Can Your Computer Use Newer, Faster Memory?

It depends on whether the technologies are compatible

The answer to whether your computer can use newer, faster memory is really, "It depends." For example, if your computer uses DDR3 and you want to install DDR4, it won't work because they use different clocking technologies that aren't compatible. In the past, there were exceptions to this rule with processors and motherboards that allowed one type or the other to be used within the same system. But, as memory controllers have been built into processors for improved performance, It's no longer possible.

Motherboard Support

Laptop Memory Modules

In addition to memory type, the computer's motherboard must support the amount of storage the modules contain. For example, a system may only support memory modules of up to 8 GB. If you try to use a 16 GB chip, the system may not be able to properly read it. Similarly, if your motherboard doesn't support memory with error correction code (ECC) memory, it can't work with faster modules that use this technology.

Memory Speed

Another issue has to do with memory speed. Faster modules may not run at a faster speed. This issue can happen in two cases. The first is that the motherboard or processor won't support the faster memory speed. When this conflict happens, the modules are instead clocked at the fastest speed that they can support. For example, a motherboard and CPU that can support up to 2133 MHz memory can use 2400 MHz RAM but only run it up to 2133 Mhz.

The other case of memory running slower than rated happens when you install newer memory modules along with older ones. If your present computer has a 2133 MHz module installed in it, and you install one rated at 2400 MHz, the system has to run the memory at the speed represented by the slower of the two. Thus, the new memory will only work at 2133 MHz, even if the CPU and motherboard can support the higher speed.

Availability and Pricing

Why would you want to install faster memory in a system if it will run at a slower speed? The answer has to do with availability and pricing. As memory technology ages, slower modules may drop out of production, leaving only faster ones available. Such might be the case with a system that supports DDR3 memory up to 1333 MHz, but all you can find is PC3-12800 or 16000 MHz modules. Memory is considered a commodity and, as a result, has variable pricing. In some situations, a faster memory module might be less expensive than a slower one. If PC3-10600 DDR3 supplies are tight, you might pay less for a PC3-12800 DDR3 module.

Consider This

If you intend to use a faster memory module in your computer, here's a summary of things to consider before purchasing and installing it:

  • The memory must be of the same technology (DDR3 and DDR4 aren't cross-compatible).
  • The PC must support the memory module densities you're considering.
  • Unsupported features like ECC must not be present on the module.
  • The memory will only be as fast as the motherboard's limit or as slow as the slowest installed memory module.

For more information about computer memory, check out the desktop memory and laptop memory Buyer's Guides.