Do-It-Yourself Cheap Thrills – Here’s an upgrade that Apple actually doesn’t mind if you handle on your own…

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What’s the cheapest way to increase the ‘oomph’ under the hood of your computer? It’s not a new processor, has nothing to do with the design of the enclosure, and won’t even require a trip to an Apple Store.

Anybody still clueless?

It’s RAM! OK, now since some of our readers are tech-heads, geeks-for-hire, or Mensa dropouts — while others are just the unfortunate relatives of those same miscreants, we’ll take a moment to explain what RAM is and why you’ll want to look into upgrading it on your own ride.

First, let’s remove some confusion between two very common types of storage: RAM and your hard drive. (You geek-types pipe down in the back row; yes, we know there are two other types of storage, but that’s not important right now.)

Think of RAM (also called ‘memory’) as your counter-top in the kitchen… it’s where the work gets done. The more space you have, the faster the work goes.

Then your hard drive is like your cupboards; you keep stuff in there, and when you need something, it’s readily available. When you are done with something, you put it back in the cupboard — and that item will stay there until you remove it again.

There; everybody clear? When your computer complains that it needs more memory, you need the counter-top kind; when you don’t have any more storage space left over, you need the cupboard-type. We call these two types of storage volatile (counter-top) and non-volatile (cupboards).

In that past, volatile storage (RAM) was relatively expensive, while non-volatile storage (hard disk) was rather cheap, in comparision.

Well, that’s still true — if you measure in dollars-per-megabyte. But for the moment, RAM is amazingly inexpensive, compared to the increased performance you will get out of a decent upgrade.

1) The first thing you’ll need to do is learn what type, capacity, and form of RAM is appropriate for your Macintosh model. The best way to do this (there are many) is to go straight to the source: Apple. Among all the other helpful documents Apple provides on their support web site, there is the AppleSpec Database, which provides all the information you’ll need.

Then compare the amount of RAM your Mac is capable of using with the amount you already have installed by using the Apple System Profiler (under the Apple Menu on MacOS 8-9.x; in the Utilities folder on MacOS X).

2) The next important step is to locate a dealer that stocks the type of RAM you need (hopefully a company that is Mac-friendly). Most of this work has been done for you by a site called This is maintained by folks just like you who want to know not only what the RAM market is doing (prices do fluctuate quite a bit), but also which dealer can give you the best deal on a 72-pin SIMM for your mother-in-law’s 9-year-old Mac.

3) The third, and last step is to simply install the RAM yourself. While you could take your Mac into a repair shop and have them do it for you, there is nothing scary about handling the task unassisted, so long as you follow a few simple guidelines:

  1. Read the manual before opening your Mac the first time. There’s some good stuff in there about how to get the case open, how to not fry yourself, and probably a few important notes about static electricity that could potentially damage your new RAM chips.

  2. Don’t remove the RAM from its package until you have the Mac ‘opened’ on a clean work surface (a bath-size towel on the dining-room table is fine), with good lighting and whatever tools the manual recommends to have on hand. When you do open the package, be sure not to touch the chips (you’ll know what these are when you see them), or the metal contacts that fit into the memory slot in the Macintosh. Instead, hold the whole thing by the edges, and try to keep from shifting around too much on your feet (which can build up a bit of static charge).
  3. When you have the RAM in one hand, and an open Mac under the other, be sure to touch the metal frame of your (unplugged) Mac one last time before inserting the memory into the appropriate slot. This makes sure that the electrical charge is balanced (neither positive or negative) between you and the Mac — and can cut down on the possibility of a static discharge so faint that you can’t see it, but strong enough to fry your RAM.

The general rule of thumb is simply to get as much RAM as you can afford. What’s the downside to having ‘too much’ RAM? The worst you can expect is that with more RAM, your system will perform better; but may take longer to boot, since there is a check that is run every time you turn your system on. And for laptop users, note that 512Mb of RAM may take a few minutes off your battery life — but hey, if you’re getting your work done faster, that won’t matter, will it?

Dan Oblak

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