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Written by James Reece   
Friday, 28 September 2012

Motherboard Advertising and DRAM

I’d like to open by thanking Benchmark Reviews for the opportunity to contribute to their website.

While building a desktop computer can be daunting, it's not really that hard of a process and with a little instruction most anyone can build a system. I have clients in their 80's that now build systems and my sons built their first PCs at ages 7 and 5 respectfully. Benchmark Reviews goes to great lengths to provide information that will help all builders, both first time builders and long time Professionals. There are however, things that can make the decision making process on what to use/buy more difficult. One of the biggest roadblocks (and one of my Pet Peeves) is advertising done by motherboard manufacturers as to DRAM compatibility.

Picking out components for a new system build can be fairly straightforward and simple; many often look first to the CPU, then to motherboard and DRAM as the primary components. There's one component in particular that really bothers me, and not so much the component itself - but the advertising that typically accompanies it, the Motherboard, in particular, the advertising concerning the DRAM. It's that advertising which leads to what I believe, are the most common problems that occur in new builds (and also in upgrades).

I get numerous calls from clients about DRAM/motherboard issues, and while hitting the various hardware and vendor forums I frequent, I see these issues on a daily basis. Another place to see where these problems occurred is in reviews on motherboards at a place like NewEgg or other large re/e-tailer that allows customers to post product reviews....people are always complaining about DRAM not working with their motherboard. And why is this?

Generally the basic advertising, as pertains to their motherboards (mobos) and DRAM compatibility is rather generically provided. A few things to know when you look at a mobo's specs are the frequencies (freqs) that the motherboard can handle or its MEMORY STANDARD and the total DRAM (memory) that the motherboard is capable of handling.

Let's say on motherboard brand ACME XXX, it is advertised as running: 1333, 1600, 1866 (OC), 2133 (OC), and 2400 (OC) frequencies. Take note of the ‘OC' by the higher listed frequencies. This implies that an OverClock (OC) of the system will be required to achieve said freq/speed. This OC may include the CPU itself and/or other things like the FSB, CPU/NB, HT, BCLK, etc depending on the type of mobo. Many people don't know this and just tend to think that ONLY the DRAM itself needs to be OCed.

Another thing they advertise is the Maximum Amount of DRAM the motherboard can handle. These days on newer mobos it generally ranges from 16 GB (2 8GB DIMMs) to 64GB (8 8GB DIMMs) (there are some X79 that state support for 128GB (8-16GB DIMMs) of DRAM.

So, you buy an ACME XXX motherboard and its advertised for up to 32GB of 2133 DRAM. You may simply go by what's advertised or may even go and check the QVL (Qualified Vendors List) for DRAM for your particular motherboard of choice. This is where it can get very interesting, for a number of reasons. A few of them are:

1. They never mention what CPU was used for testing, which normally is the most powerful available for the mobo. So YOU NEED TO DO SOME RESEARCH to ensure your CPU is capable of running the DRAM, particularly with AMD CPUs, many have an extremely hard time running even 2 sticks of 1600, the newer FX CPUs are supposed to be able to run 1866 (they advertise 1 stick per channel) and while the 8150 can run that and possibly even faster, going to 4 sticks can be troublesome. Also not all CPUs are equal, have seen plenty of 8120 that can run 1866, and even more that can't, unless you want to cook things in your case..

2. Many motherboard makers would like you to believe that their QVL (Qualified Vendors List) is Holy Grail of what DRAM to buy to run with your mobo, and nothing could be further from the truth. They are getting better in the advertising and some provide a disclaimer that the QVL is only a sampling of the DRAM that can run on the motherboard as they can't test the entire available DRAM.

3. They also are getting better in that some are starting to advertise (to a degree) how they test the DRAM and this may surprise you - Say you want to build a superfast rig, so you buy the ACME XXX motherboard that runs up to 2400 sticks and can handle 32 GB....and you buy a set that's on their QVL......did you realize it was probably ‘TESTED' at the mobos default boot freq/speed which typically is 1333 or 1600 and not at the set's rated freq/speed, so while Yes, it will run on the motherboard, it might not run at the freq you wanted and paid for. Some are finally putting it on their list that they test using the mobo's default boot speed.

