factors to consider include the quality of the RAM and its compatibility with your motherboard. Judging the quality of the memory module and ensuring that it is truly a branded product, and not “remarked” or counterfeit is one of the trickiest issues to handle. The difference will not usually be visible until after a couple of months of use. A downgraded module would reduce the performance of your PC considerably.

IT vendors and distributors place the blame for the widespread use of downgraded memory modules on system assemblers and resellers. “An average customer often will not know the difference between a premium module and a downgraded one. He also won’t be able to make out if the RAM is compatible with the chipset on the motherboard. It is the system assemblers that must be educated on this,” explains Sankar Kiruba, marketing manager of FIC, Dubai. The Taiwan-based motherboard manufacturer has recently ventured into the memory module business.

According to Kiruba, resellers also must be held guilty of not helping their customers make informed choices, especially in a region such as the Middle East, where there is a large market for assembled PCs. “Resellers must educate their customers about the latest trends and help them make good purchasing decisions. Instead, these resellers and channels give customers only what they ask for. If a customer asks for a motherboard that supports SDRAM (synchronous data RAM), he’ll give him that. He doesn’t bother to tell him that the market is gradually moving towards DDR (double data rate), that it might be a better option in terms of performance and that the price difference between the two is almost minimal.”

Resellers, however, pass the buck on to system assemblers. “On an average, system assemblers make only about $40 on each PC that they assemble,” says Mohamed Hussain, channel sales manager of Alpha Data Distribution, Dubai. “So, for them, every penny counts and they are not motivated by the brand. That is why instead of using good brands like Kingston or Apacer on which the return due to failure is only about 1%; they go for the cheapest brands in the market to save money. On bad products, the return is sometimes 4 and 5%.”

||**||Assemblers get the blame|~||~||~| Hussain explains that the use of downgraded modules is “a big headache” for the reseller because the time and money spent sending a faulty product back to a manufacturer could be better invested in buying a branded product. As most memory modules today come with a lifetime warranty, resellers are compelled to replace faulty products. He admits, however, that resellers themselves are not inspired to take the issue up with system assemblers. If resellers, on the one hand, insist that system assemblers use only specific branded products and customers who purchase assembled PCs make similar demands, there is the likelihood that more consumers will have better-performance PCs.

Anil Nair, channel sales manager of Jurassic Technologies, distributor of Transcend RAMs, used in PC brands such as Dell and Compaq, agrees with Hussain. “For assemblers, the cost should be aggressive enough to sell in the market, and for this, they will cut corners wherever they can,” says Nair. To avoid this situation, Jurassic Technologies, which primarily caters to corporate consumers, assembles its own machines. But Nair disagrees that all resellers are guilty of selling shoddy products or not educating their customers. “That’s probably true of a showroom seller, who is only worried about the cost,” says Nair. “He doesn’t have the time to waste helping a customer make purchasing decisions. By then, the customer may decide to go to the neighbouring shop and purchase the product. But our sales people make sure that they make recommendations to our customers on what might be a good buy based on the user’s profile and his budget.”

Budget is a significant issue where memory modules are concerned. “Prices for memory modules fluctuate even more than gold,” explains Riaz Mohammed, sales executive of memory manufacturer Twinmos technologies ME. The situation is quite like the stock market. While some say it is based on the demand-and-supply situation, others complain that it depends on the whims and fancies of the world’s three major chip manufacturers — Micron, Samsung and Hynix — who together control 70% of the global market share for memory.

||**||Price Fluctuations|~||~||~| Rizwan Noor, assistant general manager of Memory Technology Middle East, distributors of Micron and Spectek memory modules in the region, disagrees. “Demand and supply is not created artificially. There are times when we make profits and times when we suffer major losses as well. 2000, for instance, was a good year for chip manufacturers and the demand for RAM was very high. So, prices were stable. Unfortunately, suppliers expected the demand to be high in 2001 also. But there was less demand than expected and this led to an oversupply and it killed the prices.”

As a result, a 128 MB RAM, which was selling for $45 in the beginning of 2001 came down to $8 later in the year. Later, prices rocketed to $30 when it was thought that Micron would buy the ailing Hynix. However, when the deal failed to come through and Hynix shareholders refused to sell, prices dipped to $15 again. Prices for memory modules suffered a further downturn with the September 11 attacks. “August and September are usually two good months for PC buying in the U.S,” explains Noor. “But with the attacks, the demand for PCs suffered. Consequently, traders were forced to dump the products before they lost more money and prices were slashed by 10 to 20% below cost price.”

||**||Contract versus Spot Pricing|~||~||~| To prevent such instability caused by price fluctuations in memory from affecting PC pricing, IT vendors such as Compaq, IBM and Dell (to name a few) enter into six-month or one-year contracts with high-end chip and memory module manufacturers, (such as Micron, Transcend, Kingston, Simple Tech and, more recently, Twinmos) whereby, they agree on a fixed rate for memory modules. However, these prices differ from spot prices, or the daily prices, made available to resellers and end users. While contract pricing does ensure stability in PC prices, vendors stand the risk of incurring losses if spot prices are lower; likewise with manufacturers.

For an end user, the issue of contract pricing does not arise. Established PC vendors are careful to ensure that they use premium RAM modules. But consumers need to guard against modules that are used in assembled products. Special attention needs to be paid to the brand and specifications while purchasing a PC or upgrading the RAM. One popular module in the regional market is Spectek, which controls 60% of the market share in the Middle East and Africa. Spectek, a subsidiary of Micron, is reported to use 13 different testing methods to ensure that the product is compatible with most motherboards in the market, says Noor. A half-a-billion dollar assembly plant in Idaho, USA takes care of this. However, some resellers hinge on the popularity of Spectek, and remark cheap, untested OEM modules shipped from Taiwan as Spectek.
To prevent this, the first chip on the original module comes with a small Spectek hologram, the second with an MTC hologram and the Spectek name appears on the PCB as well.

Similar measures have been taken by module manufacturers such as Twinmos. The company uses a sophisticated hologram sticker with its logo on the first chip of its module. Likewise, its PCB carries a TTI (Twinmos Technologies Incorporation) or M.TEC inscription on it. Meanwhile, Taiwan-based motherboard manufacturer FIC has taken to shipping its own memory modules with its motherboards to avoid compatibility issues caused by the use of counterfeit RAM modules.

Clearly, two distinct markets are at work in the chip and module industry — the memory module manufacturers, who are taking preventive measures to ensure that their products are not remarked, and a parallel industry that purchases defective chips at spot prices from the Taiwanese market, assembles them and ships them at dirt cheap prices. Caught in the middle of this web is the average consumer, who knows little about RAM and its possible role in enhancing the performance of his computer. But now, that situation demands change. The onus today rests with the consumer to make an informed choice so that his computing experience is enriched and he gets his money’s worth.

Click here to read some FAQs before you upgrade your RAM. ||**||

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