The price of computer memory has gone up and down as often as the Nasdaq index, and with about as much predictability. At times, it has been so valuable that thieves have ripped memory modules out of new computers to fence on the black market.
These days, though, it doesn't take a back-alley deal to buy inexpensive computer memory. The prices of DRAM, the "dynamic random access memory" used in most of today's computers, are among the lowest they have ever been. If you've been thinking about upgrading your computer with more memory, this may be the perfect time.
If, that is, last week wasn't the perfect time.
Memory prices have been dropping steadily for months, and industry experts believe they're scraping bottom. Last October, a 64-megabyte PC 100 SDRAM module, the kind used in many computers, cost $66 -- 50 percent less than in October 1999. Today, the same module sells for about $27. For $66, meanwhile, you could get a 256 MB module, or four times the memory.
So should you upgrade your computer with more memory? Heck yes, say computer builders.
"If you have a machine that uses SDRAM and you're not planning to upgrade to a new machine, than this would be the time," said Art Afshar, president of Micro Express, a 15-year-old PC manufacturer in Irvine, Calif. "Prices have already hit the floor." In fact, in the last week SDRAM prices have risen about 3 percent from their lowest point.
"It's hard to look at the prices that are out there now and say it's not a good time," said Mike Bokan, general manager of the Meridian, Idaho-based memory retailer Crucial.com. Computer users apparently agree: Crucial's direct-to-customer orders are "at a record pace, due directly to the falling memory prices enticing people to upgrade their machines," he said.
"I would hope that prices have hit rock bottom. I just don't know if they can get any lower," said Anna Torchia, vice president of the memory business unit at Avnet's Electronics in Phoenix.
The direct cause of the recent price drops is excess inventory: PC sales have fallen in recent months, so PC manufacturers, the primary consumers of memory modules, are buying fewer. "Demand has gone down in the past few months relative to forecast, which has created an imbalance," Bokan said.
Retailers also are clearing inventory to make room for the next generation of memory technology, "double data rate." DDR memory communicates with the computer's processor at twice the speed of DRAM, boosting overall computing speed. Another variety of memory, RDRAM, is faster but also more expensive and trickier to implement and isn't likely to see such wide use in home PCs.
If you plan to upgrade to a DDR-compatible computer, you might not find low prices like those for SDRAM. DDR can be hard to find, and will likely be scarce for some time. DDR prices haven't stabilized yet: Some sellers are charging three times the cost of SDRAM for the same capacity, while others charge less for DDR.
Meanwhile, as memory manufacturers switch their production facilities to build DDR, fewer SDRAM modules will be produced, and their relative rarity will cause prices to rise again. SDRAM is "basically an old technology that's going to go away," Afshar said.
If you decide that it's time to add memory, the question is how much do you need? That depends on the speed of your computer, operating system, and how you use the machine. Most computers still ship with 64 MB, but 128 MB is a better baseline for most home uses, such as word processing, games, and surfing the Internet. Adding memory will allow you to run more programs at once and work with larger files, and can make your computer work faster. Additional memory can also give your applications more elbow room, reducing the frequency of crashes.
If you're planning to upgrade to Apple's just-released Mac OS X or Microsoft's upcoming Windows XP, you'll have little choice but to upgrade. Both new operating systems list 128 MB as the minimum requirement.
Online price comparison sites such as Shopper.com and Dealnews.com can help you find the best prices on memory. Before you shop, you'll need to know the type of memory that your computer requires. You can find out by checking its manual; many reseller sites will help determine the proper type based on your machine's make and model. Make sure you know the exact make and model -- for example, iMacs with slot-loading CD and DVD drives take different modules than older models using drives with pop-out trays. Don't be afraid to buy generic RAM. As long as the seller offers a warranty against defective memory, there's no risk in saving a few dollars for no-name memory. If the RAM is bad, computer crashes will let you know within the first few hours of use.
Installing RAM can be delicate work, but isn't much more difficult than screwing in a light bulb. The Council on Computing Power, an industry group, has a Web site with tips on installing memory at www.rammatters.com/installer/. If you're not comfortable installing new memory yourself, have a local computer shot install it.