DDR5 RAM: How Much Faster Is It, and What Else Is New?

Two DDR5 RAM sticks with the bare PCB and RAM chips showing.
SK Hynix

DDR5, the next generation of RAM, should appear on store shelves somewhere around late summer or fall of 2021. DDR5 is the successor to DDR4 RAM. DDR5 promises better speeds, better power management and efficiency, and more RAM packed into a single stick.

What You’ll Need to Use DDR5 RAM

DDR5 is coming to a PC near you, but you need the right CPU and motherboard to support it.

The first round of DDR5 is expected to appear at the same time as Intel’s upcoming Alder Lake CPUs—the latter half of 2021. A number of companies are getting ready for the big RAM switch such as Corsair, Kingston, and TeamGroup.

As with previous transitions, early DDR5-supporting processors will likely support both DDR4 RAM and DDR5. What won’t be backward compatible, however, are the motherboards. A motherboard will either support DDR4 or DDR5, but not both. The reason is that RAM sticks are “keyed” based on their generation, meaning that the notch you see in RAM sticks, as pictured above, changes location based on the generation. Keying by generation makes it impossible to fit DDR4 RAM into a DDR5-compatible motherboard and vice versa. And even if you could fit them in, the system wouldn’t work with the wrong RAM.

As for AMD processors, it’s not clear as of June 2021 when the company’s processors will support DDR5. Most people expect that it will happen with new releases in 2022.

Whenever the first DDR5-friendly CPUs come out, the accompanying DDR5 RAM modules promise some nice advantages over what we have now.

DDR5 Enables Higher Capacities

A RAM module is the actual stick of RAM that you slot into a motherboard. “Module” is an abbreviated reference to “dual in-line memory module” or DIMM. If anyone refers to a DIMM or module, they’re talking about a stick of RAM. With DDR5, these modules are capable of having far greater capacity than current DDR4 DIMMs. DDR5 capacity theoretically tops out at 128GB.

It will take time before we actually see 128GB RAM sticks, so don’t expect it to be something you’ll be buying in the coming years. Even if you could, that much RAM is beyond overkill for current home and gaming PC needs. When it does roll out, this is likely to be all about servers and other enterprise applications, at least for the near future.

What’s more likely for home users is that 16GB sticks will become standard. TeamGroup is featuring 16GB sticks as part of its DDR5 Elite line, for example. However, some companies, such as ADATA, have already said that they’ll be producing 8GB sticks of DDR5 for those with more modest RAM< needs.

DDR5 RAM Is Faster

An Illustration of DDR5 a RAM stick in black and dark purple.

We’re all looking for faster RAM to make our PCs more responsive, and DDR5 will, of course, have higher speeds than DDR4. Most announcements for DDR5 RAM coming out in 2021 say that the sticks will have speeds of around 4,800MHz or higher. By comparison, high-end speeds for DDR4 are around 3,600 to 4,000MHz, while 2,666MHz is more common on everyday PCs.

In addition to 4,800MHz and above, DDR5 DIMMs will likely show up with slower speeds as well, around 3,200 MHz or less. Overall, however, the industry is aiming for ever-increasing speeds well beyond DDR4, such as RAM that hits 8,400MHz. That’s a jaw-dropping speed, but it’s unclear how long it will take before we see something like that in mass production.

DDR5 Can Use Less Power

DDR5 is also supposed to have a lower voltage, down to 1.1 volts instead of the standard 1.2 volts. Quite often, we expect that as speeds go higher, the voltage increases, and that will likely be the case for people overclocking their RAM at home. RAM manufacturers, however, are looking at producing super-fast RAM at lower voltages. In April of 2020, SK Hynix said that it plans to develop super speedy DDR5-8400 RAM, rocking at the aforementioned 1.1 volts. Again, when that would actually roll out is unclear.

Another advantage of DDR5 is that it will handle voltage regulation on the modules themselves, as opposed to requiring the motherboard to handle it. In addition, DDR5 RAM can have on-die error correction code, which helps to detect and correct memory errors on the RAM itself.

When Should You Buy DDR5 RAM?

Deciding whether or not to dive in and snap up new gear is usually a question of tradeoffs. In general, it’s a good idea to wait a while before upgrading for a few reasons. At first, the new DDR5 RAM and compatible parts will be more expensive than DDR4 components. It can also take time for a newer technology to fully realize its promise.

Consider the current transition from PCIe 3.0 to PCIe 4.0. A lot of early PCIe 4.0 components require massive heatsinks and fans on the motherboards to keep things cool. DDR5 isn’t likely to have the same issues, of course, but it goes to show that new technology transitions usually have a few issues at the start.

For a little while at least, DDR5 is best left to early adopters who are prepared for any unexpected behaviors and see it as the price you pay for playing with the latest tech.

For everyone else, waiting is a good strategy. If you need a new PC straight away, then DDR4 and the current CPUs on the market are more than capable of taking care of anything that you might want to do at home—and likely at better prices. Early DDR5 will be a big benefit to servers and workstations, as we mentioned earlier, but consumers don’t necessarily need to jump in right away. If you need an upgrade in 2022, keep an eye on what the reviewers say about DDR5 at launch—and then check for any updates from users and reviewers a few months down the road.

DDR5 has great promise, and there will be some tantalizing gear at the start. But if you can hold off, you might be able to get new parts at better prices—and perhaps with even higher performance than initial DDR5 components.