Single vs. Dual vs. Quad-Channel RAM Explained

Written by Azzief Khaliq
Last updated Apr 13, 2023

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dual vs quad-channel RAM
The Quick Answer

Dual-channel is best for mainstream processors and gaming. It improves framerate consistency compared to single-channel at minimal extra cost. On the other hand, productivity tasks may benefit from four or even eight channels, depending on your hardware and workload.

Buying RAM may seem simple: get as much as you need and pop it into your motherboard. But how many sticks should you buy? Do you get a single 32-GB module and run a single channel? Or go with a 2×16 GB pair in dual-channel? What about quad-channel memory? Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. Let’s compare single-channel vs. dual-channel vs. quad-channel memory for gaming and productivity to see which has the upper hand.

Why “Quad-Channel” May Not Be What You Think It Is

Before we begin, we have to clear up a common misconception about multi-channel memory. For example, installing four sticks of RAM doesn’t automatically mean you’re running quad-channel memory. Your CPU and motherboard must support quad-channel memory; if they don’t, you’re simply running dual-channel RAM, albeit with two DIMMs per channel.

Most mainstream CPUs, even high-end products like the Intel Core i9-13900K or AMD Ryzen 9 7950X, only support dual-channel RAM. So there’s no concrete performance reason to install four sticks of RAM unless you need more RAM than you can get with a dual-stick kit.

In fact, running four sticks of RAM on AMD’s Zen 5 CPUs may harm your memory performance in some situations. If you populate all four slots, Zen 5’s memory controller drops RAM speeds to 3600 MHz. So you’re effectively running DDR5 RAM at DDR4 speeds. Wendell from Level1Techs has an interesting video about this, which you can check out below:

Will running four sticks of DDR5 on your shiny new Zen 5 processor crush your performance? Not necessarily, especially in real-world scenarios. But it shows there’s little reason to opt for a four-stick DDR5 config unless you desperately need 128 GB of RAM.

Things change significantly if you’re running a HEDT or workstation CPU like the AMD Threadripper 3970X or Intel Xeon W-3245. These CPUs will support quad-channel memory at a minimum, with some products also supporting six- and eight-channel memory. Some professional and productivity workloads will benefit significantly from increasing RAM channels.

Single-Channel vs. Dual-Channel vs. Quad-Channel RAM: Gaming

Generally speaking, dual-channel RAM is the sweet spot for most gaming rigs. Provided you’re not limited by your GPU, dual-channel RAM gives you much more consistent performance in-game than single-channel RAM. While average framerates may not differ too significantly between single- and dual-channel RAM, the latter will show much better 0.1% and 1% lows.

What Are 1% and 0.1% Lows?

Average framerates (FPS) used to be the main way we measured in-game performance, but they don’t tell the whole story. Average FPS doesn’t accurately account for all the stutters and minor hitches that occur during gameplay. That’s where 1% and 0.1% lows come into the picture.

These measurements provide a better overall picture of the gameplay experience. They provide a better idea of the game’s framerate consistency, accounting for all the stutters, hitches, and pauses during gameplay. These periods of low framerate may not last for long enough to bring the average framerate down, but they’ll have a severe impact on your enjoyment of the game

Have you ever experienced stuttery, uneven gameplay only to have the benchmark (or an FPS reporting tool) say you’ve been running at a perfect 60 FPS? If so, you’ll know precisely why these measurements are so important.

To drive the point home about how misleading average framerates are, take a look at these test results:

Splitgate memory channel benchmarks

Source: Iceberg Tech

Both configurations have essentially equal average FPS, but with massively different 0.1% and 1% lows. This is a much better reflection of the overall gameplay experience, which will feel stuttery and inconsistent with the 0.1% and 1% lows of the single-channel configuration.

AMD Ryzen CPUs are particularly picky with RAM channels, so let’s look at some numbers from an AMD Ryzen 5 5600X to see the difference RAM channels make. Here’s Cyberpunk 2077:

Note the massive leap in 1% lows at 1080p when going from a single stick of 16 GB DDR4 RAM to two sticks of 8 GB DDR4 RAM. There’s a roughly 12% increase just by swapping RAM configuration, which is impressive. However, note that there’s no difference between the setups at 1440p and 4K; at those resolutions, the tester’s AMD RX 6800 is holding Cyberpunk 2077 back.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a less graphically-intensive game, so the performance differences between single- and dual-channel RAM extend to 1440p. There’s also a minor improvement in 1% lows at 4K.

You get about a 5% increase in 1% lows from single to dual-channel at 1080p and a similar increase at 1440p. Not huge, but it’s significant enough to be well beyond the margin of error. Every little bit helps when you’re after a smooth gameplay experience, especially if you have a high-refresh-rate monitor.

Let’s look at another game, Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Here, we return to the double-digit percentage improvements of Cyberpunk 2077, except that it applies at 1080p and 1440p.

In fact, the performance increase is even larger at 1440p than it is at 1080p with this game. Going from 1×16 GB to 2×8 GB at 1440p nets us a nearly 17% improvement in 1% lows, while doing the same at 1080p “only” gets us a 12% improvement. Sure, you’re still hovering around 100 FPS either way, but it’s a significant improvement for minimal outlay.

