How Times Have Changed

AnandTech's last SDRAM comparison came about in September of 1998 where the goal was still to weed out the poorly manufactured modules from the high quality solutions offered for sale on the net. However the times have changed in the 6 months that have elapsed, more manufacturers have started offering their own branded SDRAM modules and vendors are cutting corners to edge one another out of a few bucks in the market. In doing this, one would think that the consumer would be the one to benefit, unfortunately the consumer isn't able to compare every single module out on the market before making a buying decision. When a vendor says that they don't have the particular modules you're looking for in stock but they have something that's "just as good" you either take their word for it or shop elsewhere, which isn't always the safest thing to do if you've never dealt with the vendor.

At the same time, more expensive usually means better, right? Well why is it that in some cases, the more stable modules are those that are actually $10 cheaper than the rest offered by the vendor? There are many happenings behind the scenes that most consumers aren't aware of that could potentially cost you considerably in the end with a memory purchase, luckily with the changing times are new ways to avoid getting ripped off, and as usual, AnandTech is ready with the explanations.

Let's start off with by defining the search for the best SDRAM memory module out there today…

Performance is not the issue

For those of you who are looking for the fastest PC100 SDRAM out there, it is about time to halt your search. Performance is not the issue when considering SDRAM, especially PC100 SDRAM. Regardless of what some benchmark programs can produce, in real world situations, a single, well-made PC100 SDRAM DIMM will provide virtually identical performance to any other DIMM of its class.

At the same time do not get fooled into the nanosecond hype that fell over the PC industry during the initial introduction of the elusive "10ns SDRAM DIMMs." The nanosecond rating on a particular DIMM module does not directly relate to the performance you'll be receiving from your system overall, so don't be conned into buying a more expensive module just because it is rated at a lower speed.

Stability

So if performance isn't the issue, then what is? Well, the true purpose of shelling out all that money for high quality SDRAM is to ensure stable system operation. At normal memory bus speeds (66/100MHz depending on your setup) most SDRAM modules will work just about the same as far as stability is concerned; simply because they were designed to run at those frequencies to the best of their ability while keeping costs down. If all you plan to do is run your system at the 100MHz Front Side Bus speed then any of the modules compared here will give you the stability you need, it is when you start to push the limits of your system that we can truly separate the best from the rest.

If you recall, there are two parts to every SDRAM equation, the PCB and the SDRAM chips. Both parts of this equation contribute equally to the overall quality of the final module. As a refresher, the PCB, or Printed Circuit Board, is the green board the circuitry of the SDRAM module (or any RAM module for that matter) is literally printed on. It is this printed circuit board you handle when you are installing your DIMMs and it is this board that dictates how clean the electrical signals flowing through your SDRAM will remain. Clarity of signal (i.e. the absence of noise in the current) is what determines stability from the PCB end, a well manufactured PCB will keep all trace lengths within the recommended values set forth by Intel, have a minimum of 6 layers in the construction of the PCB and will make use of EMI Suppression techniques. While you can't really ask your vendor if their SDRAM implements any of those basic requirements for PC100 classification, it is good to have some background information on what separates a well made PCB from one of lesser quality without getting a degree in Electrical Engineering, although at times, one wouldn't hurt.

The second part of this RAM equation are the SDRAM chips themselves. These are the chips that dictate how stable the final SDRAM module will perform at various bus speeds. The most popular chips are the widely used Samsung chips, however you will see chips from NEC, Fujitsu, Hyundai and Toshiba on other popular modules. Here's where you need to be careful as things can start to get a bit tricky with the ratings on these individual chips.

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