There has been chatter about DDR5 RAM since 2014. Not much has happened since then, but in November, the release of the DDR5 RAM was announced. This was in line with the Alder Lake processor chip series from Intel which was also recently released.
There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation that comes with new tech equipment. DDR5 isn’t any different. With numerous new features and promising better performance, avid PC users wonder whether to upgrade from DDR4 to DDR5.
This review takes a closer look at what both types of RAM have to offer, what the DDR4 holds in store for those still using it, and if it makes more sense to stick with your current RAM or upgrade to the newly released DDR5 RAM.
The first thing you’re going to look at when comparing DDR4 and DDR5 RAM is the specs. There are quite a number of differences between the two in the key areas which affect workstation and gaming PC users. These include:
- Memory capacity
- Power efficiency
We will take a closer look at how each option compares in these aspects later on. It’s important to note that while the DDR5 RAM could have quite a number of improvements, they might not have much of an impact on desktop computers for a while.
Price and Availability
Whether you’re setting up a gaming or workstation PC, cost plays a critical role in the components and parts you choose for your PC. At the moment, the price for DDR5 RAM is crazy high. This is only because it is still a new technology, and everyone is scampering to get one while production is low. After some time, the price will self-correct. At that point, it will be easier to compare costs and see which of the RAM options makes more economic sense.
Why not also read: Best DDR5 Motherboard Guide
With regards to availability, there are only a couple of DDR5 kits that have been released by major retailers. These sold out quickly. The options that were available at the time were 32GB kits of DDR55-4800. These were going for close to £300. DDR4 RAM in the same specs costs a little more, which could be an upside.
DDR4, on the other hand, is widely available and has been for quite a while. It comes in a range of speeds, capacities, and prices. It makes it easier for gamers the RAM in specs that best suit their hardware.
As time passes, DDR5 will also have more variety as the Alder Lake range of CPU take hold, and the RAM gets more support from mainstream hardware manufacturers. It is expected that AMD will also jump in 2022 to support DDR5 for wider availability and more competitive pricing.
RAM performance depends on a variety of factors. But the general consideration with regards to performance is speed, which is measured in Megatransfers per second (MT/s) and given an MHz rating.
DDR4 has a range of standards. The lowest is 1,600MHz, and the highest is 3,200MHz. However, some manufacturers have released DDR4 kits that have higher speeds. Technologies like Extreme memory profile (XMP) have been enabling greater speeds. It's not uncommon to find DDR4 RAM kits capable of upwards of 4,000MHz and a record-setting 5,000MHz.
These kits are rare because such speeds are not practical in real-world performance, and the gains aren't obvious or immediate. But these kits exist, although with a steep price tag.
DDR5, on the other hand, is setting its own standards. Speeds start at 4,800MHz, going all the to 6,400MHz. Similar to DDR4, DDR5 will have faster options in the future. Some manufacturers have announced they are working on DDR5 kits with as much as 8,400MHz and others 12,600MHz.
However, these kits are not yet available. But, with the launch of support motherboards and CPUs, it is just a matter of time. Even as it stands, DDR5 already has a raw speed that surpasses that of the fastest DDR4.
The second side of the performance coin is timing. Timing controls the latency of certain memory functions and can impact the real-world performance of memory. Typically, timings are always looser on higher frequency memory. But on the DDR5, it is unlikely that the timings will cause the DDR5 memory to perform worse than DDR4.
DDR5 also has a unique channel architecture that improves efficiency and will help the DDR5 have another performance edge over DDR4.
DDR5 kits have a die that is twice as dense compared to DDR4. DDR4 chips could only be manufactured up to 16GB, but DDR5 can have capacities of up to 64GB. There is a high chance that you will see single sticks with up to 128GB. Some brands have even teased having a 512GB module, although this wouldn’t be for the mainstream buyers.
For the appropriate buyers, such memory capacities will make it easier to plan long-term upgrades and also increase memory capacity on the smaller Mini-ITX builds.
Power and thermals
Having a shiny new RAM module will not just impact your finances in the shortest. You also have to consider how much power it will consume and what that means for the rest of your system.
Manufacturers have made excellent strides in power consumption with every successive DDR memory stick that came before. DDR5 needs less power to run even with improved performance. While DDR4 has a standard voltage demand of 1.2V, DDR5 just needs 1.1V. It might not seem like a lot, but it could mean a few more minutes of gaming on a laptop or tablet or giving you a few more minutes to complete a project.
Typically, a lower voltage demand means the component will run cooler. But this is not the case with DDR5. The design of the DDR5 kit has the voltage regulator for the memory on the module itself instead of on the motherboard. Combined with the greater density and the enhanced performance, DDR5 kits might actually run hotter than DDR4, which could also mean greater cooling demands like having a more extensive heat sink and even some active cooling for optimum performance.
The greatest difference between DDR4 and DDR5 RAM is compatibility. The pin layout for DDR5 will be different from the previous generations. The motherboards for DDR4 and DDR5 won't be cross-compatible. That could mean having to change most of your current setup. It's a cost implication that most mainstream PC users might not be able to handle on short notice and could reduce the uptake of the new RAM technology.
