Despite what some tech companies might want you to believe, it’s not necessary to buy the latest iPhone every year or invest in a new laptop every time a “game-changing” development hits the market.
If you look after your tech devices properly, most gadgets and components will keep working for a long, long time. In my case, I’m writing this on a four-year-old laptop, my HD television is approaching its tenth birthday, and my Nexus 5 is still going strong.
However, the delicate nature of electronic components means that a time will come when pieces start to falter — and none is more susceptible than computer RAM. Just as you should be aware of signs your SSD is about to fail, there are signs that could point to defective and/or near-death RAM.
Why RAM Failure Matters
Why does it matter if your RAM is about to fail? After all, people soldier on for years with broken smartphone screens or iffy keyboards. Sadly, RAM isn’t something you can just ignore — it’s one of the most important parts of any computer. It also has one of the highest failure rates out of all your machine’s components.
In simple terms, RAM is responsible for how many apps your machine can smoothly run at any given time. The biggest RAM hogs are typically your operating system and your web browser (not a good idea to have hundreds of tabs open at once), but as a general rule, the more complex a program is, the more RAM it will require.
You can think of it as your computer’s short-term memory — it stores the data your computer is actively using. Hard drives are the long-term memory, used to save stuff that you need to access between reboots. But how do you know the end of your RAM is nigh?
1. Diminishing Performance
One of the most tell-tale signs of bad RAM is diminishing performance over time.
If you find that your computer is running perfectly after you first power it up, but the longer you use it, the slower it becomes — you could be in trouble. The problem will be especially noticeable on memory-intensive apps such as Photoshop, complex video games, and web browsers.
Of course, faulty RAM might NOT be the cause of the problem: a misbehaving program could be eating through your machine’s CPU or leaking memory. But if you can’t pinpoint the cause of the performance degradation, it could be the RAM’s health.
One test you can use is to restart your machine but don’t fire up any apps. If the same thing keeps happening even without any apps running, it might be time to shop for new RAM modules.
2. Random Crashes
Like the point on performance degradation, just because your computer randomly crashes does NOT necessarily mean that your RAM is faulty. However, it does point to the possibility that it MIGHT be faulty.
This is especially true if there doesn’t appear to be any consistency to the crashes. For example, if you get the blue screen of death on Windows every time you try and open a certain app, it’s likely that the app is the culprit rather than your hardware. But if you find that the crashes occur without warning and at random times, your RAM could be responsible.
You might also find your machine will reboot the moment it displays the desktop, or that it crashes every time you try to install something new.
3. Video Card Fails to Load
When you turn on your computer, you’ll almost always hear a loud beep. It indicates that your device’s video and media hardware has been correctly recognized and booted.
If you don’t hear the beep, it means it’s not loaded — and bad RAM could be the cause. You’ll also be shown an on-screen warning message as the operating system attempts to boot.
Again though, taken alone, it’s not a cast-iron guarantee of malfunctioning RAM. The problem could be the video card instead.
On a Mac, a triple beep at startup signifies a RAM error has been detected.
4. Corrupted Data Files
You might suddenly find that files which you access and use frequently are corrupted and cannot be opened.
Aside from being a lesson about the importance of making regular backups, it’s another clear sign that your RAM is on the brink.
If you’re finding more and more files are becoming corrupted — i.e. the problem is getting worse over time — RAM is almost certainly to blame. It’s because the defective RAM is causing your hard drive’s structure to degenerate and eventually you won’t be able to boot your machine at all.
5. Incorrect System RAM Display
It’s easy to check the amount of RAM your system thinks it has on both Windows and Mac.
On Windows, right-click on the Start Menu and navigate to Control Panel > System. You’ll be shown an overview of your machine’s vital statistics, including the amount of RAM theoretically installed.
If you’re on a Mac, navigate to Apple > About This Mac and make sure the Overview tab is selected. As with Windows, you’ll be shown a few of your computer’s stats, which includes the amount of RAM.
Does this amount tally with the amount your machine should have? (If you’re not sure, do a Google search for your device’s product number.)
How to Check Your RAM
As I alluded to a few times, having one of the above symptoms does not automatically point at a RAM problem. There could be hundreds of other causes including a bad power supply, excessive heat, a computer virus/malware, a corrupted operating system installation, or another faulty hardware component.
However, if you’re experiencing several of these issues on a regular basis, it’s prudent to run some diagnostic tests.
Windows comes with a built-in memory diagnostic tool. To run it, press WIN + R, type mdsched, and press Enter.
You’ll be prompted to restart your machine. It will then run some tests before automatically restarting and returning you to the desktop. Any problems it found will be displayed in a notification on the Taskbar.
Alternatively, you can try Memtest. It been around for more than 20 years and is widely considered to be the most thorough tool for RAM testing. Describing how to use it is beyond the scope of this article, but we’ve covered it in detail before.
Macs also come with their own built-in memory tester. To use it, restart your device and hold down D while it boots, then you’ll be taken to the diagnostics screen.
On newer models, a memory test should now start automatically. Users on older versions will need to select the Hardware Tests tab, tick the checkbox next to Perform extended testing (takes considerably more time), and hit Test.
Memtest will also work on Macs if you want a more thorough review.
Do You Have RAM Problems?
If you have defective RAM, there is only one solution: you must replace it. Luckily, RAM is not too expensive. You can pick up a 16 GB kit on Amazon for as little as $75. If you’re not sure how to install it, take your computer to a professional.
Have the symptoms and tests in this article helped you realize you’ve got a RAM issue? How did you determine the problem? What did you test results reveal?
You can let us know your RAM horror stories in the comments below.