Memory, Not Speed, Is What Counts In Buying a Computer

PEOPLE often ask: What kind of computer should I buy? Then they talk about brand names or the speed of their dream machine. Me? I talk about memory.

Memory is key to computing. Put in enough and your programs will run fast and well. Put in too little and they'll crawl, no matter how fast your machine is. I'd rather have a slower computer with 16 megabytes of memory than a faster one with eight.

Think of memory as your desktop. The bigger it is, the more work you can lay out, the more programs you can handle at the same time. Technically, it's called random-access memory, or RAM.

So if you're shopping for a computer, look for the line that talks about RAM. If it has less than eight megabytes (8 MB) of RAM, don't buy it. Get 16 MB of RAM if you can afford it.

That's the rub, of course. RAM doesn't come cheap. Even if you install the memory yourself (which is a fairly easy process), each megabyte costs $40 or more. So turning an 8 MB model into a 16 MB dream machine means shelling out an extra $320.

If that hardware is too pricey, invest in the next best thing: memory-compression software. While the technology has been around for years on the Macintosh, it has come to the IBM-compatible world only recently. For $30 to $70, you can fool your 8 MB RAM computer into thinking it has 16 MB.

I tested three such programs and they all provided this benefit. It allows users to consult a spreadsheet for information that they're including in a letter to someone whose address they'll have to look up in a database. Before the Macintosh and (on the IBM-compatible side) Windows, most desktop computer-users had to close out of one program before opening up another. Today, they can open all the programs at the same time and skip easily from one to the other.

The three programs I tested were: RAM Doubler from Connectix, Hurricane from Helix, and QEMM with MagnaRAM from Quarterdeck. I've been a longtime fan of QEMM. It has done a wonderful job of managing memory in my computers that run Windows 3.1. Whenever I got a new computer to test, I automatically installed QEMM.

And the latest version - 8.0 - is not bad. On a Toshiba notebook computer equipped with 8 MB of RAM, I found it allowed me to run more than twice as many programs. That was far better than the boost I saw from RAM Doubler.

But there's a new star in memory utilities that's even better. It's Hurricane. The software allowed me to run 14 of my favorite programs at the same time - up from six under regular Windows. Moreover, it loaded them faster than its competitors.

The only problem with Hurricane is that it doesn't yet run on Windows 95. Windows 95 offers an intriguing challenge for the memory companies. The operating system is excellent at managing resources, but it could still benefit from better memory compression, so that's where the companies are aiming.

QEMM already has a Windows 95 version out (which I was unable to test, because it is not yet compatible with the operating system's disk compression). And Syncronys Software had to stop advertising its program, SoftRAM, as Windows 95 compatible, because it didn't live up to expectations. It now plans to sell a fully revamped version in a few weeks. Other programs will follow.

But eventually, Windows itself will likely do the memory compression, so today's products have a limited lifetime. ''We have a product that we can sell for three or four years,'' says Rainer Poertner, chief executive of Syncronys.

So sales of memory compression will probably boom in the short term. Everybody can use more computer memory.

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