You also might take note that the motherboard manufacturers do what ‘testing' they do, with whatever DRAM is on hand. A number of the QVLs include sets of DRAM that aren't even made anymore and aren't available....but they had them, stuck them in and the system booted under defaults, so they went onto their QVL. You might also see a 4 DIMM list listed but they only tested with 2 of the DIMMS or they might list a 2 DIMM set, yet say that it works with 4 DIMMs which if it is true goes against DRAM manufacturer's recommendations to not mix sets of DRAM even when they are the same model.

So. It's up to you to do a little research, both on the motherboard and CPU to find the capabilities of each before you decide on a set of DRAM and not solely trust reviews at reseller sites. Once you get familiar with DRAM and capabilities of various CPUs and chipsets, you can often get a few laughs from reading these reviews. I'd suggest looking for reviews from actual sites, like Benchmark Reviews that test the items in question or checking with the DRAM manufacturer (who will actually test the DRAM at the specified freq with the mobo) before purchasing.

This article is part of our Opinion & Editorials section at Benchmark Reviews. Your feedback is always welcome!


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Comments 

 
# Welcome to BmRSteven Iglesias-Hearst 2012-09-28 15:55
Marketing in general is one of my pet peeves and I hate when there is misinformation anywhere, especially when it is a rapidly growing market.
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# TmanJames Reece 2012-09-29 07:58
Thanks for the welcome! and I agree wholeheartedly on marketing. The subject here ranks high as daily I see folks saying to the effect of 'my motherboard says it will run 2400 so what's wrong with this DRAM?" and they have an entry level CPU whose MC (Memory Controller just can't handle it)
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# WelcomeCaring1 2012-10-01 01:01
I'd also like to ad that compatibility lists for CPU's aren't always comprehensive and sometimes as i found out, an upgrade is possible to a faster CPU as long as the socket is the same.
The manuals provided with motherboards do warn that the BIOS may not be compatible, but trying is the best way to find out, IMO.
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# RE: Motherboard Advertising and DRAM CompatibilityJames Reece 2012-10-01 09:30
Thanks Caring1 for the welcome. Yes, they are far from comprehensive, but when you consider there are over a 1,000 sets of DDR3 available on the market, it would be basically impossible to test them all, and retest, and retest as each new BIOS revision comes out. And yes, you can upgrade to a better CPU, though that won't always solve the woes if the problems are, say in the advanced timings when people want to run high frequency/high density sticks.
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# RE: Motherboard Advertising and DRAM CompatibilityArron 2012-10-09 01:10
Hi James. Welcome to BmR. Good article. Two other confounding items are the way the motherboard distributes power and the PSU's internal power distribution. The same failing CPU and RAM combinations often work in my Gigabyte UD7 boards (both intel & AMD varieties / several revisions) which both have a Corsair 950 watt PSU. Note: I am not advertising / recommending this combo, merely stating what it is so others may play with whatever their own pieces are. FWIW, I suspect it is the board which makes the difference, not the PSU. The UD7's have a lot of separate power phases for various parts of the board, whilst overclocking/adding RAM definitely increases board current loadings locally. Hope this helps someone.
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# RE: Motherboard Advertising and DRAM CompatibilityJames Reece 2012-10-09 11:42
Thanks, and I agree. Using the voltage controls available can often be used to get DRAM to play nice. One of the things I was trying to point out though, is that if the motherboard manufacturers are going to state that the motherboards will run, say 2400 DRAM (with no caveat that it might be at 1600) and that they use XMP, then the the BIOS should be tuned to run 2400 DRAM under XMP. For example a 32GB set of 2400 may require a tRFC timing of 300 or better, yet I still see Z77 motherboards advertising up to 2800 DRAM and they have a cutoff on the tRFC of 255. There are also some out there that don't allow for setting DRAM voltage down low enough to accommodate low voltage DRAM sets. That is surprising to me as it's an opportunity for them to work with low voltage DRAM, which we will be seeing a lot of when DDR4 hits the mainstream. In short, setting DRAM up via the use of advanced/secondary timings and voltages (primarily the DRAM and Memory Controller voltages) could well be a long article in itself.
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# RE: Motherboard Advertising and DRAM CompatibilityArron 2012-10-10 10:05
On reflection, I have never run into a CPU being unable to run four RAM modules, the problem has always been crappy RAM, m/b or PSU, which is why I specified my mack truck type test bench. Also, I have never HAD to play with the voltages to get any CPU / quality RAM to work @ 1333/1066 (i.e. the default for the particular chipset). To get higher real RAM speeds it is almost always necessary to adjust clock timings manually. Then playing with voltages can also start to make a (huge!) difference. YMMV, as some of the memory support logic is on the CPU these days. I freely admit that I may be less patient with rubbishy gear these days, if it doesn't work I return or bin it. IMHO around 70% of the m/b's in most computer stores would massively improve if fed to a shredder...

