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Memory Modules

The CPU and motherboard architecture (chipset) dictates a particular computer's physical memory capacity and the types and forms of memory that can be installed. Over the years, two main changes have occurred in computer memory—it has gradually become faster and wider. The CPU and the memory controller circuitry indicate the speed and width requirements. The memory controller in a modern PC resides in the motherboard chipset. Even though a system might physically support a given amount of memory, the type of software you run could dictate whether all the memory can be used.

The 8088 and 8086 CPUs, with 20 address lines, can use as much as 1MB (1,024KB) of RAM. The 286 and 386SX CPUs have 24 address lines and can keep track of as much as 16MB of memory. The 386DX, 486, Pentium, and Pentium-MMX CPUs have a full set of 32 address lines, so they can keep track of 4GB of memory; the Pentium Pro, Pentium II/III, and 4, as well as the AMD Athlon and Duron, have 36 address lines and can manage an impressive 64GB. The Itanium processor, on the other hand, has 44-bit addressing, which allows for up to 16TB (terabytes) of physical RAM!

When the 286 and higher chips emulate the 8088 chip (as they do when running 16-bit software, such as DOS or Windows 3.x), they implement a hardware operating mode called real mode. Real mode is the only mode available on the 8086 and 8088 chips used in PC and XT systems. In real mode, all Intel processors—even the mighty Pentium family—are restricted to using only 1MB of memory, just as their 8086 and 8088 ancestors were, and the system design reserves 384KB of that amount. Only in protected mode can the 286 or better chips use their maximum potentials for memory addressing.

P5 class systems can address as much as 4GB of memory, and P6/P7 class systems can address up to 64GB. To put these memory-addressing capabilities into perspective, 64GB (65,536MB) of memory would cost nearly $20,000! Even if you could afford all this memory, some of the largest memory modules available today are 1GB DIMMs. Installing 64GB of RAM would require 64 of the largest 1GB DIMMs available, and most systems today support up to only four DIMM sockets.

Most motherboards have a maximum of only three to six DIMM sockets, which allows a maximum of 1.5GB–3GB if all the sockets are filled. These limitations are from the chipset, not the processor. Although some processors can address 64GB, there isn't a chipset on the market that will allow that! Most of the chipsets today are limited to 2GB of memory, although some handle up to 4GB or more.

Some systems have even more limitations. P5 class systems have been available since 1993, but only those built in 1997 or later use a motherboard chipset that supports SDRAM DIMMs. Even those using the most recent P5 class chipset from Intel, such as the 430TX, do not support more than 256MB of total memory and should not have more than 64MB actually installed because of memory-caching limitations. Don't install more than 64MB of RAM in one of these older systems unless you are sure the motherboard and chipset will allow the L2 cache to function with the additional memory.


Originally, systems had memory installed via individual chips. They are often referred to as dual inline package (DIP) chips because of their designs. The original IBM XT and AT had 36 sockets on the motherboard for these individual chips; then more of them were installed on the memory cards plugged into the bus slots. I remember spending hours populating boards with these chips, which was a tedious job.

Besides being a time-consuming and labor-intensive way to deal with memory, DIP chips had one notorious problem—they crept out of their sockets over time as the system went through thermal cycles. Every day, when you powered the system on and off, the system heated and cooled, and the chips gradually walked their way out of the sockets. Eventually, good contact was lost and memory errors resulted. Fortunately, reseating all the chips back in their sockets usually rectified the problem, but that method was labor intensive if you had a lot of systems to support.

The alternative to this at the time was to have the memory soldered into either the motherboard or an expansion card. This prevented the chips from creeping and made the connections more permanent, but it caused another problem. If a chip did go bad, you had to attempt desoldering the old one and resoldering a new one or resort to scrapping the motherboard or memory card on which the chip was installed. This was expensive and made memory troubleshooting difficult.

A chip was needed that was both soldered and removable, and that is exactly what was found in the module called a SIMM. For memory storage, most modern systems have adopted the single inline memory module (SIMM), DIMM, or RIMM as an alternative to individual memory chips. These small boards plug into special connectors on a motherboard or memory card. The individual memory chips are soldered to the module, so removing and replacing them is impossible. Instead, you must replace the entire module if any part of it fails. The module is treated as though it were one large memory chip.

Two main types of SIMMs, three main types of DIMMs, and so far one type of RIMM are used in desktop systems. The various types are often described by their pin count, memory row width, or memory type.

SIMMs, for example, are available in two main physical types—30-pin (8 bits plus an option for 1 additional parity bit) and 72-pin (32 bits plus an option for 4 additional parity bits)—with various capacities and other specifications. The 30-pin SIMMs are physically smaller than the 72-pin versions, and either version can have chips on one or both sides. SIMMs were widely used from the late 1980s to the late 1990s but have become obsolete.

