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How To Troubleshoot A Computer's RAM

Updated on April 1, 2013
RAM modules
RAM modules

Random Access Memory

Random Access Memory or RAM as we all know it is one of the few crucial hardware of a computer system. Even though it tends to be confused with hard drive (mainly because they use the same units), RAM is more like a temporary data storage from which data can be accessed in random order. This is the major difference between RAM and other types of storage such as hard drive, whose data is accessed with a predefined order. RAM contents are emptied when the system powers off, but still it is essential for keeping them available to use at any time while the computer is ON.

It is well known that the more RAM our computer system has and the faster it is significantly increases the total performance of it. Software, games and in general every single thing we do on our system will be done faster if it is equipped with much and fast RAM.
A faulty RAM module can cause system halts, crashes or unwanted restarts, often combined with the Blue Screen Of Death (B.S.O.D. in short).
Like all different types of hardware, troubleshooting the cause of the problem can be hard and time consuming - all afore mentioned issues can be caused by RAM, but they can easily be caused by other types of malfunctions, such as overheating, power supplies or CPU problems.

Nevertheless, a computer technician just has to start with something; and that usually is, by testing the RAM modules to find the one(s) which might be the culprit(s). Of course, if the RAM is found to be in good condition, the technician can move on to troubleshooting the rest hardware, one by one.

UBCD menu list - you can find Memtest86+ in the memory section.
UBCD menu list - you can find Memtest86+ in the memory section.

How To Troubleshoot

This article is about troubleshooting the RAM modules of your system, so let's see what our moves will be.
To start with, you need to open the side panel of your computer case, locate the RAM modules and try to unplug and replug them. Make sure they are seated evenly and deep; do not hesitate to apply some force if needed, but be cautious because you wouldn't like to break your motherboard. If reseating the modules doesn't seem to work or if you would like to run your RAM tests anyway, you can move on with the diagnostics software.

Memtest86+ is a piece of software specialized in detecting faulty or intermittently malfunctioning RAM. Bear in mind that it is not a windows application; besides, how could it diagnose your RAM if the operating system and a bunch of programs are consuming it at the same time. It can be downloaded for free in ISO form, recorded on a CD/DVD or a USB drive, from which you must boot by adjusting your BIOS boot priority accordingly.

My personal suggestion is, however, to not only download Memtest86+, which might be a great diagnostics software but its limitation is that it onle checks your RAM. Instead, you might prefer to grab a whole pack of many different kinds of diagnostics called UBCD (Ultimate Boot CD).
This way you will be able to record on a CD or DVD an excellent variety of system diagnostics which could be of much help if any computer problem needs long troubleshooting.
With UBCD, you can diagnose hard drives condition, stress test your CPU to test your CPU cooler's performance, identify hardware and much more; and of course, Memtest86+ will also be packed in there, ready for use, by following the path Memory> Memtest86+.

Memtest86+ during scanning - many errors have been found, indicating a RAM module which needs to be replaced.
Memtest86+ during scanning - many errors have been found, indicating a RAM module which needs to be replaced.

Running Memtest86+

So, either way you have decided to follow, you need to insert your media (UBCD or Memtest96+ only) in your system and boot from your CD/DVD drive. Run Memtest86+ and let it scan your system's RAM.
The interface of Memtest86+ is relatively simple; At top left, you will have some generic info on your hardware, such as your CPU frequency and cache, your motherboard's chipset model and FSB and some detailed information on your RAM - the quantity, the speed and the CAS latency.
At top right you will have two moving bars; the top bar indicates the process of the RAM scan pass and the second bar will show the process of the test currently running. Additional details are shown there too, but they are not of much interest (they mainly show what kind of test is ran and what memory pattern is processed).
The bottom part of the screen shows the elapsed time of the memory test, the amount of passes and the errors found. The more passes you let Memtest86+ perform, the more sure you can be that the findings are accurate and that the results are reliable. I personally suggest 3 passes, but if time is short, you can have accurate results with 2 passes too. The scan does not take too long, but the time is relative to the condition and speed of the RAM and of course its size.

The possibilities at this time are two; Either Memtest86+ has shown that your RAM is in good condition (0 errors), or it has found some errors.
If the first has happened, you can be sure that your RAM is OK and you need to troubleshoot other hardware of your system.
If the application has found some errors, there are some more steps to be followed. Supposing you only have one RAM module installed, then it's obvious that it is faulty so you need to replace it. However, if there are more than one modules, you cannot be sure which one is the culprit. As a result, you will have to run Memtest86+ again and again, each time with a different RAM module installed. This means that you will have to unplug dimms from your motherboard, leaving only one.

When each module has been thoroughly scanned by Memtest86+, the one which is causing the failures will be identified, so you can then reseat the rest RAM modules and get rid of the faulty one.
It is apparent that if one of your RAM modules has been found to be faulty and you get rid of it, the amount of RAM in your system will be less; you might want to buy another dimm, or you could settle with the amount you have now.

Should performance issues arise, such as your system has slowed down much and is displaying laggy behavior, you would probably like to buy more RAM to fix it.

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