One of the best things about the PC hardware industry is watching how individual components improve over time.
One of the biggest improvements in PC hardware in recent years—while not quite on the same tier as the 30xx and 60xx cards, or the Zen 3 and Alder Lake lineups—is the introduction of DDR5 RAM.
Considering how long it’s been since the release of DDR4 (2014), it’s spurred on many users to ask: Which one should they be using?
Just to get it out of the way: DDR5 is superior to DDR4 in many (but not all) relevant metrics. So you might be surprised to hear that in most cases, DDR4 is the recommended choice—at least for the time being. This begs the question: Why?
Performance isn’t quite there yet
Given the technical superiority of DDR5, it might be surprising to hear that performance gains from upgrading to DDR5 from DDR4 is (currently) rather minimal. Odd as it sounds, that’s to be expected. There’s a couple of reasons for this.
First, the performance of RAM is measured via 2 different parameters: Clock speed (measured in MHz) and Latency (CL). Without going into too much detail, the higher the clock speed, the better, and the lower the latency, the better. Currently, as of April 2022 , most DDR5 kits range from 5200 MHz to 6000MHz, making them more than 50% faster than the somewhat standard 3200 MHz DDR4 kits. As far as latency goes, though, DDR5 is pretty lacking. The lowest latency I could find was a CL32 kit with 32-39-39-102 timings, which is a far cry from the readily available CL16 16-18-18-38 kits scattered across retailers.
Secondly, the lifecycle of DDR5 has only just begun. While there’s no conceivable issue keeping someone from doing a plug-and-play with DDR5 (it’s just RAM after all), the software side of things needs to catch up, and figure out what it should be doing with the extra speed offered by DDR5. This isn’t new, either—the same thing happened with DDR3 and the upgrade to DDR4. Initially, performance gains were minimal at best, but the divide between the two became increasingly apparent as time went on.
Compatibility is limited at best
Compatibility is another important factor to consider. At the time of writing, only Intel’s 12th Gen lineup of CPUs (named Alder Lake) are compatible with DDR5 RAM. Unfortunately for Ryzen/AMD fans, that means there’s currently no way to pair any of their current chips with DDR5 RAM. Motherboard compatibility is something to consider as well—While Alder Lake chips require one of the new 600-series chipset motherboards, not all of these motherboards are compatible with DDR5 modules. If looking to pair a 12th Gen chip with a DDR5 kit, make sure they’re compatible with your motherboard of choice.
It is worth noting that AMD’s upcoming “Zen 4” CPUs will support DDR5 kits, but the abandonment of the AM4 platform means that—similar to Intel—users will be required to purchase a new motherboard should they wish to upgrade.
Questionable pricing and availability
Still, though, the biggest reason to choose DDR4 over DDR5 is affordability, and to a lesser extent, availability. Much of the world is already aware of the ongoing GPU shortage, (though it may be nearing its end) but unfortunately, GPUs are not the only computer component in short supply. Due to supply issues, and an (un)healthy dose of scalping, DDR5 kits are not only difficult to find in some areas, but almost prohibitively expensive. At the time of writing, the cheapest available option on Amazon costs a whopping $220 for a 16GB kit. Comparatively, DDR4 kits can cost as little as $60 for the same capacity. And that’s not the only cost to consider.
I mentioned previously that only a select few motherboards were compatible with DDR5. This compatibility comes at a cost. The cheapest compatible motherboard costs $220, while DDR4 iterations can be found for as low as $125. While these individual price differences might not break the bank, it makes for a far more expensive build once everything has been put together.
Normally, when it comes to PC hardware, everything has its place. That’s difficult to say about DDR5. Make no mistake—there are areas that DDR5 wins out against its predecessor, but the gains themselves are so miniscule that it’s difficult to label them as anything but irrelevant. And while it is true that DDR5 allows for future-proofing, the cost of doing so is so high that it’s difficult to justify—even if you’ve got the spare cash lying around. While DDR5 will certainly overtake its predecessor given time, it doesn’t have much of a place in today’s landscape.