Overall, there’s no reason to stick with single-channel RAM if you’re building a modern gaming PC. Price shouldn’t be an issue, either. A 16 GB stick of 3200 MHz Viper Steel DDR4 RAM will set you back about $40, while a 2×8 GB pair of the same memory costs about $45. That’s a less than $10 price increase for noticeably improved 1% lows. It’s a no-brainer if you ask us.

But what about the 4x4GB tests in Shadow of the Tomb Raider? If consumer CPUs like the 5600X don’t support quad-channel memory, why does Shadow of the Tomb Raider show performance improvements with four sticks? That’s an interesting quirk with AMD’s Zen 3 CPUs. They can sometimes benefit from four RAM sticks, despite only running in dual-channel mode.

We’re unsure why this happens, but the takeaway is that it’s worth experimenting with four sticks if you’re running a Zen 3 CPU. While we don’t think the potential 10% uplift is necessarily worth doubling your outlay on RAM, the option’s there if you want it.

Check out Gamers Nexus’ video for more benchmarks and some discussion about RAM and Zen 3:

Single-Channel vs. Dual-Channel vs. Quad-Channel RAM: Productivity

Now, let’s shift to the high-end desktop (HEDT) space, where we can really see what benefits quad-channel (or more) brings to the table in productivity tasks. More memory channels mean more memory bandwidth, which can prove beneficial in some workloads.

Puget Systems tested single, dual, quad, and octa-channel memory with AMD’s latest and greatest Threadripper Pro 5995WX and 5965WX CPUs. These are ultra-high-end desktop CPUs with 64 and 24 cores, respectively, so they’re not entirely representative of your everyday computer. But these CPUs are some of the best examples of how much you can get out of more channels, provided you have the right hardware and workloads.

Adobe Premiere Pro shows a significant performance improvement when moving from one to eight channels. The 5995WX scored a paltry 616 points in Puget Systems’ in-house PugetBench with a single channel; moving up to eight channels pushed the score to 1680 points, a nearly 280% improvement.

The improvement from dual-channel to quad-channel isn’t as drastic, with “only” a 130% improvement on the 5995WX. Interestingly, the 24-core 5965WX performed almost identically with dual- and quad-channel memory. Only the single- and eight-channel setups showed significant performance differences.

Adobe Photoshop performance follows a similar trend, although the improvements aren’t quite as substantial. The 5995WX failed to complete the test with a single channel, requiring a dual-channel setup to be stable enough to run Photoshop. The 64-core CPU showed significant improvements in the PugetBench score with more memory channels, although the difference between two and eight channels here was a comparatively pedestrian 30%.

As in Adobe Premiere Pro, the 24-core 5965WX performed identically with dual- and quad-channel memory and only improved slightly with eight channels. As before, however, single-channel caused a significant decrease in performance, losing about 20% performance compared to dual-channel.

Unreal Engine shader compiling is another test where memory channels matter significantly. The 64-core 5995WX takes forever (930 seconds) to compile shaders with dual-channel memory, but chews through the same workload in an impressive 183 seconds with eight channels. That’s a massive 80% reduction.

It once again failed to complete the test when equipped with only a single memory channel. So you’d best avoid single-channel if you’re running a beastly CPU like the 5995WX.

The 5965WX also significantly cuts compile time with more channels, going from 695 seconds with one channel to 227 seconds with eight, a 67% improvement in compile times. Unlike some previous tests, quad-channel memory performed noticeably better than dual-channel here, with a 22% reduction in this test.

However, not every workload cares as much about memory channels. Rendering performance is a different story altogether. The 24-core 5965WX performed nigh-on identically in Cinebench R23 regardless of memory channels. Single-channel performance does dip below 39,000 points, but it’s not a huge reduction.

The 64-core 5995WX, however, struggled when restricted to a single channel. While dual, quad, and octa-channel setups performed nearly identically again, limiting the 5995WX to a single stick of RAM decreased performance by around 85%. That continues the trend of single-channel being a terrible option for the 64-core beast.

AMD Threadripper PRO CPU

Source: AMD

If you have high-end hardware like either of these Threadripper Pro CPUs, there’s no reason not to max out your rig and run eight channels. If you can afford to drop north of $2000 on a CPU, you can afford to spend a few hundred dollars on eight 16 GB sticks of Kingston’s DDR4 ECC RAM (for example).

However, it’s a bit more of a toss-up if you’re not blessed with the latest and greatest in HEDT CPUs. Not all CPUs scale this well with extra channels, so you’ll have to put in the work and research your hardware and workloads to see whether they benefit from more channels.

Closing Thoughts

As a final reminder, just because you have four RAM slots on your motherboard doesn’t mean your system is capable of quad-channel memory. Mainstream CPUs generally max out at two channels, even if you install four RAM modules. But no matter the limitations, maxing out your channels is generally always a good idea given you could use the power.

Most gaming PCs will benefit from smoother, more consistent framerates by going up to dual-channel memory. Productivity PCs, however, can benefit from up to eight-channel memory, provided you have the hardware and software to match.

But memory channels aren’t the only consideration when buying RAM. Head to our RAM buying guide for tips on other specs, such as transfer rate and latency.

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