DDR4 memory has been the main type of RAM used in several generations of PCs and laptops for years now, but its successor is waiting in the wings. DDR5 memory is set to make its desktop debut on Intel’s upcoming Alder Lake processors, but with even that new generation of CPU supporting both DDR5 and DDR4, a question remains: Is DDR5 worth the upgrade?
New memory generations often have some crossover in performance with the previous one, which manufacturers had spent years pushing to its limits before the leap to a new standard. But that doesn’t mean DDR5 won’t stand apart in its own way.
Here’s how DDR5 and DDR4 match up, so you can make the best decision about which type of memory is right for your next upgrade.
Pricing and availability
Only a couple of DDR5 kits have seen wide release at major retailers, and they sold out incredibly quickly. When they were available, the 32GB kits of DDR55-4800 were priced at $311. While DDR4 is widely available in a range of speeds, capacities and prices, you’d typically pay more for a DDR4 kit of that size and speed.
DDR5 memory will become much more widely available later in 2021 when Intel’s Alder Lake CPUs debut and offer official support on mainstream hardware for the first time. AMD’s support of DDR5 in future processors in 2022 will further encourage lead to wider availability and more competitive pricing.
Memory performance is dependent on a number of factors, but the biggest differentiator between different kits is speed.
(Note: Technically, this is measured in Megatransfers per second, or MT/s, although colloquially, it’s often given as a MHz rating. In either case, the effective performance number is the same, so it can be used interchangeably.)
DDR4 has a range of standards starting at 1,600MHz and maxing out at 3,200MHz. However, manufactures have been releasing DDDR4 memory kits that are far more capable than that, and through the use of extreme memory profile (XMP) automated overclocking, they have been enabling far greater speeds as well. Kits rated for 4,000MHz are not uncommon, although there have been record-setting kits in excess of 5,000MHz. The real-world performance gains with such memory aren’t immediately obvious, so these sorts of kits are uncommon (and expensive), but they do exist.
DDR5, on the other hand, has its own range of standards, starting at 4,800MHz and running all the way up to 6,400MHz. As with DDR4, though, there will be faster memory available in the future, and manufacturers have already begun announcing kits far in excess of the DDR5 standards. Adata unveiled a line of memory that would be capable of hitting speeds of 8,400MHz, and another that may be able to reach 12,600MHz.
We’ll need to wait for these kits to become more widely available following the launch of supporting motherboards and CPUs later in 2021, but it appears that it won’t be long before DDR5’s raw speed far surpasses that of even the fastest DDR4.
Timings will be the other side of the performance coin. They control the latency of certain memory functions and can have quite a dramatic effect on real-world performance of memory. Although they are almost always looser on higher-frequency memory, and will be on DDR5, it is unlikely that they will cause DDR5 to perform worse than DDR4.
DDR5 also improves the channel architecture of the memory, using two smaller channels, rather than a single larger one, to handle memory access. The width of the channel remains the same, but two smaller channels may improve efficiency, which could help give DDR5 another performance edge over its last-generation rivals.
One of the major changes with DDR5 at the architectural level is that the dies are twice as dense compared to DDR4. When combined with new chip designs, that means that where DDR4 memory chips could be manufactured at up to 16GB, DDR5 chips can potentially be made with capacities up to 64GB. That should lead to larger-capacity memory sticks. While 128GB of memory in a single stick seems a likely option, Samsung has rececntly teased a 512GB memory module — although that would not target mainstream buyers.
There would be very few mainstream applications for such memory capacities, but if the option is there for greater stick capacities, it makes longer-term upgrades a little easier to plan out, and opens up the possibility of greater memory capacities on smaller systems like Mini-ITX builds.
Want to know how much RAM you need? Check out our guide.
Power and thermals
As has been the case with every generation of DDR memory that came before, DDR5 will demand less power for its improved performance. Where DDR4 has a standard voltage demand of 1.2v, DDR5 will be content with just 1.1v. Although a less than 10% reduction in power demands might not seem significant, it will play its part in reducing power consumption in mobile devices like laptops and tablets.
Typically, a lower voltage would suggest the electronics would run cooler, but that may not be the case with DDR5, as DDR5 kits have the voltage regulator for the memory on to the modules themselves, rather than on the motherboard. That, combined with the improved performance and much greater density of the memory chips, will mean DDR5 is likely to run hotter than DDR4. That may mean more extensive heat sinks, and even some kits with active cooling recommended for peak performance.
DDR5 will be better, but at what cost?
With hints of DDR5’s performance potentially reaching well in excess of double even the fastest DDR4 modules, it seems certain that it won’t be long before the fastest PCs in the world will use DDR5. PCs will also be able to have more of it and have it running at lower voltages, if that’s important for that sort of build.
However, questions remain about how much such memory will cost — higher-capacity kits will undoubtedly be more expensive, and new generations of RAM have eclipsed the price of their predecessors in the past. The recent rise in memory pricing across the world won’t help matters, either.
There’s also the question of heat output. Just how warm will DDR5 be? If it’s particularly hot, that could demand some innovative new cooling solutions, particularly in mobile devices, to mitigate that new need for thermal dissipation.
All of this means that, depending on certain factors, there will certainly be a case for running Intel’s new Alder Lake chips using DDR4 memory. For those who want cutting-edge performance, however, DDR5 looks set to offer that in spades.