You might think of your computer as one large machine, but it’s actually made up of tiny components that each serve an important role. The CPU acts as the brain of your computer, the hard drive acts as a storage bank for files and applications, and RAM acts as a way to hold data your computer needs immediately without having to constantly read and write your drives. It’s one of the most important, crucial elements of any computing device, be it your smartphone, tablet, or your laptop.
Problems with a computer’s memory can manifest themselves in just about any part of the machine, and that’s never a good sign. Memory problems can cause crashes, errors, program failure, and a variety of other symptoms. Part of troubleshooting computer problems is ruling out memory issues. In Windows 10, there is a powerful built-in tool that will let you diagnose any memory problems: Windows Memory Diagnostic. It’s a great way to fix memory-associated errors and to speed up Windows 10, whether you’re having issues with your computer or not. In this guide, let’s look at how to use Windows Memory Diagnostic to make sure your RAM is running properly.
What is RAM and what does it do?
RAM is short for Random Access Memory. RAM is volatile, meaning that when the power goes off, everything stored in RAM disappears. RAM is extremely fast; a typical stick of DDR4 RAM used in a modern PC can perform around 2,400,000,000 transfers each second, moving 64 bits of memory in each transfer. RAM is the highest-speed storage your computer uses. By comparison, a solid-state drive (a hard drive using a much-less-volatile form of memory called flash memory) is one or two orders of magnitude slower, while conventional hard drives (which store data on a physical disk and are relatively permanent) are another two orders of magnitude slower. Speaking very generally, the RAM in your computer is somewhere between 1000 and 10,000 times faster at moving data around than a hard drive.
So why isn’t everything just made of RAM? Two reasons: cost, and persistence. As noted, RAM is volatile. When the power goes out, the data being held in RAM is gone too. Flash drives are relatively permanent, but a flash solid-state drive (SSD) left powered off for a few years will start to lose data. Hard drives, on the other hand, will keep their data for years and years, basically until the physical media fail, even if they never are powered up. The other reason is of course cost; RAM is significantly more expensive than flash memory, which is in turn more expensive than hard drive space. For this reason, hard drives and SSDs are used for long-term storage, while the much faster RAM is used as the working memory for the computer when it is actively processing things.
How does this come together in actual operation?
Let’s say that you want to check your email on your Windows 10 computer. So you double-click on the icon for your email client program, and it loads. What’s happening when you do this? Well, the client program was stored on your hard drive or your SSD. Double-clicking on it tells Windows to copy the program into your RAM and start executing it. By executing in RAM, the program operates hundreds or thousands of times faster than it would if it was executing from the storage location. When you click the “check mail” button in your client, the incoming email first goes to your RAM and is then written to the hard drive or SSD so that it will still be there the next time you go to look at it.
Using memory like this speeds up your computer’s response time and enables you to copy, paste, edit and do whatever you need to do in a program quickly. Any permanent changes that are saved will be written to disk.
What can go wrong with RAM?
RAM can have a number of different issues, and they are not always easy to diagnose. A stray electrical current can cause a short-circuit that damages a RAM chip; this is something that typically happens when the RAM chip is outside of a machine, and is the main reason that RAM should be stored and moved in static-proof bags. A more common error in a working machine is that RAM depends on a very close coordination of timings. If one chip is rated to run at 2400 MHz while another is rated to 2666 MHz, and your computer tries to run them both at 2666 MHz, then the slower chip is going to generate errors as it fails to keep up the pace. These problems can be diagnosed with software, however.
How to see if your RAM is working properly
If you use Windows, you can use the Windows Memory Diagnostic tool. It is built into Windows and does a credible job of testing your memory and assessing whether it is faulty or not.
To open the Windows Memory Diagnostic tool:
- Type ‘Windows Memory Diagnostic’ into the Windows Search box.
- Select Windows Memory Diagnostic when it appears in the popup.
- Select either to restart immediately to run the test or to run it next time you boot your computer.
When you reboot your computer, it will begin with a blue screen like in the main image. The default Standard memory test should be fine for most uses. Just let the test proceed until it finished. It may take a while depending on the speed of your computer and how much RAM you have. You can press F1 and select Extended test to do a more comprehensive test, but do it before bed or work and leave it running as it takes a while!
Once complete, the Windows Memory Diagnostic tool will show you the results of the test. If it detected any errors, it will write a Windows Event for it so that you can view the results at your leisure. (Look in the Windows logs under System; the report will have an Event ID of 1101 or 1102 to make it easier to find. You can also search for ‘MemoryDiagnostics’ if you prefer.)
If you’re lucky, you will see ‘The Windows Memory Diagnostic tested the computer’s memory and detected no errors’. This means it thinks your RAM is running fine. Otherwise, the tool will tell you what error(s) it found and on what memory stick. You should then remove the stick in question and replace it with a new one and re-run the test.
There are other testing tools available for memory issues. One excellent tool is called MemTest86. This is a freeware program that you will need to save onto a USB drive and boot from. It is one of the most thorough memory testers on the market and I have used it extensively. If there is something wrong with your RAM, this tool will find it.
Do you have any suggestions or tips on testing memory in Windows 10? Please share your ideas with us in the comments section below!