Most people know that more memory improves a computer’s performance. However, equal amounts of RAM can be installed in various configurations. The same 16 GB can be split up into two sticks of 8 GB each or four sticks of 4GB each. So, which of these arrangements is likely to be faster?
Four sticks of RAM aren’t usually slower than two as long as all the other attributes of the two memory sets are equal. However, even in quad-channel systems, where they double bandwidth, they may not improve performance sufficiently to justify the additional expenditure.
This article will explain the factors affecting RAM performance and help you decide which of the two configurations may work best for your needs. Read on for an in-depth explanation of everything RAM-related.
Is 4 Sticks of RAM Slower Than 2?
As with so much else in life, it depends. Are your motherboard and processor quad-channel capable? Do the frequency and timing of the four RAM sticks match perfectly?
Do the computational tasks you most frequently perform rely significantly on your processor, as opposed to your graphics card, to do their heavy lifting?
The answers to these questions will determine whether four sticks of RAM are indeed better than 2 for your needs. As we’ll soon see, it can vary between situations. You’ll also need to be sure the improvements justify the cost of buying additional RAM modules.
To better understand this, let’s first cover the various factors affecting your system’s RAM performance. By the time we’re done, you’ll have more clarity on which configuration suits your needs best.
Factors That Affect RAM Performance
RAM works as a fast bridge between your computer’s CPU or processor and its hard disks, where all the data you save is stored long-term. Doing so allows the processor to access this information much faster than it might otherwise. This is what makes it so vital to your machine’s overall performance.
Many factors go into determining how effectively the installed RAM on your computer raises its performance. As we’ll see, the number of sticks is among many other variables you need to consider in arriving at the best setup.
While the amount of RAM you install is not the only factor to consider in deciding how much you need on your computer, it is significant. So much so that many processing-intensive applications come with a recommended minimum installed RAM capacity.
Many heavy applications will not load without the necessary RAM capacity installed. Others may frequently freeze or crash. That’s why capacity is still the headline number manufacturers use to push their products.
Generally speaking, the more RAM, the better. Of course, more is expensive, so you’ll want to get only as much as you need, with a little headroom. Besides, you can always add more when you need it.
RAM today is also sufficiently cheap that consumers and enthusiasts can build rigs with 16-32 GB without breaking the bank. You’re presumably in this camp if you are considering using four sticks. If you’re considering a multi-RAM setup with less memory than this, it may not be worth the hassle.
When people refer to RAM speed, they’re trying to point to the frequency of a module. They are referencing the number of read-write cycles a particular model can perform on the data loaded on it. This number is usually expressed in megahertz (MHz).
A RAM module rated at 3,200 MHz is announcing that it can perform 3.2 billion read-write cycles per second.
Usually, the faster the RAM, the better it performs. However, different generations of similar speed can significantly affect performance, so you must look at other attributes.
Additionally, manufacturers offer various models at different price points. So, performance can vary even with modules of the same generation manufactured by the same producer. As with RAM capacity, speeds aren’t the only important factor in comparing models.
In the next few sections, we’ll see how timing, channel configurations, your computer’s other components, and the applications you most commonly use play a part in determining the effectiveness of the RAM you’ve installed.
Besides capacity and speed, latency or timing is the other key property of a module that determines its effectiveness. This is the time it takes from when your processor hands the RAM a task to when it delivers.
While speed and timing might seem closely related, they differ in crucial areas. The two also interact in interesting ways to deliver overall RAM performance.
Some applications may be much more dependent on lower latency than others. For instance, streaming at higher frame rates demands lower latency. However, many such tasks are now being handed off to other components of your computer, such as its graphics card.
So, while lower latency is always better, how low you need it to be (and its absolute minimum) will depend on other factors, such as the applications you use and the specifications of other components in your machine.
The Number of RAM Channels
While latency describes the time taken for a signal initiated by a memory controller to be executed, RAM channels are akin to the number of connections such signals have available to travel down. In other words, they describe carrying capacity. In networks, this would be described as bandwidth.
Dual Data Rate RAM
Today, many consumers use RAM in a DDR or Dual Data Rate setup. The DDR label implies that each pair of sticks delivers twice as many signals per clock cycle as a single stick.
However, the pairs of RAM sticks must have identical specifications and be installed in the appropriate slots. It is best to purchase pre-paired packages to match your RAM in this way. Additionally, you must install paired sticks in alternative slots on your motherboard.
If everything works as it should, dual-channel will usually give you better performance for the same amount of equal-speed and similarly-timed RAM.
For instance, a DDR4 RAM stick rated at 3200 MHz and running in a single channel will only operate at 1,600 Mhz or lower. On the other hand, the same capacity split across two identical speed sticks run in dual-channel will operate at 3,200 MHz together.
