I received my first computer as a Christmas gift in 1980. It was a Tandy TRS-80 Color computer, and it boasted 16KB RAM. My father and I spent one Saturday afternoon installing a RAM upgrade that gave the then state-of-the-art machine 64KB RAM. We had the most powerful home computer in town, and we thought we were hot stuff (one of the most popular home computers at the time was the Timex Sinclair, with 2KB RAM). In September 1983, the first Macintosh machines were released with 128KB RAM. Apple Computer Inc. had originally planned to include 256KB RAM, but a shortage of 64KB chips and the high price tag forced them to drop the extra RAM to keep the price of the machine less than $2,500. Steve Jobs rationalized the situation, saying, “no one will ever need more that 128KB RAM.”
In those days, most applications required only 50 to 60KB RAM, and there was no such thing as “multitasking.” So, a Mac could easily run any available program, even with the finder using 40KB of the available memory. If, for some reason, an application needed more memory, the Mac was able to use what was then called “disk swapping,” an early version of what is now known as virtual memory. The second wave of Macs shipped with 256KB RAM, still more than enough for any application at the time. Slowly, more and more RAM was put into computers, though in 1986, adding 1MB of RAM would cost in the neighborhood of $550.
Today, the Apple operating system uses at least 2MB of RAM, and forget about running Windows with less than 8MB in your PC (you could run the system with 4MB, but don’t plan on opening any applications like Microsoft Word or Excel). Most computers cannot be purchased today with less than 8MB of RAM, and those who work with applications like Adobe Photoshop know that is barely enough to begin manipulating high-resolution graphics.
A Quick Lesson
RAM, which stands for Random Access Memory, resides on silicon chips that store and retrieve data quickly, as opposed to Read burned into the chip tOnly Memory (ROM), which has informationhat cannot be changed. It is used to temporarily hold the data you are working on until it is saved to a more permanent medium such as the hard drive or a removable disk. RAM requires power to hold data, so when the machine is turned off, whatever was stored in RAM disappears (RAM will actually hold information for several seconds after power is cut off). RAM is needed for any input and output functions, as well as keeping applications up and running. Scanners need RAM to transfer an image to the computer; printers need RAM to output from the computer (the higher the resolution, the more RAM needed); and monitors need RAM just to keep information on the screen.
In the first computers, RAM was soldered directly to the motherboard. Upgrading required soldering off the original RAM and replacing it with a larger chip. In 1984, however, computers started using removable chips, called SIMMs (Single In-line Memory Modules). This is the most common configuration of RAM today. The Power Macintosh machines, however, use Dual In-line Memory Modules (DIMMs). These are another configuration that use two sides of the chip for RAM, and work more efficiently in pairs. When two DIMMs of the same size and speed are used in parallel slots, they perform what is called memory interweaving. Installing two DIMMs of the same capacity enables them to perform 10 to 15 percent faster. SIMMs and DIMMs use what is called Dynamic RAM (DRAM), which is the slowest and least expensive type of RAM available. It is called Dynamic because the microprocessor must refresh the memory or it will deteriorate and lose data.
Another type of RAM is Static RAM (SRAM), or cache RAM. SRAM is faster and much more stable than DRAM, but also much more expensive. SRAM is usually used in cache cards, placed in computers to act as a buffer between the processor and the DRAM. The most often called-upon information is stored in SRAM to avoid delays in common functions and the need to call upon the hard disk for extra memory.
Monitors use what is called Video RAM (VRAM) for quick redrawing of images. This is much faster, and also much more expensive than DRAM (so much more expensive that many machines still use only DRAM even for video applications). VRAM can be written to and read from at the same time, dramatically improving speed. It is used almost exclusively on high-end video cards, as most applications would not justify the cost.
How Much RAM is Enough?
