Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sandy Bridge Memory Scaling: Choosing the Best DDR3

Intel's Second Generation Core processors, based on the Sandy Bridge architecture, include a number of improvements over the previous generation's Nehalem architecture. We’ll be testing one specific area today: the improved memory controller. Current Sandy Bridge based processors officially support up to DDR3-1333 memory. Unfortunately, due to changes in the architecture, using faster rated memory (or overclocking memory) on Sandy Bridge via raising the base clock is extremely limited. Luckily, there are additional memory multipliers that support DDR3-1600, DDR3-1866, and DDR3-2133 memory. Some motherboards include support for even higher memory multipliers, but we’ll confine our investigations to DDR3-2133 and below.

Since Sandy Bridge is rated for up to DDR3-1333 memory, we will start there and work our way up to DDR3-2133 memory. We'll also be testing a variety of common CAS latency options for these memory speeds. Our purpose is to show how higher bandwidth memory affects performance on Sandy Bridge, and how latency changes—or doesn’t change—the picture. More specifically, we’ll be looking at the impact of memory speed on application and gaming performance, with some synthetic memory tests thrown into the mix. We’ll also test some overclocked configurations. So how much difference will lowering the CAS latency make, and does memory performance scale with processor clock speed?

Back when I originally envisioned this comparison, the price gap between DDR3-1333 and DDR3-2133 memory was much wider. A quick scan of Newegg reveals that a mere $34 separates those two 4GB kits. Below is a breakdown of the lowest prices (as of 7/16/2011) for various memory configurations.4GB 2x2GB Kits
DDR3-1333 CL9 $31
DDR3-1333 CL8 $40
DDR3-1600 CL9 $40
DDR3-1600 CL8 $41
DDR3-1333 CL7 $45
DDR3-1600 CL7 $50
DDR3-1866 CL9 $60
DDR3-2133 CL9 $65

8GB 2x4GB Kits
DDR3-1333 CL9 $58
DDR3-1600 CL9 $66
DDR3-1333 CL7 $75
DDR3-1600 CL8 $80
DDR3-1866 CL9 $85
DDR3-1600 CL7 $115
DDR3-2133 CL9 $150

You can see from the above chart that balancing memory clocks with latency results in some interesting choices, particularly on the 8GB kits where price differences are a bit larger. Is it best to go with a slower clock speed and better timings, or vice versa, or is the optimal path somewhere in between? That’s the aim of this article.

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