DIMMs are also available in three main types. DIMMs usually hold standard SDRAM or DDR SDRAM chips and are distinguished by different physical characteristics. Standard DIMMs have 168 pins, one notch on either side, and two notches along the contact area. DDR DIMMs, on the other hand, have 184 pins, two notches on each side, and only one offset notch along the contact area. DDR2 DIMMs have 240 pins, two notches on each side, and one in the center of the contact area. All DIMMs are either 64-bits (non-ECC/parity) or 72-bits (parity or error correcting code [ECC]) wide (data paths). The main physical difference between SIMMs and DIMMs is that DIMMs have different signal pins on each side of the module. That is why they are called dual inline memory modules, and why with only 1'' of additional length, they have many more pins than a SIMM.


There is confusion among users and even in the industry over regarding the terms single-sided or double-sided with respect to memory modules. In truth, the single- or double-sided designation actually has nothing to do with whether chips are physically located on one or both sides of the module, and it has nothing to do with whether the module is a SIMM or DIMM (meaning whether the connection pins are single- or double-inline). Instead the terms single-sided and double-sided are used to indicate whether the module has one or two banks of memory chips installed. A double-banked DIMM module has two complete 64-bit-wide banks of chips logically stacked so that the module is twice as deep (has twice as many 64-bit rows). In most (but not all) cases, this requires chips to be on both sides of the module; therefore, the term double-sided has often been used to indicate that a module has two banks, even though the term is technically incorrect. Single-banked modules (incorrectly referred to as single-sided) can have chips physically mounted on both sides of the module, and double-banked modules (incorrectly referred to as double-sided) can have chips physically mounted on only one side. I recommend using the terms single-banked and double-banked instead because they are much more accurate and easily understood.

RIMMs also have different signal pins on each side. Three different physical types of RIMMs are available: a 16/18-bit version with 184 pins, a 32/36-bit version with 232 pins, and a 64/72-bit version with 326 pins. Each of these plugs into the same sized connector, but the notches in the connectors and RIMMs are different to prevent a mismatch. A given board will accept only one type. By far the most common type is the 16/18-bit version. The 32-bit version was introduced in late 2002, and the 64-bit version won't be introduced until 2004.

The standard 16/18-bit RIMM has 184 pins, one notch on either side, and two notches centrally located in the contact area. 16-bit versions are used for non-ECC applications, whereas the 18-bit versions incorporate the additional bits necessary for ECC.

Figures 6.26.7 show a typical 30-pin (8-bit) SIMM, 72-pin (32-bit) SIMM, 168-pin SDRAM DIMM, 184-pin DDR SDRAM (64-bit) DIMM, 240-pin DDR2 DIMM, and 184-pin RIMM, respectively. The pins are numbered from left to right and are connected through to both sides of the module on the SIMMs. The pins on the DIMM are different on each side, but on a SIMM, each side is the same as the other and the connections carry through. Note that all dimensions are in both inches and millimeters (in parentheses), and modules are generally available in error correcting code (ECC) versions with 1 extra ECC (or parity) bit for every 8 data bits (multiples of 9 in data width) or versions that do not include ECC support (multiples of 8 in data width).

Figure 6.2. A typical 30-pin SIMM. The one shown here is a 9-bit (ECC) version, although the dimensions would be the same for 8-bit (non-ECC) versions.


Figure 6.7. A typical 184-pin RIMM. The one shown here is an 18-bit (ECC) version, although the dimensions would be the same for 16-bit (non-ECC) versions.


Figure 6.6. A typical 250-pin DDR2 DIMM. DDR2 modules come in either 64-bit (non-ECC) or 72-bit (ECC) versions.


All these memory modules are fairly compact considering the amount of memory they hold and are available in several capacities and speeds.

SIMMs, DIMMs, DDR DIMMs, and RIMMs of each type and capacity are available in various speed ratings. Consult your motherboard documentation for the correct memory speed and type for your system. It is usually best for the memory speed (also called throughput or bandwidth) to match the speed of the processor data bus (also called the front side bus or FSB).

If a system requires a specific speed, you can almost always substitute faster speeds if the one specified is not available. Generally, no problems occur in mixing module speeds, as long as you use modules equal to or faster than what the system requires. Because there's little price difference between the various speed versions, I often buy faster modules than are necessary for a particular application. This might make them more usable in a future system that could require the faster speed.

Because DIMMs and RIMMs have an onboard ROM that reports their speed and timing parameters to the system, most systems run the memory controller and memory bus at the speed matching the slowest DIMM/RIMM installed. Most DIMMs are SDRAM memory, which means they deliver data in very high-speed bursts using a clocked interface. DDR DIMMs are also SDRAM, but they transfer data two times per clock cycle and thus are twice as fast.


A bank is the smallest amount of memory needed to form a single row of memory addressable by the processor. It is the minimum amount of physical memory that is read or written by the processor at one time and usually corresponds to the data bus width of the processor. If a processor has a 64-bit data bus, a bank of memory also is 64 bits wide. If the memory is interleaved or runs dual-channel, a virtual bank is formed that is twice the absolute data bus width of the processor.

You can't always replace a module with a higher-capacity unit and expect it to work. Systems might have specific design limitations for the maximum capacity of module they can take. A larger-capacity module works only if the motherboard is designed to accept it in the first place. Consult your system documentation to determine the correct capacity and speed to use.