Single Channel vs Dual Channel RAM [The Ultimate Guide]

Well, you’re building a new computer or maybe upgrading the old one. Certainly, you are really busy with important sections on the motherboard, and they are quite capable of spinning your head themselves, especially for the beginners.

In this huge show, most of us almost forget to spend time researching the memory section much and pick the modern trend of dual-channel memory over single-channel config as commenters advise. That’s an easy way out.

The common notion of memory is that it pushes the processor to work better. But, is it really true? Should the single-channel vs dual-channel RAM fight end with only a common result for all of us? If you really want the truth, you should stick with us for a while.

So, let’s get to it.

How RAM Works

First things first. No matter what you think, the RAM (Random Access Memory) can’t match with the CPU speed, forget outrunning it. Then why do we need it? Actually, it remembers the information to run important files and software such as OS, browser or any other applications you use most while running the computer. Also, whatever you do on the screen, it stores that data before you literally save them. 

Therefore, if you don’t have enough memory space to handle these jobs, the CPU has to do the same. Hence, without sufficient RAM, the burden over the CPU increases. That is being said, the RAM enhances the CPU-efficiency indirectly, even when it throttles the highest CPU-potential in some manner. Because, the processor has to wait for the RAM to read information, and then process and provide required data at a relatively slower velocity. The idle period wastes time and power supply for sure.

And, we do have a solution for that. Here comes the newer technology of multi-channel systems to reduce the time-delay and hence the speed-difference between CPU and RAM.

What is Single-channel and Dual-channel RAM

Let’s start with a confession. Single-channel or dual-channel RAM never existed on earth. Shocked? Hold on folks, it’s about the terminology. Actually, the channel system is a platform-level mechanism, not some storage stick.

That means the memory controller (in case of latest-gen CPUs, the in-built IMC (Integrated Memory Controller) chipset comes with the processor itself, unlike older models with a standalone memory controller chip) is built to work with a single-channel or multi-channel (most commonly dual) chipset to communicate with the RAM sticks.

What you buy is a RAM kit made for use in a specific channel configuration. For say, you bought a single RAM stick of 16 GB capacity. It is meant to be used in a single-channel architecture.That doesn’t mean you can’t use it in other configurations, but then you have to pair it with another stick having exactly the same specs as you can see in dual RAM kits with a pair of sticks.

Otherwise, it will work solo in most of the cases. Also, your CPU and chipset config must allow that architecture to run on your system.

How the Channel-system Works 

The RAM modules are connected with the memory controller circuit with a wire-series known as ‘memory bus’. They are divided into three sections. The Control wires send a command to the storage to inform about the type of operation attempted to perform by the CPU.

The Data wires exchange the data read by the memory to the controller and the written data sent from the controller to the memory.

Single Channel vs Dual Channel RAM

Basic communication-system between the controller and memory (Source: GamersNexus)

The memory controller determines the clock speed for each memory module. Therefore, if a module is mentioned to support 1333 MHz clock rate max, installing a higher-velocity module won’t do any better, unless overclocking is supported with your CPU-chipset combination.

Basic Single-channel Engineering:

Now, our channel-system runs on the memory bus. A single RAM module communicates through a single 64-bit data-channel, which basically works like a pipe having 64-bit of the total width. Meaning, theoretically it can carry max 64-bit of information at a time. In the following image, D00 to D63 represents the 64-bit data-ports.

Single-channel mechanism

Dual-channel Engineering:

The advancement of dual-channel platforms over the older model offers two similar channels to share data between the controller and memory modules. Therefore, the effective width of the communicative pipe-line becomes double, i.e., 2×64 = 128bit of data-ports. The second-channel represents D64 to D127 marked ports in the following image.

Dual-channel mechanism (source: GamersNexus)

In this mechanism, the motherboard is built to host theoretically 128-bit of maximum physical data traces (wires). In the case of quad-channel platforms, this measurement hikes at 256-bit traces in total.

Since each memory-module can process max 64bits of data at once, the dual-channel configuration makes room for simultaneous data read-write technique saturating the 128bit bus-width. Which isn’t possible in single-channel platforms due to the width-limitation of 64bit. Since, in this case, it has to keep available room for at least one whole process (read or write), saturating the entire width in large data-flow situations.

When the system allows enough space for both tasks contiguously, it naturally enhances the potential velocity of the data-processing and hence reducing the wait-time for the CPU to get a response from RAM.

Also, this system helps in reducing the memory-latency (the time-delay of the RAM (CAS (Column Access Strobe) latency or CL) between reading a command and then making the processed data available to send) in some manner. 

Notably, this technique has no connection with modern DDR (Double Data Rate) technology of memory sticks, where data exchange happens two-times per DRAM clock.

This technology is independent of the channel-technology discussed here. And you can see motherboards having both the technologies present in them.

Now, we talked about putting at least two RAM sticks in a dual-channel configuration. Because, if you have four memory-slots, it may cause confusion. You may or may not have access to quad-channel architecture.