DDR RAM is effectively a way of doubling the bandwidth available for the same capacity.
Quad Data Rate RAM
Many high-end motherboards and server boards can also perform QDR or Quad Data Rate. This takes the bandwidth expansion made possible by DDR and doubles it, effectively quadrupling the bandwidth available for the same capacity of RAM as a single stick.
However, while this higher bandwidth significantly improves performance in servers and enterprise solutions, its impact on consumer applications is marginal in most cases.
This happens because the GPU is much more likely to be a bottleneck in performance improvements for such users.
For the same reasons, even manufacturers of QDR-capable boards sometimes only provide the capacity to install 2 sticks of RAM.
Remember that QDR-capable boards and chips will likely be much more expensive than DDR systems. Moreover, for the price, they offer a relatively minor boost in performance. In most cases, this money would be better spent elsewhere in your system.
Other Components in Your Computer
Your RAM is only a critical component affecting your computer’s performance. Besides the many attributes and your RAM’s effectiveness, you will also depend on other critical components inside your system.
Unless you have an unlimited budget, you’ll want to assemble a buying list in which different components are well-matched so that no component is underutilized or bottleneck your performance.
Having extravagant amounts of the most advanced modules will not help improve performance on an underpowered system. At the same time, too little or too slow RAM can create serious bottlenecks in a computer with top-of-the-line components.
In particular, the match of processor and RAM is key to the performance of both components. Advanced processors are usually faster and use multiple threads for parallel processing to speed up processing tasks. They make more demands of a computer’s RAM for the same reasons.
On the other hand, low-end processors are slower and have fewer threads. They cannot process as much data concurrently as a more expensive processor and need less RAM to function at maximum capacity.
Also, remember that not all manufacturers use the same technology, and these are changing from generation to generation. This means that even when similar RAM modules are installed on systems with equally powerful processors, performance results can vary from system to system based on the processor involved.
For instance, there have been reports of particular types of processors working better in 4-stick configurations than in 2-stick ones. Knowing the other components in your system is vital to understanding which configuration will work best for you. When in doubt, read up about them.
Finally, compatibility between various components is essential. For instance, your motherboard and processor must be capable of DDR or QDR functionalities to suit your RAM. If either component is not up to the task, your computer cannot exploit the greater bandwidth offered by these configurations.
The Applications You Use Most Often
With many applications now tapping your graphics card’s VRAM and other capabilities to execute memory functions, you’ll also want to watch what applications you commonly use before splurging out.
In general, processor-intensive applications will require more RAM than GPU-intensive applications. Of course, you’ll need to have a capable processor installed to take advantage of your RAM should you choose to go down this route.
As the previous section pointed out, having an advanced processor with inadequate memory is no good. But then, neither is having the best money can buy working with a budget chip.
Should You Get 4 or 2 Sticks of the Equivalent Amount of RAM?
Now that we’ve deeply dived into how RAM affects your computer’s performance, what answers does this provide about your original query?
We’ve seen that besides capacity, the performance of your RAM also depends on the following:
- The speed and timing of your RAM,
- Its configuration in channels,
- The other components inside your system, and
- The applications you most often use.
Based on these factors, the benefits of using 2 sticks of RAM are:
- It is usually cheaper than buying 4 sticks,
- You’re most likely not working on a QDR-capable board with a QDR-capable processor that can properly exploit the benefits of working with 4 sticks,
- Even on QDR-capable systems, 4 sticks may not offer superior performance to 2 sticks of RAM,
- You’re GPU is more likely to be the performance bottleneck based on the way applications are now designed, and
- Leaving slots free gives you room to add more later.
While a 4-stick is unlikely to be slower than a 2-stick system, its only benefit over the latter is increased bandwidth.
So, if you are using applications that specifically require the maximum bandwidth from your memory, a 4-stick memory configuration may work better for you than a 2-stick configuration.
However, even in this case, I’d recommend double-checking to confirm that your CPU is the current limiting factor in your system, as opposed to your GPU.
If this is not the case, any performance enhancements you see will likely be marginal at best. Your money might be better spent upgrading your graphics card than on the additional RAM.
4 sticks of RAM will not be slower than 2. However, they will cost more and may not provide enough performance boost to justify the additional expenditure.
Additionally, 4 sticks of RAM will take up more slots on your motherboard, blocking room for further upgrades.
For most consumer applications, your GPU is much more likely to be a significant performance bottleneck than your CPU.
Given this situation, directing your additional expenditure toward installing a better graphics card will likely yield a greater performance improvement than installing 4 sticks over 2.