Though most new computers come standard with 8MB RAM, that is barely enough to run imaging and photo manipulation applications, much less achieve very good results. It is recommended that you have at least 16MB RAM to run Adobe Photoshop on an older Macintosh or Windows-based PC, and at least 24MB on a Macintosh Power PC. However, if you are working with large, high-resolution images, you will need three to five times your image size in RAM to effectively work with that image. This could mean 128MB RAM or higher, which is not uncommon in the imaging world today. Unfortunately, if you’re on a tight budget, 128MB RAM may be a little more than you wish to spend. After all, upgrading a machine from 8MB to 128MB would cost around $1,500 from conventional sources.
So, how can you work more efficiently with less RAM? First, when running an application like Photoshop, make sure there are no other applications running in the background, using up your precious memory. Then give the program as much memory as possible, leaving only about 500KB unused for the system software to expand. Macintosh users accomplish this by selecting the application’s icon (when it is not running), choosing “Get Info” from the File menu, and changing the number in the “Preferred” field of the info box. Windows users should open Photoshop, select File>Preferences>Memory, and allot enough free RAM in that dialogue box. The application must then be closed and restarted for these changes to take effect.
Next, Photoshop users must make sure they have enough space on their “primary scratch disk.” When Photoshop runs out of available RAM, it looks for space on the hard drive or another designated disk to use as a type of virtual memory. It is recommended that you have at least three to five times the image size you are using available for “scratch disk” space. A good plan is to use a disk partitioning application, such as Norton Utilities from Symantec, to create a space reserved for Photoshop use that is five to six times the size of the largest image with which you work. Then, in Photoshop, choose that partition as your primary scratch disk. Macintosh users can do this by going into the File menu and choosing Preferences>Scratch Disks. Windows users can go to the File menu and choose Preferences>Memory.
If you are working with large images, it is possible to run into memory problems when trying to apply filters to the entire image. A good trick to use is to apply the filter to each channel of the image, RGB or CMYK. Most filters will produce the same results as long as the same values are chosen when the filter is applied to individual color channels. This uses less memory both to apply the filter and to store the previous version for “undo” purposes.
There are also alternative graphics applications to consider that require less RAM than Photoshop. One such application is Live Picture, a mathematically based photo manipulation software. Mathematical computations are saved in the working file, rather than actual pixels. The computer can deal with these equations much faster than it can “redraw” the entire image. Live Picture also deals with only the portion of the image on the screen at any one time, rather than keeping the entire image in RAM, as does Photoshop. Live Picture is currently available for the Macintosh operating system only, but a Windows version is scheduled for release in 1997, according to the company. However, remember that Live Picture is a photo manipulation software, and does not have all the drawing capabilities that Photoshop has, such as the variety of paintbrushes. The other reason Live Picture has not replaced Photoshop as the imaging software of choice is its steep learning curve. Those who have mastered Photoshop may not wish to spend the time it takes to learn this new technology. Also, if you have already invested in one application, it may be wiser to spend any additional funds on more real RAM than to invest in a new format.
Finally, when all else fails, you may consider using a RAM compression program, or what is called virtual memory. When a computer runs out of all other types of RAM, a portion of the hard drive (or other disk) space is used as a substitute for RAM. This is called virtual memory. Virtual memory allows more applications to run at one time, and may even speed up many applications. However, virtual memory is known to significantly hinder graphic-intensive programs. Documentation for Macintosh Power PCs tells users that the Power Macs actually run better when using virtual memory along with a great deal of RAM. For the most part, however, experts warn against using virtual memory in most cases. RAM chip speed is measured in nanoseconds (one billionth of a second). Hard drive speeds are measured in milliseconds (one thousandth of a second). If you are performing an operation using virtual memory, it will most likely be many times slower.
