How to Check RAM and Motherboard Compatibility

Things to check to keep your PC parts compatible

This article explains how to check random access memory (RAM) and motherboard compatibility, including finding RAM compatible with a motherboard when building a new PC and selecting new RAM when upgrading a computer.

How Do I Know Which RAM Is Compatible With My Motherboard?

There are many factors you need to consider when determining what RAM will be compatible with your motherboard. Some of these are easy to figure out on your own, while others will require some extra work to determine your motherboard's specifications.

Here are the four most important characteristics of RAM when considering motherboard compatibility:

  • Form factor: Desktop motherboards accept dual in-line module (DIMM) RAM, and laptops use small outline dual in-line memory module (SO-DIMM) RAM. DIMMs are longer than SO-DIMMs and take up more space.
  • DDR generation: DDR, DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4 are all different types of RAM that aren’t interchangeable. If you’re building a new computer with a new motherboard, you’ll need DDR4 RAM. If you’re using an older motherboard or upgrading a computer, you may need DDR3 RAM.
  • Storage capacity: This is one of the most important factors when choosing RAM. More storage capacity will allow you to multitask between multiple applications and run more resource-intensive applications and games. Some motherboards place limits on how much RAM capacity they support.
  • Speed: RAM clock speed is measured in MHz, and RAM with a faster clock speed will speed up many functions on your computer. RAM is typically backward compatible in that it will still work on your motherboard if it’s faster than the motherboard is designed to use.
  • Internal clearance: RAM modules with large heat sinks can sometimes get in the way of other internal components, especially your CPU cooler. Consider the height of your RAM modules, the size and position of your CPU cooler, and whether or not they will fit together.

These factors are all just as important whether you’re building a brand new computer or upgrading an older computer. However, there’s a much easier way to determine compatibility if you’re upgrading an older computer. If your computer is in working order, you have the choice to research your motherboard, or you can just run a system scan tool to find out exactly what you need.

Do I Need DIMM or SO-DIMM RAM Sticks For My Motherboard?

The general rule of thumb is desktop computers have DIMM slots, and laptops have SO-DIMM slots. The one exception is some all-in-one computers use SO-DIMM RAM sticks to save space.

If you’re upgrading a laptop, it will need SO-DIMMs. Consider running a system check tool to find out exactly which memory modules to buy, or look up the specifications from your laptop manufacturer.

If you’re building or upgrading a desktop PC, you will almost always need DIMMs. You can check with the motherboard manufacturer if you’re building a new PC or run a system checking tool if you’re upgrading. You can also look at the slots and measure them. SO-DIMM slots are about 2.66 inches long, while DIMM slots are approximately 5.25 inches long.

Which DDR Generation Do I Need?

There are three ways to find out what DDR generation your motherboard uses. You can examine the RAM sockets, check with the motherboard manufacturer to get the specifications of the motherboard, or you can run a system checking tool if the computer is currently operational. You'll need DDR4 RAM unless you're using an old motherboard if you're building a new computer.

Different DDR generations have very similar-looking sockets, but they each have different numbers of pins in addition to notches. These slight differences prevent you from installing the wrong kind of RAM, and you can also use them to figure out what type of RAM you need if you look carefully.

Here's how to tell the difference between types of DDR memory:

  • DDR: These modules have 184 pins, and the notch is near the center.
  • DDR2: These modules have 244 pins, and the notch is near the center.
  • DDR3: These modules have 240 pins, and the notch is offset to one side.
  • DDR4: These modules have 288 pins, and the notch is near the center.

How Much RAM Does My Motherboard Support?

When considering RAM capacity, you need to consider the number of RAM slots your motherboard has and the total amount of RAM your motherboard supports. You can see how many slots the motherboard has just by looking at it, but you need to get the motherboard's specifications from the manufacturer to find out how much RAM it can support. You can also determine how much RAM your motherboard supports by running a system checker tool if your computer is operational.

The amount of RAM you need is different from the amount your motherboard supports, and you don’t always need to max it out. You can always start with two RAM modules and add another two later if you find your computer isn’t performing as well as you would like.