Error Correcting Code (ECC)
Memory Error checking is a critical feature for servers. It must remain online at all times. Although this feature is present in DDR4, DDR5 promises improved error checking by transferring control of this feature ‘on-die.’ This removes the memory controller that oversees this function from the CPU directly onto the RAM chips themselves. This brings gains to the processing power.
Data Rate and Clock Frequency
Double Data Rate Random Access Memory gets its name from its ability to carry double the information on each clock cycle compared to older RAM versions which could only carry information by utilising the “falling” part of the digital signal as well as the “upward” part of the digital signal.
Although these varieties could have an effective transfer rate of about 2000GBps, the clock frequency was limited to only 1000MHz.
DDR4 has a stock data rate of between 1600-3200GBps. DDR5 upscales this to 4800-6400GBps, which is double that of DDR4. However, RAM manufacturers can upgrade this frequency beyond this substantially.
There are DDR4 varieties in the market with as much as 5100GBps but this cost a pretty penny and are virtually pointless, particularly for gaming. DDR5 comes with a higher potential to push the frequencies even further. They also have more room for overclocking, but these could take a while to appear. The exact time frame is not clear.
It is also worth noting that with RAM specifications, the performance is dependent on what the CPU and other hardware on the PC need to perform at maximum efficiency. Past this point, the returns are diminished.
Memory Timings and Latency
Don't expect much change in terms of latency between DDR4 and DDR5. However, some technological improvements will enable the memory to be accessed even though some of the memory banks are being refreshed. This might give the new DDR5 RAM some improvements over its predecessor. But this technology could require some fine-tuning before it is fully beneficial.
At the moment, there's no information on memory timings for DDR5 as yet. However, the clock cycles are indicated on the RAM chip. The RAM has four numbers representing the number of cycles it takes for the RAM to perform a specific operation.
Although the earliest DDR4 chips might have had higher clock speeds and memory size than DDR3 but turned out to be slower on release because of having higher timings. After some fine-tuning, the technology finally outperformed the preceding generation of RAM. This could also turn out to be true for DDR5, but it is not certain.
DDR5 has the capacity to take up to 4x the memory of DDR4. That is about 64GB per chip for the UDIMM memory, which is used for desktop PCs. Once the technology is available, you can stack up to 8 of these chips on the motherboard. That equates to a system with a RAM of 512GB. Until recently, most low to medium spec PCs only needed 8GB of RAM, with 16GB being the recommended industry standard.
Gamers that have made the upgrade from 16GB to 32GB can attest there is a substantial difference in performance. The most demanding tasks and PCs only take up about 64GB of RAM. That makes using 512GB of RAM absurd for most mainstream applications. While the memory capacity of DDR5 easily supersedes that of DDR4, the latter remains more practical compared to transitioning to DDR5, especially considering the technology is not yet available.
The channel architecture is the greatest difference between DDR4 and DDR5 RAM. Most motherboards already have support dual or quad-channels memory in the motherboard. The board has a channel configuration that allows you to stick in two or four slots. The Slots are coded to show where you should insert the multiple RAM sticks.
This technology allows the CPU to access different pieces of data within each channel. If there's only one channel, the CPU can only access one piece of data at a time, which would make it slower.
DDR4 sticks have only one channel, made of 72 bits in total—64 data bits and 8 bits for data error correction.
DDR5 RAM sticks will have two channels. Each channel will have a 40-bit bus – 32 data bits and 8 bits for data error-correcting.
In total, DDR5 will have more bits totalling 80 because of its dual channelling making the RAM more efficient.
RAM stores data in arrays that look like a grid of rows and columns. The data on either type of RAM can only be accessed per row. That means that if the stick has to get data from three rows, it can simultaneously get it from all of them. It has to go row-by-row.
Even if all the data is on the same row, the sticks still can't access all the data at the same time. But, they can be ready from multiple columns of the same row back to back, allowing the RAM to read more data.
The burst length is the maximum number of data bits the RAM can read from a single row. Expectedly, DDR5 RAM will have more burst length allowing it to read more data from columns in the same row.
How Much does RAM Affect Performance?
There is a lot of chatter and excitement surrounding the release of DDR5 RAM. This raises the question of just how important RAM is to the performance of a gaming PC.
Historically, RAM wasn't a priority on the list of components for a new gaming build. Having some minimum amount of RAM was necessary, especially for workstations that doubled up as gaming PCs.
Over the years, the importance of RAM has come to the fold. The uplift benefits of having better and more expensive RAM are often understated, especially when compared to spending an even more substantial figure on a graphics card.
Better RAM can improve FPS when playing games, and the change is noticeable, especially when playing games on 1080p resolution. 1080p gaming is more reliant on CPU performance. Improving the memory speed and size enhances the performance of the CPU. However, the returns are not as impressive when you venture into higher resolutions.
All factors considered this comparison boils down to, to upgrade or not to upgrade? Fortunately, this might not be a problem that gamers have to worry about in the immediate future. DDR5 technology is still very young, and there is not enough compatible hardware, at least for mainstream PC users. But as early as 2022, PC hardware manufacturers might start making the hardware available.
Although DDR5 RAM sticks are impressive, to say the least, they are overkill for most gaming applications. But for gamers thinking about long-term upgrades and want the best performance for their gaming PCs, it could be worth considering DDR5, but that could come with a hefty price tag.