Unfortunately, we also share one pet peeve. If the thing is supposed to work at xxxx speed, I should not need to do ANYTHING beyond plugging it in to get it to run at that speed. I really resent the time wasted on getting some gear to work at the speed it should do automatically. I blame intel / AMD squarely for this as they make the offending CPU / chipset combinations.

I hate the term mission critical, however it applied when one recent system needed to run some 2400Mhz RAM flat out to get the required throughput on some substantial ERPS reports. Half a day later I had beaten it into submission and satisfied the client. Of course, I effectively donated my labour...

Your comments about voltage & timings... I agree fully. Why are manufacturers allowed to get away with such claims? The other elephant in the throughput room is latency, which has been getting worse for years. Adding another 30 or so caches inside everything is OK for corporate reports, however it is at the expense of my shoot 'em up gamer friends. When the new machine that renders at blinding speed is as responsive as a brick when doing real time video editing it is also fun to watch (at a safe distance from the user).

After (far too many) years in the industry I can honestly say that too many of the basics have not improved significantly in the last 20 years, and a lot of them have gone backwards.
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# RE: Motherboard Advertising and DRAM CompatibilityJames Reece 2012-10-10 12:56
I basically agree w/ everything you've provided, but with a couple of caveats. I agree with the comments on 1066/1333 DRAM, that should work on most any mobo/CPU combo, except for a couple of things, the main being most people that I see want faster DRAM 1600 is rapidly becoming or is entry level. The other would be 4 DIMMs (even 1066 or 1333) of 8GB (and often 4GB DIMMs with AMD CPUs, which often require a boost to DRAM or CPU/NB voltage). Most motherboards still have problems w/ fully populated 8GB DIMMs...which leads to the next item.

I too would love to see true plug and play with DRAM at any frequency, but it's not going to happen any time in the foreseeable future. The primary reason goes right back to what they advertise i.e. a typical Z77 motherboard that claims it can run up to 32GB of DRAM and up to 2800. Many of these motherboards have now been on the market for 6 months or so and still aren't ready to run 32GB of 2400, let alone 2800 under XMP, and there are many more that don't have a current BIOS available to allow you run a set like that.

To ever get true plug and play with DRAM, between the R&D and the BIOS programming that would be required PRIOR to release, I would guestimate it would raise prices a bare minimum of 10-15%...and they simply won't do it. Not even so much because of the time it would take, but they all know that another manufacturer will skimp and send his models out early knowing they can't run 32 of 2800, but wanting to grab the early sales, and continue to work on the BIOS as they rack up sales and others maybe waiting to release a good product.

