Whether you’re building a new system or upgrading an older PC, the best RAM kit for your money depends on the platform you pick and the software you plan to run. The easy part comes from nearly universal adoption of DDR4 a few years ago. DDR3’s last gasp in the desktop world was Intel’s 6th-generation Core (Skylake) series and AMD’s Socket AM3+ and FM2+ interfaces. The move to AMD’s AM4 and Intel’s Kaby Lake platforms made DDR4-2133 compatible with nearly every recent motherboard (though you may occasionally find a DDR3 board hanging around in a bargain bin).
The hard part is understanding when faster RAM matters. If you’re running an Intel-based PC with an add-in graphics card, most programs won’t respond in a meaningful way to faster or slower system memory. A few will scale upward with data rate to the highest possible speeds, including some games and programs like the file compression program 7-Zip.
On the other hand, AMD’s current architecture is affected much more by memory speeds. The company’s “Infinity Fabric” (the internal bits that link various blocks of logic inside of Ryzen CPUs) is tied to the speed of the memory bus. You can read about this in detail here. So, increased memory speeds on Ryzen- and Threadripper-based platforms often translate to real-world performance gains. In games, that means faster frame rates at mainstream resolutions like 1080p, as well as smoother performance at higher resolutions.
Lastly, memory speed makes a big difference if you’re gaming on an integrated graphics engine using either Intel or AMD processors. Since the graphics silicon baked into CPUs doesn’t generally have its own dedicated memory (as discrete graphics cards do), upping the clock rate of your system memory also generally increases performance (though the ultimate speed-up varies greatly from game to game). So, you want faster RAM for those kinds of systems if mainstream gaming is important. Keep in mind, however, that if you have to pay top dollar for the fastest RAM to get playable framerates, you’re better off buying slower system memory and an add-in graphics card.
Confused yet? In short, you want faster RAM if you’re gaming without a dedicated graphics card, if you’re running an AMD Ryzen system, and in some edge cases with Intel chips. But if you don’t care so much about squeezing the best performance possible from your hardware, DDR4-2133 memory should be drop-in compatible with any modern PC platform.
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Tom's Hardware has been reviewing PC hardware for more than two decades. We put each memory kit through a battery of tests, including games and bandwidth benchmarks at rated and overclocked settings. We've tested hundreds of kits, from basic-green budget sticks to lightning-quick premium RAM with pulsing RGB lights. So we can separate the best from the disappointing performers hiding behind fancy, unnecessary heat spreaders.
Quick Shopping Tips
- For many people, 16GB is the current sweet spot. Programs get bigger and messier over time, 1080p and 4k video are now common, PC game files are always expanding, and websites get more complex by the day. While heavy multitaskers and power users may need 32GB to keep from tapping into slower disk-based virtual memory, 16GB is far more affordable, and sufficient for gaming and mainstream productivity tasks.
- Heat spreaders look nice, but often aren’t necessary. Unless you’re running RAM at high overclocked data rates, RAM generally doesn’t generate enough heat to require serious cooling. At most speeds and settings, so long as there’s airflow in your case, bare RAM sticks should be fine. With that said, if your case has a window, you may want to pay a few dollars extra for a metal-clad kit for aesthetics alone.
- Memory speeds advertised as part of an XMP profile might not be achievable on AMD-based motherboards. XMP is a sort of automatic memory overclocking setting that was designed for Intel motherboards. Some motherboard makers offer BIOS settings to help you achieve these faster speeds on AMD motherboards. But these settings aren’t present on all boards, and they don’t always work when they are present.
- Want the fastest RAM speed on an Intel platform? Get a K-series CPU. Non-K-series Core i7 and Core i5 processors have the same DDR4-2666 limit as that imposed by Intel’s lesser H370 and B360 chipsets. Core i3 processors have a lower limit of DDR4-2400. While most boards lack XMP, those that have it will more easily configure XMP memory with enhanced timings. Note: some earlier DDR4-2666 kits required XMP to reach rated settings, and some later DDR4-2666 modules had both non-XMP and XMP configurations.
DDR4-3600 16GB (2x8GB)
DDR4-3400 16GB (2x8GB)
DDR4-3200 32GB (4x8GB)
DDR4-3000 32GB (2x16GB)
DDR4-3000 16GB (2x8GB)
DDR4-2933 32GB (4x8GB)
DDR4-2666 64GB (8x8GB)
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