If Your Computer Is Short on Memory, It's Time to Buy More

Computer companies are always trying to get you to buy things. And so maybe are computer columnists, since we constantly highlight new products. But once in awhile, a deal comes along that really deserves a serious look.

Today's deal is computer memory.

Adding memory is one of the easiest and most effective ways to speed up your machine. Generally speaking, a machine with eight megabytes of memory will outpace one with four megabytes; a 16-megabyte system outdoes an eight-megabyte computer, and so on. Prices of this kind of memory have fallen so far, so fast that it's an excellent time to buy.

Last December, for example, Drive Outlet Center in Mundelein, Ill., was advertising an eight-megabyte memory chip for $269; today, it's selling the same chip for $59. That's actually up from two weeks ago, when it was selling for $49.

Memory deals abound because there's a glut in the market. The oversupply now appears to be abating, but don't worry. Those high prices of yesteryear aren't going to return, analysts say.

"People say memory prices are going up," but that's wrong, says Rob Chaplinsky, semiconductor analyst for Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco. The industry is really moving back to its traditional trend where memory prices fall an average 25 to 30 percent a year. What that means is that computer users should start looking seriously at buying more memory if they don't have the 16-megabytes that today's powerful operating systems demand.

Memory is sometimes a difficult idea for new computer users to understand, because it comes in various forms. There is long-term memory that holds all your data. This is the hard disk that spins inside your machine.

Then there's short-term memory that only holds the data temporarily. This is random-access memory or RAM.

You can think of the first kind of memory as your computer's filing cabinet, which stores all your data for the long term. Think of RAM as your desktop, where the data you're working on is within quick and easy reach. When you finish working on that data, the computer stores it on your hard disk. It is the cost of RAM that has fallen so dramatically.

Installing RAM is relatively easy for desktop machines. Most users can upgrade a desktop computer with a little guidance over the phone from a friend or someone from a computer company's technical-support department; novices should leave notebook upgrades to the pros. The trick is in knowing what to get.

Some special music, video-editing, and graphics programs require loads of memory, 64 megabytes or more. Most of us can run today's standard applications quite well with far less. A Power Macintosh or an IBM-compatible running Windows 95 should have at least 16 megabytes of RAM.

Most of today's desktop machines use memory chips called SIMMS (for single in-line memory modules); some Power Macs use a close relative called (unfortunately) DIMMS. These chips are standard and cheap. Notebook computers, on the other hand, typically use proprietary memory modules, which cost substantially more.

To figure out how much memory you have, check the "System" settings in Windows or the "control panels" section of the Mac. Before installing more, make sure your machine has two empty physical memory slots to install the chips, whether it uses parity or non-parity RAM, and what speed the RAM runs (usually 60 or 70 nanoseconds). Your memory dealer can help you figure all this out over the phone.

Then smile. Your machine is about to get more room to run your favorite computer programs - and run them faster.

*Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com

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