DDR3 vs DDR4 RAM: Which is better?

ddr3 vs ddr4

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Since the debut of the DDR4 RAM standard in 2014, consumers everywhere have been asking: is DDR4 better than DDR3?

Yes. Yes, it is. Numbered standards like this usually have pretty linear progressions– bigger numbers are better!— so you probably figured that much out already, honestly.

However, it’s important to understand the differences between the two, especially for compatibility’s sake. Just because DDR4 RAM is better doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for your PC; in fact, if your PC is from 2014 or earlier, it probably isn’t even compatible. DDR4 is a relatively new standard, and even it may soon be phased out by DDR5 in the coming years.

Let’s go over the basics real quick.

The basics of DDR RAM

The DDR in DDR3 and DDR4 stands for Double Data Rate, and RAM stands for Random Access Memory. DDR RAM was named as much because it was twice the speed of its predecessor, SDRAM (Single Data Rate). DDR has been the standard built upon ever since, starting from the original DDR RAM, to DDR2, to DDR3, and now to DDR4. (If you’re curious: DDR5 may release in 2019, but it was also planned for 2018, too, and that didn’t end up happening.)

RAM is used by your PC to handle multitasking. The more RAM you have, the more things your PC will be able to handle at once, provided the CPU can keep up. The faster your RAM is, the faster your CPU will also become in turn, which will help keep all of that multitasking smooth and seamless. (Within reason: if your CPU can’t keep up with your RAM or vice versa, you’ll still have a bad experience.)

What’s the difference between DDR3 and DDR4?

As explained above, the biggest difference is that DDR4 is the standard that succeeds DDR3. Despite the physical similarity of their DIMMs (RAM stick), these standards are not cross nor backward-compatible. This means that DDR3 RAM won’t work on a DDR4 motherboard or vice versa.

If your PC is from 2014 or earlier, it is most likely using DDR3 RAM. Use Speccy to verify your RAM speed, standard, and capacity if you aren’t sure.

Because of these compatibility issues, DDR3 has become more of a nuisance to build around. It’s also becoming more expensive as its availability dwindles. As such, you are sort of guided towards using DDR4 regardless.

Now, for the other big question: is DDR4 faster than DDR3? Yes… usually.

Mainstream DDR3 RAM peaked out right around 2133 MHz in speed. Mainstream DDR4 RAM started at that speed and has since shifted to 2400 MHz as a baseline. A few DDR3 RAM kits exist out in the wild with speeds above 2133 MHz, but those are increasingly rare (and often expensive as a result) and don’t come anywhere near DDR4’s maximum potential.

How much faster is DDR4 than DDR3?

In terms of what’s being sold to mainstream consumers, the fastest most saw with DDR3 was 2133 MHz, with 1333 MHz being the entry-level standard. With DDR4 RAM, 2133/2400 MHz have been the starting baseline, with the high-end often meeting or exceeding 4000 MHz.

Essentially… DDR4 RAM is twice as fast as DDR3, across-the-board. That’s a pretty big generational leap, but there are a few other things to consider. Don’t just click away yet though, because this still doesn’t tell you a lot about its performance difference!

Channel configuration, and why it matters

Quick, choose one of the configurations below!

  1. 8GB (4GB x 2) DDR3 RAM @ 2133 MHz
  2. 8GB (8GB x 1) DDR4 RAM @ 2133 MHz

If you’re like most people who don’t understand much about PC hardware… you would assume that #2 is faster, or at least equally fast as #1.

You would be wrong. In fact, #2 is actually running at half the speed of #1.

This is because of channel configurations. For DDR RAM to reach its full rated speeds, you need two identical RAM sticks running together (that’s why you will usually see RAM sold in double packs). To get 8GB of RAM @ 2133 MHz in this scenario, you need two identical 4GB RAM sticks running together.

#1 uses two 4GB RAM sticks, so they both reach their rated speed of 2133 MHz. That’s great, and should be more than enough for common use and most gaming scenarios.

#2 only uses a single 8GB RAM stick, though, and that’s where problems arise. Since only one stick is present, it’s actually running at half speed, or 1066 MHz. This can still be okay for common use, but you may see issues in games or other heavy applications. Moreover, why buy something and only get half of its projected power?

Whenever possible, make sure you have a dual-channel RAM configuration. If you can’t have a dual-channel configuration, at least make sure it’s a very fast DDR4 stick to help reduce the speed penalty. (A single-channel DDR4-2400 stick will run at half speed, but still, exceed a DDR3-1333 kit running in dual-channel.)

How does GDDR5 and GDDR6 RAM tie into this?

The “G” stands for “Graphics”. GDDR5(X) and its successor standard, GDDR6, refer to RAM used exclusively by graphics processors. The higher number means newer, better, faster… and more expensive. Otherwise, GDDR and DDR are unrelated. There are also some other, non-DDR types of graphics card RAM, like the HBM2 standard seen on AMD’s Vega cards.

DDR3 vs DDR4 Gaming: Will It Impact FPS?

Yes, but probably not in the way you are thinking.

Assuming you are running a DDR3 setup and DDR4 setup with the same speed and capacity…

With a single-channel DDR3 configuration… yeah, your frames are going to suffer, especially in modern games. Upgrade that to a dual-channel DDR3 config and you should be fine, though.

With a single-channel DDR4 configuration… you should actually be fine. A dual-channel configuration is ideal, though, and there is often little reason to not be running dual sticks since that’s how they are most often sold.

Past the speed of single-channel DDR4 or dual-channel DDR3, though… RAM speed doesn’t really impact gaming performance. Specifically, it doesn’t impact your average FPS, which is the usual way that gaming performance is measured.

What it does impact are 1% lows. Your games will always experience the occasional FPS drop, regardless of platform or PC power. The severity of this FPS drop will depend on a multitude of factors, but chief among them is actually your RAM speed. Essentially, the slower your RAM speed, the more drastic and noticeable these FPS drops will become.

While faster RAM will not improve your average or peak FPS, it will improve your lows, which will create a much more consistent gaming experience. This means investing in faster RAM is still worth it, especially when playing modern or competitive games.

As far as size goes, if you’re gaming you will usually want at least 8GB between your sticks although 16GB is becoming a little more popular and might be better if you are wanting to future proof your rig.

Where can I get some RAM?

Well, right here in our Best RAM For Gaming In 2019 roundup. In it, we discuss DDR3 RAM, DDR4 RAM, 8GB kits, 16GB kits, RGB kits, etc; whatever you want, it’s there. If this article told you the last little bit you needed to know, go ahead and pick some memory out!

If you want some quick picks, here are a couple of our favorites:

Chris writes about hardware, gaming and consumer technology in general - and otherwise enjoys fiction and YouTube vids.