That said, four-slots doesn’t always mean a quad-channel platform, as it can have dual, triple, or quad-channel access. The motherboard-manual provides information on that. The triple-channel system is rare, and the quad-channel access is allowed mostly in high-definition systems. Dal-channel is the most common methodology within modern builds.

To make use of dual-channel engineering, two RAM modules of identical specs must be plugged into the same memory bank (On some boards, modules under each bank are color-coded).

Although, some rare mobos may permit RAM pairs having different features in dua-config, the slowest one throttles down the other one to its stock speed and they can even create instability in the system.

Single Channel vs Dual Channel RAM

In most of the four-slot systems, two modules of the same color mean that they are from the same bank using one dual-channel layout, and the other two are from the other bank using another dual-channel layout.

The first bank may contain slots 1, 2, whereas the second bank contains slots 3, 4 or the first bank may contain slots 1, 3, whereas the second one contains slots 2, 4. 

(Source: HowToGeek)

Matching colors may sometimes demand you to install paired RAM sticks in different colored slots depending on the specific motherboard. The motherboard manual provides detailed information on that. 

No matter what you have in your system, using exactly identical pairs in one channel is the most recommended way to churn out the best results. RAM pairs should match capacity, frequency, clock speed, even CL measurements (lower is better).

The same RAM sticks from different brands should be compatible, but using even the same brand is advisable for better stability and the highest potential. 

If you are thinking of populating three sockets out of four given slots, you may populate two in a pair using a dual-channel layout and another different module to use in a single-channel layout, even then it is possible to face instability in some cases.

Using identical modules in each socket is the best option, and also using them in pairs is better than that. That’s how you can expect the best bandwidth ever from your computer.

Bandwidth

It refers to the theoretical maximum unit for the data transfer rate through a communication channel. Besides clock speed, it is dependent on the bus-width of the channel-layout. Hence, the theoretical formula for bandwidth is,

Bandwidth = Memory clock rate x Data-bus width

Or

Bandwidth = Memory clock rate x Data-bus width / 8

(When measured in Bytes instead of bits. 1 Byte = 8 bits.)

Hence, we can see that using dual-channel config over single-channel can drastically double up the theoretical bandwidth, independent of the RAM capacity. Because the bus-width variable is doubled in the dual-channel systems.

That’s why using two 8 GB sticks instead of using one 16 GB RAM of the same features can be beneficial to have better bandwidth.

Again, this multi-channel configuration is different from the interleaved memory technology, where the data-address is spread equally across memory banks for improved efficiency.

Benchmark Results

These results are closer to the realistic results than the hypothetical calculations. Using the same capacity RAMs of the same generation (say, 8 GB DDR3 RAM) in single-channel (1x8 GB) and dual-channel (2x4 GB) layouts, each test should be conducted several times in identical climates. The results in different tests are explained below:

Euler 3D:

CFD Cycle Frequency in Euler 3D Software - Higher is better (Source: Beebom, GamersNexus)

The above result shows approximately 17.7% better results in a dual-channel platform. This is a noteworthy advantage for CPU-laden heavy-duty jobs like simulations, computations, and compilation software required in scientific and engineering works.

MaxMem:

RAM Performance in MaxMex Software - Higher is better

This software measures different memory performances. Here, memory copy, read, write, and bandwidth units are in MegaBytes/second, whereas memory latency in the following picture is measured in nanoseconds.

We see respectively 30.79%, 26.94%, and 14.52% advancement in the dual-channel platform for the first three factors. Whereas, bandwidth gives 21.3% better result in the same.

MaxMex Memory Latency

Although the latency is slightly higher in dual-channel layout, it may carry some other influences or can be a static fluctuation. Yet, around 2.7% difference is quite negligible and may provide a different scenario in numerous tests made in similar environments.

The overall result directs to a 20% boost in favor of dual-channel condition.

Handbrake:

File Transcoding Time using Handbrake Software - Lower is better

A 4.4% boost in file transcode time may not seem significant, but in more complex cases, this study indicates a noticeable time-difference. Again, the difference is negligible in regular tasks.

Adobe Premiere:

Again, a 3.01% time boost in video rendering or encoding time may seem insignificant, yet can differ around 40 minutes to an hour per day for real-life situations of a day-long job profile.

Video editors should keep this result in mind and run towards dual-channel mechanisms in their systems.

Real-world Results:

The above benchmark results may provide not-so-real-life outcomes in synthetic environments, some more tests below can’t be denied that way.

WinRar:

Here, the dual-channel platform bears only an average 2.87% advantage in file compression tests. Now, think about the industry-level real-word archival for a continuous flow of large files, and the time-difference will surely catch your eye-sight.

Adobe After Effects:

Here come somewhat interesting results. We get a 6% advantage over single-channel by using dual-channel config in the measurement of average FPS in live playback. Which navigates to a significant difference in day-long works, where a single frame/ second is capable of making noteworthy changes.

Gaming-performance Results

As we have already seen above, gamers can’t be benefitted much from a channel-system difference. Yet, some games cry out for help while running in single-channel configurations. If you are using a dedicated video-card then it’s a different matter.