Another option is a RAM compression program, such as RAM Doubler from Connectix Inc. RAM Doubler works in two ways to get the most out of your RAM. The first thing RAM Doubler does is trick your system into using RAM that is allocated to another application, but not actually being used. An application running in the background that seems to be using 6MB RAM may actually be existing on only 2MB. RAM Doubler then “borrows” the extra memory for the current application. Next, RAM Doubler compresses infrequently used memory blocks to save more RAM. Connectix claims only a two to five percent system degradation with this compression technique. However, some users speak of more significant slowing, especially when switching between applications. As with virtual memory, RAM Doubler can actually hinder the performance of graphic-intensive applications, so it is not an ideal answer for those working with high-resolution images. RAM Doubler is available for both Macintosh and Windows systems. Windows users also have the choice of at least two other similar RAM compression programs. One is called MagnaRAM, from Quarterdeck Corporation Inc. MagnaRAM intercepts calls from the Windows memory manager to the pager and compresses them. The other option is SoftRAM 95, from Synchronys SoftCorp. Synchronys has recently run into problems with this program and had to recall the Windows 95 version. The application seems to work with Windows 3.1, but it actually slows down operations in Windows 95.
All these options for increasing the performance of existing RAM are good for certain applications. However, most experts agree that you should not get into the habit of allocating more RAM to an application than you actually have. The best thing to do when faced with memory problems is to buy more RAM. Unfortunately, buying a significant amount of RAM can really take a bite out of an individual’s or small company’s budget. As mentioned, 128MB RAM can cost as much as $1,500 from conventional sources. But compared to $550 per MB in 1986, that’s not all that bad. By 1989, that price had dropped to approximately $70, and by 1993, the price had dropped to about $20. Note, however, that these are average prices for one single 1MB SIMM. The price schedule of RAM, processors, and other chips led to the formulation of Moore’s law, which predicts that semiconductors, through decreasing size and increasing power, double in performance and halve in price every 18 months. However, the price of a 1MB SIMM today is about $36, 56 percent higher than just three years ago. So, how do we get around the high price of RAM? First, buy in quantity. As you can see, though the price for a single 1MB SIMM may be around $36, the price for 128MB is less than $12 per MB. Rather than slowly upgrading, if you know you will eventually need much more RAM, make the investment all at once. Don’t bleed your budget with small upgrades every year.
Second, note that the prices I have listed are from “conventional sources.” This is where you can really save some money on memory. Most people tend to order RAM from the same place they find good prices on other computer products, mail order catalogs. The truth is, you are usually better off buying RAM from smaller companies that specialize in this area. One of the best places to find these companies is in the back of magazines like PC World, Byte, Macworld, and MacUser. One such company is The Chip Merchant, a California company that is most easily accessed on the World Wide Web (http://www.thechipmerchant.com). The price for the same 128MB of RAM mentioned above is about $900 through The Chip Merchant. And there are many similar companies to be found both in magazine advertisements and on the Web. When ordering RAM, however, make sure the company you use offers a lifetime warranty on its products. As with any major purchase, be cautious.
A final problem some users may have is with system upgradibility. This should not concern those using newer machines, as most machines made today can accept more RAM than we would dream of putting in them. The Power Mac 9500 is designed to handle up to 1.5GB RAM. The only problem is that, with 12 DIMM slots, it is impossible to test, since no one has yet made a 128MB DIMM. Unfortunately, those of us with smaller machines are limited to the number of SIMMs we can put in. And if you have to take one SIMM out to put in a bigger one, you lose whatever you had previously. The solution to this problem has been presented by FutureWare Corporation with a product called SIMMExtender. This small piece of hardware, which currently sells for $32.98, plugs into an existing SIMM slot and allows you to “stack” multiple SIMMs onto it.
So, now that you have no more excuses, the time has come to upgrade to the power you need. Even if you still have that old machine with the 40MHz processor, if you’re not going to get a new machine, make sure you have enough RAM. After all, a computer with a slower processor and lots of RAM will be more efficient than one with a fast processor and barely enough RAM to run the system. My advice is to make the investment for what you need, but don’t go overboard and put yourself in the poorhouse. However, if you work with complex applications and high-resolution graphics, it will help you work faster and more efficiently. If your livelihood depends on your computer, then the investment will be justified.