Among the many rules and standards for PC building or assembly, dual-channel RAM is one of the most subtle yet religious observances that enthusiasts and tech heads impose. The rule is simple, use two sticks of RAM, or the so-called dual-channel memory. But why exactly do you need two sticks of RAM?
Some might have already forgotten the answer and have considered it a tradition, while others have a more summarized memory of the explanation: it’s faster that way.
But common human psychology dictates that you’ll remember something better if you knew its purpose or reason. At least, you’re owed an explanation before you’re told to do this or do that. So we’re here to discuss why you need two sticks of RAM or dual-channel memory.
What Is Dual-Channel Memory?
It’s just two sticks of RAM.
Okay, jokes aside, these two or more sticks of RAM (usually in multiples of two or four) work in tandem to increase the rate of the data transfer by adding more ‘channels’ for the data to pass through.
Let’s visualize RAM or computer memory as roads. A single stick of RAM or single channel is one big road with no lane splitting. We all know what these kinds of roads look like under heavy traffic– it’s chaotic and congested.
Meanwhile, two sticks of RAM or dual channel memory would be two medium-sized roads split into two lanes. It’s more orderly that way, allowing vehicles (or in this case, data) to pass through faster.
And it just so happens that the RAM’s job is to communicate with the rest of the computer (but mainly the CPU) on what to do with data. More RAM sticks with higher capacity mean more channels of communication between the CPU and the memory, leading to a faster overall operation.
In video games, this translates to less stuttering and possibly higher framerates since the CPU can work faster and more efficiently. In work, dual-channel RAM translates to the same thing as well, less stuttering, fewer hangups, and an overall smoother operation be it with Excel sheets or browsers.
There Are Multiple-Channel Setups as Well
Since more RAM sticks would speed up operations, then more would be better, right? Yes. You can have two dual-channel RAM sticks occupying all the RAM slots on your motherboard and this would help a lot.
There are also triple-channel setups but they’re rare and are only supported by a few motherboards and a few CPUs. It’s not really common and is usually only reserved for servers and high-end desktops though it’s better than dual-channel in terms of performance.
For best results and for the most stable setup for most consumer PCs, just run dual-channel or double dual-channel.
How Much Faster Is Dual-Channel?
The performance difference between single-channel and dual-channel setups with all the other specs being the same is less about framerate and more about better low FPS performance.
For example, your lowest framerate number in a popular shooter game might be around 10 FPS on single-channel RAM, but dual-channel RAM can boost this lowest framerate number to 60+, leading to an overall smoother experience since jumping around from 300 FPS (average) to 10 FPS even for just a second or a split-second is an unpleasant stutter. But jumping from 300 FPS (average) to 60+ FPS is a lot less noticeable.
There are, however, some average framerate boosts to be noted in CPU-heavy games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 or Fortnite but they’re not too big and are usually only around single-digit percentages (less than 10 percent).
The effect is more pronounced in CPU-heavy games, particularly strategy titles or games with lots of AI-driven NPCs. But if you don’t want to worry about whether your RAM might be causing some stuttering, it’s better to just go dual-channel.
The Parameters for Dual-Channel RAM
Before you get giddy with recommending dual-channel RAM to anyone who has a computer, just know that there are limitations.
You can’t pair RAM sticks that are too different from one another.
For example, you have an 8GB stick of DDR4 RAM running at 3200MHz. If you want dual-channel or either RAM sticks to work flawlessly, then you’d do well to pair it with an identical RAM stick.
For dual-channel to work, the other RAM stick needs to be:
- The same capacity (8GB, 16GB, etc.)
- The same generation (DDR4, DDR5, etc.)
There are also some soft requirements that aren’t mandatory but are nevertheless recommended:
- The same speed (3200MHz, etc.) – note that if the other RAM stick does not have the same speed, it will downgrade to match the slower RAM stick.
- The same latency and timings (CL16, CL38, etc.) – same thing as the speed or frequency.
Most of the time, not following these soft requirements will still make the dual-channel RAM work, but as we stated, you won’t get the best performance they can offer. Moreover, it can be prone to glitches or bugs since they have different frequencies or timings.
For your best bet and peace of mind, just make sure that both RAM sticks or modules are identical from brand to specs. That way, you can eliminate any underlying issue about incompatibility or differences in specs.
Also, bear in mind that you can’t just slot them into just about any slot on the motherboard. Most motherboards have markings or color coding for dual-channel RAM. For dual-channel RAM to work, they can’t be adjacent to each other and usually have to be one slot apart on a four-slot motherboard.
There are motherboards with only two slots of RAM, however, and these have their own slotting rules for dual-channel RAM and you don’t have to follow color coding for this one.
More importantly, if you fail to fulfill or follow those requirements for dual-channel RAM, your RAM might only work in single-channel mode and you might not get your money’s worth. Damaging the motherboard is extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, especially if RAM overclocking is involved.
One More Important Benefit of Dual-Channel RAM
There’s also one last benefit that comes to mind when you’re rocking dual-channel memory or RAM. You have two RAM modules or sticks.
This kind of setup is a lot more advantageous when it comes to troubleshooting. Let’s say you only have one stick of RAM and one day, your computer won’t boot up or startup. It’s hard to determine then whether the culprit is the RAM since you only have one stick.
But if you have two sticks of RAM, you can just remove the other one to see which stick isn’t working and might be causing problems for your computer due to defects or other issues.
So all in all, just save yourself the trouble and go for dual-channel memory, buy two sticks of RAM and spend the extra dozen dollars or so for a better peace of mind from the performance boost and the troubleshooting ease.