What's the straight dope on RAM upgrades?

I currently have 128MB of RAM in my Dell Dimension 4300, and want to upgrade.

According to Dell’s website, my computer can take up to 512MB, 256MB in each of two slots. Of course, they want a rediculous $96 per 256MB chip. The specs they say my system takes are:

256 MB Upgrade for Dell Dimension 4300 Series 256 MB SDRAM, PC133, Non-Parity, Unbuffered

A quick trip on pricewatch.com reveals much cheaper prices, but a whole boatload of questions.

What is the difference between High Density and Low Density RAM, and which one do I need?

Is there a real difference in the cheapo grade v. mid-grade v. brand name RAM? Is it really worth twice the price?

I’ve never heard of memory heatsinks before, and the BS meter is high on these. Do I need those too??


I didn’t even know they put heatsinks on SDRAM. I have copper heat sinks on my DDR RAM, but I overclock my system; as long as you are not overclocking your RAM going heatsink-less will be fine. Just go with the high density PC133. I would stay away from generic brands - go with Corsair, Crucial or Kingston; for a couple buck more you get much better reliablity.

Crucial, the consumer-sales division of memory giant Micron, has relatively good prices and offers free overnight shipping. Using Techdeals (look on the right side), you can shave a few more $ off the total. It looks like Crucial wants $65.99 (before discount) for “SDRAM, PC133 • CL=2 • Unbuffered • Non-parity • 7.5ns • 3.3V • 32Meg x 64” which should be what you want. You can use the online memory guide to find exactly what you need, with guaranteed compatibility. The CL=2 stuff is slightly faster than CL=3, and is the same price. Crucial has a lifetime warranty.

The difference between generic and branded RAM is that, simply, branded works and generic doesn’t. Generic RAM is usually defective RAM chips from the major suppliers with the identifying information sanded off, places onto cheap circuit boards, and sold for a discount price. Some discount manufacturers, such as Kingston, are good at testing their RAM and only sell what passes. Others just sell it all, broken and all. If you use generic RAM in your system, you may well get corrupted data and system crashes.

One thing to note if you buy from pricewatch: While Micron RAM is generally of excellent quality, all Micron RAM is branded Crucial. If you see Micron branded RAM, it’s counterfeit, made from defective Micron chips that are sold at salvage prices to use in devices that are tolerant of data errors.

Heatsinks on SDRAM are unnecessary. On high-speed DDR they do serve a purpose, though it’s more EMI shielding for the delicate traces on the circuit board than cooling. RAM chips, even 500Mhz+ DDR, produce very little heat.