RAM has always been one of those curious things that makes a huge difference to the performance of your system, and yet isn't considered by most people as a worthy upgrade.
Sure we all know that size matters. The main reason that most people consider PCs to be poor performers are because the standard PCs brought "off the shelf" from your local PC World or similar always, but always, come with far too little RAM. Thankfully RAM prices are such now that everyone should be running 4GB at minimum. It's a far cry from when I paid £75 for 512KB of RAM back in the day.
Crucial were one of the first companies to bring us memory that didn't just look like chips on a board, with the gold Ballistix series. Other RAM brands have come and gone, or been renamed to sound fresh, but Ballistix has stayed with us for many a year now.
So what have we got on the bench today?
Probably a surprise to anyone who hears the name "Ballistix" and automatically assumes this must be some high-end low-CAS beast, this is 1600MHz CAS8. It's a 4GB kit designed for the P55 platform which has really started to show it's worth as a slightly cheaper alternative to the full-fat X58.
|Kit Name||Ballistix MOD|
|Kit Size||2x2GB 240-pin Unbuffered DIMM|
|XMP||Supported (1600MHz @ 8-8-8-24 @ 1.65v)|
|Special Feature||On-board I2C temperature sensor|
Although kit codes are normally fairly easy to understand and not a lot of interest to anyone, this one actually hides the secret of todays review. The FN is specific to this module as it designates that this contains the on-board temperature sensor. More of which in a bit.
RAM very rarely comes in anything approaching unique packaging, and nor does it need to. I've always found it curious that something so statically sensitive comes in two sides of plastic that need to be pulled apart. It's almost a recipe for static. However it is standard across all manufacturers and so clearly works.
As the Ballistix line has moved on and been refined through the years it always kept its very distinctive gold heatspreader. After all with brand identity being such a huge part of any business if you're keeping the name you might as well keep the colour scheme. So it's with some disappointment we see that this kit is far more generic with a black heatspreader and only the Ballistix name giving a clue.
However it's important to note, and also remember through the rest of this review, that this isn't one of Crucials full-on all-out kits. So in a lot of ways it makes sense they've kept the all-gold look to their high-end products and this kit, being about the bottom of the Ballistix line, is more sedate.
Finally we get a close look at the size and see that modern heatspreader design has started to be refined to the point we no longer see curious attempts to be cooler. In much the same way that most CPU coolers have taken up the four heat-pipe + tower design.
Test Setup, Overclocking and Software
Intel Core i7 875K @ 3.6GHz
ASUS Maximum Extreme III
Windows 7 Ultimate 64
4GB Crucial Ballistix MOD
This kit is a bit more of a proof of concept or technical demonstration than something that is designed to be an overclocking beast. So it proved with our overclocking. One of the big problems with the 1.65v limit on the current generation of Intel chips is that when you have some RAM like this, which is pretty much at the limit of the chips ability for the price, you can't really eke any more out of it. It's a far cry from the MOAR VOLTS days.
Despite this we did manage to bump it from the standard 800MHz to 873MHz. We all know how well RAM responds to even the slightest increase in speed and how much difference it can make to your system, so even this mild overclock should give us good results.
This is really the main event. As technical journalists and hardware reviewers we've seen dozens of programs that can give you all the information you could want, so we weren't exactly bowled over by yet another.
However the important thing isn't really this software as such, it's what is going on behind the scenes. This Ballistix comes with a built-in temperature sensor that is a royalty-free open-source addition to the JEDEC standard. In laymans terms this could be genesis for the way all chip temperature monitoring will be done in future.
Anything that helps provide easy comparisons across a wide range of hardware is something that we most definitely want.
As this is a kit designed to run at 1600 we thought we'd put it up against the Kingston LoVo we recently tested to see if the extra voltage makes a difference.
Despite both the Kingston and the Crucial being both 1600MHz and CAS8, the Crucial takes a fairly healthy lead here, and even though our overclock was only mild we still see the benefits that fast RAM can have.
Our Sandra bandwidth test shows the Kingston and Crucial pretty neck and neck. Naturally the overclock on the Crucial gives us a nice little hike. Roughly a 10% increase for our 10% clockspeed. Proving what I said at the beginning about people not giving RAM enough priority in their PCs.
The CPU test here follows the results we've seen above. However the OpenGL test is pretty conclusive that, for whatever reason, the Kingston LoVo spanks the Crucial fairly comprehensively. As this is our first real "system-wide" test, it doesn't bode well for the next page.
Rendering requires enormous chunks of data to be swapped to the CPU and back and once again we find that the Crucial is found somewhat lacking.
wPrime is similar to our rendering tests in that it benefits enormously from fast memory. The more memory bandwidth you have available the lower, and therefore better, will be your result. Despite both the Kingston and the Crucial being rated at the same speed and same timings, the Kingston is clearly more efficient gaining 50 seconds over the Crucial.
PC Mark Vantage and 3D Mark Vantage
Finally the two Futuremark suites. As these really stress the entire system as opposed to a single element of it you get a much clearer indication of overall performance. The standard Crucial is now lagging seriously behind and even with the overclock it just can't keep up with the Kingston. The only test is comes close is the GPU section of 3D Mark which is nearly entirely independant of anything but your graphics card.
In any field someone always has to be the fore-runner. The bow that breaks the waves to allow everyone else to follow in the wake. More often than not that very fore-runner is quickly overtaken by everyone else as they refine and improve the process.
Sadly todays Crucial Ballistix review is very much that bow. It is a RAM Kit that will add to the JEDEC standard that has made all our lives easier, allowing us to plug our RAM in, secure in the knowledge that the timings will be picked up quickly by the motherboard. The voltages will be set accurately. The finicky nature of RAM, which is the cause of more PC problems and faults than all the other components put together, has lessened greatly over the years. We're a long way from the days of there being one or two sticks of RAM that are compatible with our board. Now we can plug nearly anything in and be sure that it will, at the very least, work.
By the introduction of the temperature sensor and the philanthropy shown by Crucial in keeping it royalty free and open source will allow future monitoring programs to become ever more accurate and we can rest much easier knowing we aren't frying our chips in the hope of gaining a few extra MHz.
However, we also have to look at the realities of what we are presented. We can't review on theoreticals. There aren't any awards for doing a good deed. The plain fact of the matter is that this kit isn't very good.
Poor performance can be excused on two grounds.
Firstly that something is hugely overclockable. This Ballistix kit is already at the stops with 1.65v and so, unlike the Kingston, we haven't got some voltage headroom. Even then there we've tested many sets that will run much higher than their rated speed without needing a power boost.
Secondly it can be excused if something is staggeringly cheap. As yet pricing is unavailable but it doesn't matter what you put it up against. Unless it's coming out at about £50, which we all know wont happen, there are countless far better options. Even at stock speeds it was beaten by an identically rated kit and we could have picked from plenty and confidently say they'd all have outperformed the Crucial.
As a proof of concept it's fine. As a demonstration of Crucials addition to a world-wide standard it's good. As a kit you actually want to go out and buy it's not even going to be on the long-list, much less the shortlist.
Thanks to Crucial for todays review. Discuss in our forums.