When you’re building a PC or want to upgrade your laptop, you may have some questions regarding RAM installation. With so many options to choose from and several configuration choices, it is easy to get confused, especially for first-time PC builders and gamers. And one of the most common questions that people ask is – can you do dual channel with 3 sticks of RAM?
In most cases, you cannot do dual channel with 3 sticks of RAM since your setup will usually run them in single channel. However, there are some exceptions to the rule.
In this article, we will address this particular concern that many computer users have wondered about at one point or another. But before jumping to our main discussion, let’s revisit some of the basic knowledge of RAM and RAM channels.
An Overview of RAM and RAM channels
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is an essential component of a computing device. The RAM works like a temporary memory bank. Here, a computer stores data that are currently being used and need to be retrieved quickly. Simply put, RAM stores all the necessary data and instructions that your computer needs to perform the essential tasks it has at the moment.
Compared to hard disk drives and solid state drives, reading from and writing on RAM storage is much faster. But the data stored in RAM are there for a short period of time, as long as your computer is on. When you turn your device off, this data gets lost.
RAM channels are basically the bridges between your RAM and CPU. Through these channels, the CPU moves data to and from the RAM. They are connected to the motherboard using wires. There are three standard channel configurations – single, dual, and quad.
Single Channel vs Dual Channel: What Are the Differences?
In a single-channel RAM configuration, you use one stick of RAM. Conversely, in a dual-channel configuration, you use two sticks of RAM that are working simultaneously. Dual-channel memory is also referred to as multi-channel memory.
Now that you understand the basic difference between single-channel and dual-channel RAM configurations, let’s dig deeper.
How They Work?
When you use a single-channel RAM configuration, your single stick of RAM transfers data through one channel with a 64-bit width. On the other hand, when you use a dual-channel configuration, your two separate sticks of RAM transfer data through two separate channels, each with a 64-bit width.
One channel supports 64 data-bit ports, from D00 to D63. In dual-channel, the other channel supports the next set of 64 data-bit ports, from D64 to D127. Therefore, with two 64-bit channels, you double the data traces that are running on the memory bus, effectively getting a total of a 128-bit channel.
When measuring the speed of your RAM configuration, bandwidth needs to be considered. It is defined as a communication channel’s maximum theoretical transfer rate. Megabytes per second (MB/s) or gigabytes per second (GB/s) are the standard measures of bandwidth. So, how is it relevant to a RAM configuration?
Suppose you use a single-channel 2133MHz DDR4 RAM. It will deliver 17 GB/s of memory bandwidth. Now, if you use two 2133MHz DDR4 RAM modules in a dual-channel configuration, this memory bandwidth will double to 34 GB/s. Because of this increase in memory bandwidth, dual-channel configurations offer a 5% to 15% speed boost compared to a single-channel. If you want to get the same bandwidth using a single channel, you will need to use a 4000MHz or higher memory module.
Dual-channel configuration offers a slight improvement in performance. However, unless you are performing any heavy memory-based tasks, such as playing high-end games or doing graphics designing, this boost will not make much of a difference in your overall experience. If you use your computer for conventional office work, studying, browsing, and such, a single-channel RAM configuration will do just fine.
For gamers, dual-channel configurations offer some added benefits. Newer games require more resources to run smoothly, including more bandwidth. Dual-channel configurations with double throughput offer a boost in minimum and average framerates. The improvement is more significant in minimum framerates. Therefore, dual-channel configuration reduces CPU latency, offering you a more consistent gaming experience.
For tasks such as video editing and graphics designing, dual-channel offers a slight improvement in performance – 5% to 6% to be exact. This boost may seem insignificant, but there are other benefits of switching to dual-channel as well. Video editing and graphics designing often have heavy resource requirements while working with large files and real-time previews. With dual-channel configuration, you allow your CPU core to access your RAM sticks through multiple channels, optimizing the performance.
Problem with Installing 3 Sticks of RAM in Dual Channels
Generally, you cannot enable dual-channel mode with three sticks of RAM. When you install an odd number of RAM modules, whether it’s 1 or 3, your computer will force all RAM sticks to run as a single-channel configuration.
But there are a few ways to make it work, which we will discuss next.
How to Make 3 Sticks of RAM Work Together?
There are three ways to make three sticks of RAM work together – using a triple-channel RAM configuration, Flex Mode, and nForce2-based motherboards.
The first one is getting a motherboard that supports triple-channel configuration. These motherboards access DIMM (Dual in-line Memory Module) memory sequentially and spread data through the module in alternating patterns. Although rare, some motherboards support this system to reduce overall memory latency. But you have to ensure that your CPU supports it as well.
Flex mode, or Intel Flex Memory Technology, first came to market in 2004 as a hybrid mode. If your CPU supports this technology, you can use DRAM of different capacities on your motherboard’s multi-channel architecture. Flex mode enables you to make three RAM modules work together by running two modules in dual-channel and the other module as a single channel.
To explain further, suppose your motherboard has four RAM slots. You install one 8GB RAM in one slot and two 4GB RAM modules in two other slots. With Flex Mode, your computer will run the two 4GB RAM modules, totaling 8GB, as a dual-channel. The other 8GB RAM will be run in a single-channel configuration as an added capacity.
The third option is using motherboards with a nForce2 chipset from Nvidia. It supports both AMD’s Socket A CPUs and DDR SDRAM. When running three sticks of RAM on a nForce2-based motherboard, the first two DIMMs are considered channel one, and the third is considered channel two. It is recommended to have the same memory capacity on both channels.
Should You Run Dual Channels with 3 Sticks of RAM?
Unless your computing system handles heavy gaming or demanding graphics or video editing workloads, you will not gain anything extra from making your machine run three sticks of RAM as a dual channel.
However, if you want to do this, check your CPU and motherboard configurations first. Without having a triple-channel system, flex mode tech, or nForce 2 chipset, you carry the risk of running all three RAM modules as a single channel. Moreover, upgrading your CPU to have such systems, ensuring compatibility, can amount to becoming quite expensive. Therefore, do your research before making a decision and proceed accordingly.