Because dedicated GPU units run on their own VRAM memory. But in the case of APU (AMD CPU-GPU combo) or integrated GPU users, your games are going to eat up a lot of core memory and hence alter the CPU-efficiency in the process.

Therefore, you should be prepared to supply enough RAM capacity and bandwidth for them to work without hiccups.

Games like Fallout 4, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are almost unplayable in a single-channel configuration.

Assassin’s Creed Origin Benchmark Result in Single-channel Scenario

Assassin’s Creed Origin Benchmark Result in Dual-channel Scenario (Source: HardwareTimes)

Although the average FPS is not much affected in the above result, the frame pacing and lows make a real difference. Moreover, the CPU-latency is 50% higher in a single-channel system due to the bus-width limitation in this case.

Other games such as Shadow of The Tomb Raider and The Division 2 have similar insignificant results in average FPS again. Yet, the consistency and the lows are affected in the same manner in a single-channel climate. Hence, dual-channel is advisable for an overall smoother experience.

Facts Behind the Decision on Single-channel vs Dual-channel Configuration

Hypothetically, the dual-channel configuration doubles up the performance over the single-channel layout. But in reality, it remains far from the truth. The benchmark results may show even 30 to 80% boost in favor of dual-channel, and yet it is also an artificial situation, even being more realistic than the theoretical one. Because there are always a lot of factors preventing it to happen that way.

In real use, you can expect around 16-17% difference in performance at the best. Regular users and most gamers may not even notice much of a difference. Although, industry-level works and power-hungry professional software can show significant results for continuous work-loads.

Here is a notable fact. While testing with both channels, you can see that the CPU-load hikes to 10-25% more in case of a single-channel climate. It is possible that the extra bus-width in the multi-channel platform shares the work-pressure from the CPU, which makes it more effective in heavy-duty usage.

Sometimes with budget CPUs, you may see some negligible performance-deficiency in the multi-channel config, but that is also temporary and dependent on other variables too.

Let’s find out how much it matters in different aspects:

Dual RAM Kits can save your pocket:

Normally, single RAM sticks are less valuable than a pair of dual kits. But that’s not all the time. Mostly in case of sales, you may earn a great deal for a dual kits. Then why not grab these when it’s only the win situation from all your end. If you search a little, it’s not difficult to find one. 

Although in budget-devices, dual-channel spends a bit more on extra support hardware and a little-more on battery consumption.

Dual-channel outperforms Single-channel in Professional Uses:

  • For engineers and scientists:

If you are a mainstream user, a regular gamer, or a simple office user, you may skip this section. But if you are a scientist or an engineer working in serious simulation stuff in electromagnetic wave analysis or signal integrity, CFD or similar computation like parametric analysis, CPU-hungry compilation, crosswalk analysis, you should not consider anything less than dual-channel memory layout.

  • For Video-editing, Photo-editing tasks:

Also, video editors who are working on video transcoding, rendering, or encoding jobs throughout the day, a dual-channel configuration can make a larger difference in streaming previews than you think. Not to mention, there are other advantages on the basis of time-consumption and consistency.

Also, these works demand multi-tasking, which can be performed better in the same environment.

  • For Enterprise-level File Archiving, Comprising Jobs:

If your job demands a lot of file copying or comprising works, you will certainly see the difference at the end of the day, but that is also dependent on the application you use.

Dual-channel is always a fail-safe:

If you are using two RAM sticks, your machine won’t stop working if one of them dies. It’s really hard to experience malfunction in both the sticks at once.

Dual vs Single-channel on your Upgrade Plan:

This one has its edges on both ends. If you are currently using one RAM stick, all you have to do for upgrade is to put another stick the same as the other to strengthen the system. If you are using dual sticks and have no more space to upgrade, your old pair will be removed and of no use for you anymore. In this matter, starting with a single-channel seems preferable.

But finding out the exact pair of your older one is kind of hard here. Because, the new one may be an identical pair, but it’s a newer version in most of the cases. Also, it is quite obvious that you won’t be able to find the exact match with the same brand. That may occur some issues time-to-time.

Apparently, paired kits are tested to be able to be used with each other, and being exactly the same, they can’t help but increase the power of each other.

Dual-channel on Aesthetic Aspect:

It’s not the obvious case for everyone, but think about having a transparent case of outstanding hardware features, and it’s revealing empty spaces for RAM sockets. It’s a bit odd, based on the overall magnificent system you are show-casing. 

Most people would prefer to feel the empty sockets with paired RAM modules in multi-channel systems. Although, someone having such marvelous machines don’t think much on single-channel settings to save a little bit of money, or maybe not.

Last Verdict

From all the above discussions, you can see that the answer is always dual-channel for overall purposes. Yet, it shouldn’t concern you most, since the density and capacity of the RAM modules matter most for a high-speed system.

Also, clock speed and low-latency new-generation systems take out most of the heat on them. If you are not in a very-tight budget-saving each penny, it’s always better to select a pair of RAM sticks in a dual-channel configuration.

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