Activities like gaming, image editing, and video editing take a lot more RAM than activities like browsing the internet and streaming video, so how you plan to use your computer will play a significant factor in how much RAM you need. Many users can get by just fine with 8 GB of RAM, but you might need 16 GB, 32 GB, or even more, depending on the sorts of apps and games you want to run and how many applications you’ll need to have open at once.

What Speed of RAM Do I Need?

RAM speed is vital to a degree as it can improve the performance of games and apps, but it’s usually a secondary concern to capacity. Spending a lot of money to have slightly faster RAM will typically have less of an effect on performance than adding more capacity.

Your motherboard has a range of RAM speeds it can work with, but most RAM is backward compatible. That means if you accidentally buy RAM that’s faster than your motherboard can handle, the RAM will just run at a slower speed. Adding RAM modules of different speeds can also cause them all to run at the speed of the slowest module, depending on the installation order and the architecture of the motherboard.

To find out what speed of RAM you need, you have to check with the motherboard manufacturer. Stick within that range, and you’ll be fine. Faster memory will usually work just fine as well, although you won’t see additional benefits from it, so your money is better spent elsewhere.

If your computer is operational, you can also use a system checking tool to precisely determine what speeds your motherboard supports.

How Do I Make Sure My RAM Will Have Enough Clearance?

Figuring out whether or not your RAM will have enough clearance can be tricky because different RAM modules can have different heights, especially if they have built-in heat sinks. To make sure everything will fit, you need to look at the motherboard or a picture of the motherboard and check the location of the RAM concerning the CPU and any nearby expansion ports. In a lot of cases, you’ll find the RAM slots are located right next to the CPU, and at least two of them are likely to be overhung by your CPU cooler.

If it looks like the RAM slots are close to the CPU on your motherboard, check the height of the RAM modules you want and then check the clearance of the heatsink you wish to use. If the heatsink isn’t high enough off the motherboard to clear the top of the RAM modules, you’ll either have to choose shorter RAM or a different CPU cooler. You may want to select a low-profile cooler or a cooler that has a large notch cut out to accommodate taller RAM modules.

It's a tricky situation, and it isn’t something a system scan tool will be able to figure out for you. To make sure everything fits, you’ll have to check each component's dimensions and figure out spacing.

How to Use a System Checking Tool to Determine RAM and Motherboard Compatibility

If your computer is operational and you’re looking to upgrade your RAM, you can run a system checking tool to determine exactly what kind of RAM is compatible with your motherboard.

When you run this tool, you’ll end up with a number that follows this format: [storage capacity in GB] [DDR generation]-[Speed] [Form factor]. With that information in hand, you can purchase compatible RAM from the retailer of your choice.

Here’s how to check RAM compatibility with the Crucial System Scanner:

  1. Navigate to the Crucial System Scanner, and check the box next to I agree to the terms and conditions, then select Start Your Free Scan.

    Terms and agreements checkbox and Start Your Free Scan highlighted on the Crucial System Scanner
  2. When prompted, select Open or Run.

    Open highlighted on the Crucial System Scanner in Microsoft Edge
  3. Scroll down your results page to see the recommended upgrade. It will show whether you can add more RAM or replace existing RAM and the basics of what you need.

    The Crucial System Scanner showing current RAM and potential upgrades
  4. Continue scrolling until you reach the compatible memory section. Every RAM module in this section will work with your motherboard, but you don’t need to buy from Crucial if you don’t want to. If you're going to shop around, identify the RAM module you want, and take that information to your favorite retailer.

    For example, using the results from this sample scan, you could search a retailer like Newegg or Amazon for 16GB DDR4-3200 SODIMM for a fast module with maximum capacity, or 8GB DDR4-2666 SODIMM for a slower module with less capacity.

    The Crucial System Scanner showing compatible RAM modules.
    • How do I add RAM to my computer?

      To upgrade your RAM, you'll likely have to open up your computer. Shut it down and remove all cables, then carefully remove the screws on the back panel to access the RAM slot. The RAM is held in place by metal clips that you can carefully lift.

    • Are all motherboards compatible with all processors?

      No. If you're building or upgrading your PC, you must make sure your motherboard supports the processor (CPU). Check each component manufacturer's website to ensure that they are compatible.

    • How do I tell if a graphics card is compatible with my motherboard?

      Most GPU cards will work with any motherboard so long as it has the right socket. Just make sure both support PCIe x16.

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