Random access memory (also commonly referred to as RAM) is a physical component located within nearly every modern day desktop and laptop computer. Due to its physical nature -the fact that it can be seen, touched, and manipulated – RAM is referred to as a piece of hardware.
RAM is most often rectangular in shape and is roughly the size of a bookmark. A piece of modern desktop RAM will measure approximately 5 inches in length, 1.5 inches in width, and a fraction of an inch in depth. Laptop RAM tends to be smaller than desktop RAM as it needs to fit within a smaller space!
If you were to open up your computer right now you would likely see something similar to the pictures included with this article. From above and below, RAM looks like a thin wafer (usually greenish in colour) which is embedded with black rectangles and which has a long string of metallic rectangles along one of its sides.
- The green wafer is a printed circuit board which provides solidity and allows for internal communication.
- The black rectangles are microprocessors which perform calculations.
- The long string of metallic (gold or tin) rectangles are connectors which plug into a motherboard and allow for communication with other pieces of hardware.
The Role of Random Access Memory
We here at Seymour Computer Repair tend to think of RAM as your computer’s short term memory. The goal of RAM is to:
- Temporarily store your personal documents – for quick access.
- Temporarily store parts of your Operating System (Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Unix, Linux …) – for quick access.
- Temporarily store parts of your software applications (Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Paint, Firefox …) – for quick access.
The main idea here is that it stores information temporarily in order to provide quick access to it. While your computer is on, RAM stores whatever your computer is currently interested in; as your computer becomes interested in different things the contents of RAM changes. It is important to notice that once your computer is turned off for the night your RAM is completely emptied, losing all of its contents. This is why your computer also needs a hard drive – to store all of your files permanently!
Symptoms of Random Access Memory Failure
RAM is said to have failed when it incorrectly stores or retrieves information. Sometimes a whole piece/stick of RAM fails while other times only certain sections of a piece/stick of RAM fail. Symptoms of random access memory failure include:
- A computer which makes a strange beeping sound as it starts up: As a computer starts up it performs a bunch of diagnostics designed to check whether all of its critical parts are in working order. If everything is OK then your computer will load up normally. If, however, a critical problem is found then your computer will not load its operating system but will instead emit a bunch of strange beeps. These strange, seemingly random, beeps are actually a beep code – a special signal telling you or a computer repair technician why your computer won’t load.
- A computer which freezes, crashes, or reboots unexpectedly: Your computer continually fills RAM with new information based upon what it is currently interested in. If your RAM is having problems writing this new information onto itself or reading information from itself then you are going to have problems. Potential outcomes include: unexpected crashing (quitting of programs, displaying of error screens … etc.), unexpected freezing (inability to move the mouse, inability to open files, inability to open programs … etc.), and unexpected reboots (computer suddenly shuts down).
Random Access Memory Repair
The bad news is that you can’t actually repair RAM since it is an extremely intricate piece of hardware with tons of microscopic connections. The good news is that you can easily test RAM and replace it, quite cheaply, if necessary.
If you are getting a beep code
Analyze the beep code: If your computer won’t start up and, instead, lets out a bunch of beeps then head over to this beep code analysis page in order to find out where your problem lies. If your computer is complaining about its RAM then there is a good chance that you will need to replace it. In order to verify this diagnosis you can try using Memtest86+ (see below) or swapping your RAM (see below). If your computer is not complaining about its RAM, but is instead complaining about another piece of hardware, then we recommend that you take a look at our article discussing that particular piece of hardware.
If you are not getting a beep code
Run Windows Memory Diagnostics Tool: Microsoft Windows comes with a built in tool to check your computer’s RAM; you can find the complete instructions on how to use it here. If you just want a quick how-to, follow these instructions:
- Click on the Windows button (the circle in the bottom left corner of the screen).
- Click on Control Panel.
- Click on System and Security.
- Click on Administrative Tools.
- Double click on Windows Memory Diagnostic.
- Click Restart Now and Check for Problems.
- Follow any instructions given to you by the Windows Memory Diagnostics Tool and then wait for the process to complete.
Download and Run Memtest86+: Memtest86+ is a very well known memory testing application which can be found here. Memtest86+ is a great tool; however, it is significantly more cumbersome to use than Windows Memory Diagnostic – so gives Window’s built in tool a try first. For the full instructions on how to use it and how to analyze the information you gather from it read through the support section of the website. If you just want a quick how-to, follow these instructions:
- Head over to the Memtest86+ website and click on Free Download.
- We recommend that you download the Windows (zip) ISO image for creating bootable CD.
- Unzip the file you just downloaded.
- Burn the ISO file onto a CD or DVD. If you are uncertain, take a look at our guide on how to burn an ISO or take a look here.
- Boot your computer from the Memtest86+ CD or DVD. If you are uncertain, take a look at our guide on how to boot from a CD or take a look here.
- Follow the instructions that Memtest86+ gives you.
Swap your RAM: This is the least reliable method to test RAM so try it last!
- Ground yourself, by touching your sink or a metal table leg, in order to get rid of any excess static electricity.
- Grab the computer which is malfunctioning (we will call it PC-1) and take out its RAM. If you don’t know how to take out RAM then read here.
- Grab a computer which is working properly (we will call it PC-2) and take out its RAM.
- Put 1 stick of PC-1‘s RAM into PC-2. Proceed to use PC-2 for a while and see if you notice any weird behavior. If you do notice weird behavior then this stick of RAM may be bad.
- Take the stick of RAM from step 4 out of PC-2. Put a different stick of PC-1‘s RAM into PC-2. Test PC-2 again just like in step 4.
- Repeat steps 4 & 5 for every stick of PC-1‘s RAM.
As has been discussed – random access memory (RAM) is an extremely important component responsible for providing short term memory. Since RAM has no moving parts it tends to last quite some time before failure. Despite saying this, RAM – like every electronic device, will eventually die.
If your computer begins freezing or crashing at odd times it is generally best to test your RAM by using Windows Memory Diagnostic Tool which is built into the Windows OS, or Memtest86+ which is a free third party memory testing application.
If you do find that your memory has gone bad you simply need to take it out and install a new stick in its place. Luckily RAM can be purchased from nearly any computer repair shop or electronics company for a relatively low price.