It just rolls back to how it is today, they throw this adverting on the box, then when you say, this motherboard is suppose to run 32GB of 2400 or whatever, they tell you it's a DRAM problem and contact the DRAM manufacturer (and that's often even with DRAM on their QVL (because they tested the 2400 DIMMs at 1333/1600....not at 2400.
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# I think that brands matter a lot.RealNeil 2012-10-19 06:19
I have found that I have the least problems with certain combinations of brand name parts. (ASRock or ASUS motherboards + GSKill RAM usually) Some brands are simply more compatible with a wider range of parts than others are. Setting the RAM speed and timings is usually required as most system boards have factory preset defaults that they adhere to, (such as RAM @1333MHz. speed)but it can also be as simple as turning on the Intel-XMP profile in the system's BIOS.
Having a Power Supply that is of a high quality is also a good idea to get the stability you want. (I use the SeaSonic brand)
Most systems need a few adjustments to operate at optimum speeds, but it's certainly worth it to do.
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# RE: Motherboard Advertising and DRAM CompatibilityJames Reece 2012-10-19 08:43
Yes most ll mobos today default to either 1333 or 1600 with new DRAM installations (and as a note, you can find what the primary default of the DRAMS SPD is by looking in CPU-Z under the SPD tab. The default is shown under the Max Bandwidth window (Another Pet Peeve of mine as many believe this to be the 'true' freq of the DRAM, which it isn't, simply the default boot settings). As mentioned above though, to have the motherboard set up to simply read read and implement the actual frequency would raise the costs even higher as they would need a BIOS that can handle all amounts of speed and density, which as we know takes a long time. There are mother boards out there that have been out for 6 months or better that still have problems with DRAM combos (that shouldn't). Hopefully as XMP and DOCP continues to grow, more attention will be paid. I two have certain brands that I always look to first (though my customers make the final call) and GSkill is the top of the list for me on DRAM (I generally hit their forums daily to help me keep up with motherboard, DRAM and CPU issues) and ASRock, Asus and GigaByte are my primary motherboards I look to first.
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# Fuzzy adsHap 2012-10-19 09:17
Reason why I have been sticking to only one Motherboard brand; Supermicro, they are not in the market for the quick fix super-speedo MB that outdays itself in six months.
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# RE: Fuzzy adsJames Reece 2012-10-19 17:08
Thats a good point, some manufacturers like Supermicro are building into a niche, they are orienting themselves towards server and workstation motherboards.
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# a better GPUHap 2012-10-19 18:23
I keep my distance from the gamer side of computers, would rather have one that works like a computer should, doing high level computing. Check out the Tesla GPU, now that's a working model one could come to live with very well.
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# RE: a better GPUJames Reece 2012-10-19 18:55
Will be looking forward to the price point coming down, at present the Tesla is more high end scientific, know some folks in the defense industry getting ready to head that way, especially with their simulation packages
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# Hi and Welcom and ThanksAthlonite 2012-10-19 16:29
You and I share alot of the same pet peeves especially the DRAM/MOBO qvl lists...

It's a problem that has existed for a very long long time take my AM2+ Asus M3A32MVP Deluxe it states it can handle 4 x 2GB Dimms at upto DDR2-1066 yeah ok that's fine BUT what it doesn't tell you is
a: You have to increase the IMC/NB voltage to 1.4V or it wont be stable
b: You'll have to manually set the timings otherwise it's starts up at DDR2-800 speeds with standard JEDEC timings from the SPD

and to top it off the qvl for this mobo doesn't even have and 4x 2GB sets tested in the list but does include 4x 256MB DDR2 sets (err WTF)
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# RE: Motherboard Advertising and DRAM CompatibilityJames Reece 2012-10-19 17:15
While I look at it as ALL motherboard advertising, AMD in particular is perplexing, I wish they would invest a little more into the R&D, especially in the MC (Memory Controller) department, many CPUs are 'rated' to a particular frequency (like the FX series was touted for 1866, but what they didn't say was 1866 actually "UP TO 1866" and they failed to let people know it was "UP TO 1866 AT 1 DIMM PER CHANNEL". And yes, manually having set up the DRAM in most every setup, which often entails DRAM voltage, CPU/NB voltage, adjusting the HT, CPU voltage and at times even the timings of the DRAM gets old
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