DDR5 – Dual Channel or Single Channel?

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DDR5- The Promise

JEDEC (or Joint Electro Device Engineering Council) is a governing body that defines specifications and standards for the microelectronics industry. These include RAM, SSD, memory cards, e.MMC and more.

When they released the standards for DDR5 RAM, the specifications promised a leap of 50% in performance. And with lower operational power, the DDR5 promised a power-efficient module compared to DDR4. Also, with an improved module architecture with XMP 3.0, a Power Management IC, and On-die ECC, DDR5 promised unmatched performance gains, albeit at a higher price point.

But there is often a gap between what is promised and what is delivered. Does DDR5 deliver enhanced performance? Or is it all hype and no bite?

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Dual Channel DDR5 – Is there an Improvement?

There has been plenty of chatter concerning the dual channel DDR5 and the performance it delivers.

Truth be told, the DDR5’s performance has been shockingly disappointing. With several tests and resulting benchmark ratings, a single-stick dual-channel DDR5 configuration consistently underperformed compared to the two-stick setup. So, the benefit you saw of using two 8GB sticks instead of a single 16GB stick with DDR4, continues with the DDR5.

Here are a couple of test results at a glance.

On the Cinebench R23 test, a single-stick dual-channel DDR5-6000 gathered a shade under 22500 points, and the two-stick quad-channel setup took 500 points more, to just under 23000 points.

For a graphic-heavy game like the Shadow of the Tomb Raider, a single-stick setup clocked an average of 227fps, and a two-stick clocked more at 258fps.

The result remains pretty consistent with a battery of other tests and the occasional one where a two-stick setup took the lead, but only marginally.

Do the new AMD CPUs support DDR5?

Yes, AMD has made it official that their first four AMD Zen 4 Ryzen 7000 series processor will support DDR5. They call it the “Raphael” processors and claim that these will be the faster processors in the world with speeds over 5GHz. And that is not all; the new processor will support PCIe 5.0 and come with a new AM5 socket.

The initial release will see the launch of four processors, with the most high-end one offering a 16-Core Ryzen 9 and the more modest Ryzen 5 offering a 6-Core configuration. These processors will support DDR5-5200 and offer clock speeds ranging from 5.3GHz to 5.7GHz.

Thus, AMD loyalists needn’t feel left out anymore and get their hands on the Raphael-compatible motherboard, the X670, and X670-E, before the end of September 2022.

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There are several parameters we have to explore to get an understanding of the ground realities of the DDR5 RAM module.

Channel Architecture

DDR5 supports two channels per DIMM slot as opposed to DDR4’s one. The DDR4 standard supports one 72-bit channel that has a 64-bit data channel and an 8-bit ECC (Error Correction Code). In comparison, DDR 5 offers two 40-bit channels with 32-bit reserved for data and 8-bit for ECC.

The new channel architecture improves efficiency and is instrumental in providing greater bandwidth as compared to DDR4. The DDR5 bandwidth starts at 4800 MT/s (DDR5-4800), 50% higher than the JEDEC specified limit of 3200 MT/s (DDR4-3200) for DDR4.

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As far as numbers go, the DDR5-4800 baseline improves where DDR4-3200 peaked. But it is one thing to record performance levels in a lab environment and quite another to experience it in everyday mainstream usage. Also, the “50% faster” claim has no real meaning unless you scratch the surface and look into finer details of clock timing and burst lengths.

While DDR5 has proven to be better in most apple-to-apple comparisons with DDR4, the advantage hasn’t even been close to the said 50%. Further, varied opinions seemingly form a consensus to agree that DDR5 is not suitable for all use cases. Experts agree that DDR5 is ideal for high-performance gaming or video editing tasks as it helps enhance frame rates. But everyday users shouldn’t expect noticeably better performance as their computing needs are different and not as demanding.

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DDR5 draws an operational voltage of 1.1V in comparison to DDR4’s 1.2V. But try overclocking these modules beyond their JEDEC specified timing, and the power consumption increases. While DDR5 does perform better than DDR4, it doesn’t conform to the 1.1V JEDEC specification.

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XMP 3.0

Intel’s XMP 3.0 (or Extreme Memory Profile) helps your DDR5 module to overclock automatically. It detects whether the program can gain from overclocking and automatically selects an overclocking profile to ensure that you get the best performance on demand. Conversely, it even rolls back to lower speeds when needed.

XMP 3.0 provides three overclocking profiles and two programable profiles, which you can tweak, test, and save to provide a customized overclocking profile. While XMP is an Intel-specific tradename, a similar feature is expected on the AMD platform with their Zen 4 launch.

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The most significant change in DDR5 is the use of a Power Management IC (PMIC). Earlier the responsibility of the motherboard, the PMIC is now responsible for the power requirements of the RAM module. It acts as a step-down transformer and converts the incoming voltage (5V) to the 1.1V that the DDR5 module requires. Thus, reducing the complexity and cost of motherboards but transferring that to the DDR5 RAM module. So, you don’t save money, but you get a more power-efficient chip to do the job.

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On-die ECC (or On-die Error Correction Code)

Like the PMIC, another significant change to RAM modules is the use of On-die ECC. For the sake of simplicity, think of it as an error correction mechanism that uses additional parity bits to control bit errors.

The “on-die” part refers to the mechanism functioning on the arrays on the physical RAM module. While good, critical opinions differ and are backed by sound logic that data bits are far more susceptible to errors while on the data bus and not the memory arrays.

Now that we have seen the critical improvements that DDR5 offers over DDR4, we need to address its limitations concerning the AMD platform.

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In Conclusion

The DDR5 RAM is a sure-shot way to enhance your computer’s performance, provided you have a specific role for it. Not all applications will yield the entire set of benefits that DDR5 has to offer.

While gamers stand to gain from a marginal increase in frames-per-second (fps), the considerable price premium of the DDR5 will be a deterrent for most. It is also unsuitable for everyday usage, including multiple browser tabs and YouTube streams.

However, content creators who work on heavy programs that require fast RAM modules for image and video rendering would love the superior performance of the DDR5. Apart from that, very few use cases justify an upgrade to DDR5, with not too many mainstream programs requiring the performance boost of the DDR5.

Therefore, unless you are upgrading your system to future-proof your computing needs, there is no reason to buy DDR5 RAM. In fact, with the current shortage of semiconductor chips, we are still seeing an inflated price of the DDR5. You can expect the price to stabilize reasonably once this shortage is mitigated. But, don’t expect a drastic reduction as the cost of manufacturing these RAM modules is higher than DDR4.

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