What is RAM? – Installation, Problems, Symptoms, Diagnosis

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What is RAM? – Installation, Problems, Symptoms, Diagnosis

Random Access Memory, or RAM, is a way for your computer to store temporary data, rather than in a cache or permanent storage. Storage, often wrongly referred to as memory, is permanent data stored on a hard drive or solid state drive. A CPU cache is a small amount of often-needed memory that is stored on a CPU chip. Both the RAM and CPU cache are temporary data stores that are cleared when your computer is turned off.

One way to think of the difference between these different types of storage is to imagine them as paper documents. The cache is a list of names or numbers you constantly refer to and keep close at hand. A folder full of papers you may need for your current task is similar to computer memory or RAM. The file cabinet full of folders for all your projects is like the storage on your hard drive.

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Installation of  RAM

Memory modules, pictured in the image above, are small circuit boards that lay perpendicular to the motherboard. Note that I removed many of the other components to make the memory more visible. If your computer has more than one module you should remove all of them except one and then run the diagnostic tests above or perform the task that normally causes the problem.

RAM Problems

RAM problems often go undiagnosed, but they also can be misdiagnosed. Some common problems that have nothing to do with memory can cause the symptoms listed above:

  • Many of the symptoms listed above can actually be caused by a hard drive problem. You can run a utility called CHKDSK by pressing the Windows button and R at the same time, typing CHKDSK into the dialog box, and pressing enter. Alternatively, you can click on Computer, right-click the drive you intend to scan, click Properties, then the Tools tab, and click Check now. Note you will need to restart your computer. Also, be aware this process may take an extended amount of time to finish running. If you hear your hard drive making lots of noise during normal operation, it may be the cause of your problems. Defragmenting your drive every few months is a good idea as well.
  • If the performance problems occur during graphic-intensive programs such as games or rendering, your graphics driver could be outdated. Be sure to always keep your drivers up to date.
  • Excessive heat in your machine can cause a variety of problems.
  • Random reboots can be caused by a failing power supply.
  • Dirt and dust can also cause issues that look like memory problems. It is a good idea to clean dust out of your computer at least once a year, more often if you have furry pets.
  • Your computer can also have a virus. Note that many people automatically assume any problem with their computer is caused by a virus and many large retail repair stores frequently misdiagnose hardware problems as viruses. Make sure you have a good anti-virus program and run scans on a regular basis.

Symptoms of a RAM Problem

Memory problems are less common than other computer problems because memory sticks have no moving parts and thus fewer points of failure. However, due to this many RAM problems go undiagnosed. Memory usually will last longer than other computer components so manufacturers offer longer warranties for it than other parts. If you buy brand name memory it will likely have a lifetime warranty.

  • When you first turn on your computer it runs fine, but as you go about your business you notice that its performance diminishes. By lunchtime, websites take minutes to load and local programs run at a snail’s pace. This type of gradual deterioration of PC performance, especially with memory-intensive programs, may be caused by a RAM problem.
  • Your computer randomly restarts while you are in the middle of something or freeze sporadically. It may also reboot almost immediately upon opening the desktop. This could be a sign of faulty RAM.
  • A blue screen with white text flashes before restarting. Blue-screen errors are annoying because you don’t even have a chance to read the error message. Bad RAM is one thing that causes them.
  • Files—particularly ones you frequently access and save—seem to be inexplicably corrupted. RAM issues can lead to this problem, which can worsen over time. The file structure of your hard drive may slowly degenerate and you will no longer be able to boot your machine.
  • Your attempts to install a new program repeatedly fail for unknown reasons. You try to reinstall the operating system, but keep getting odd error messages.

There are certainly a variety of problems that could cause the issues above, but faulty RAM is an often-overlooked root cause of inexplicable issues. If you have one or a combination of the above problems you are likely facing a memory issue.

Diagnosing the Problem

  • If the symptoms started after you recently added more memory, the new module could be faulty. This seems obvious, but any time a problem begins after making a change, first check to see if the change caused the problem.
  • Your computer may produce multiple beeps or a continuous beep when you turn it on. These beeps can indicate many different problems, including being a symptom of bad RAM. Beep codes vary depending on the manufacturer of your BIOS. You can look up the beep codes for your specific computer to figure out its specific problem.
  • If you are not comfortable fixing your computer yourself, I recommend taking your computer to a local repair store rather than a big retail store. Big stores are in the business of selling additional parts, not fixing problems.
  • If you are an advanced user, there are diagnostic programs that can help you figure out if you have a memory problem. Your computer may have one pre-installed by the manufacturer or you can download a third-party program. The Windows Memory Diagnostic by Microsoft is also good if you suspect memory problems on a Windows PC.
  • If the above programs indicate your memory sticks are functioning, but you still suspect a RAM problem or if you need to find which memory module is the problem, you can try removing the modules and placing them in different slots.
  • To remove a RAM module you need to press the tiny levers on each end to release it.
  • Test each of your memory modules one at a time to find which ones are bad. When you find the sticks that are bad you can order replacements. It is possible all the memory modules are damaged if your computer experienced a serious power surge.
  • If all the memory modules appear bad, then the problem is likely with the memory slot itself. Try testing each memory module in each of the memory slots to find if one of the slots is faulty. To fix a faulty slot you would need to replace your motherboard.
  • When replacing a module, make sure the indention on the bottom is lined up correctly with the slot and then press it in until you hear the levers snap. Note that some levers do not make a snapping sound.

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