Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The Parable of the Soldered RAM

Jerry Stratton, November 29, 2023

512 MB DDR desktop RAM: Elixir 512MB DDR RAM M2U51264DS8HC3G-5T for desktop computers, circa 2006.; memory

Just looking at this brings back my very reasonable fear of static electricity.

I’m not a big fan of the continued miniaturization of computer parts, nor of the transformation of computers to appliances. These trends make weekend tinkering a thing of the past, much in the same way that modern cars make garage mechanics impossibly difficult. Surface mount devices are far more difficult to solder, and require special tools beyond merely a soldering gun.

But my dislike of them doesn’t change that they increase reliability and decrease cost. Everything in life is a trade-off. One of my long-standing complaints with tech bloggers, from the introduction of the iPod to the expectation that no-one has a computer more than a year or two old is an inability to see that time saved is a very important feature.

Last October, one of the bloggers I follow snark-announced the next Apple CPUs. His biggest complaint:

With all variants of Apple’s CPUs the memory is soldered onto the CPU module. You can’t upgrade it, ever.

Two days later, his Top Story was:

Seems to be a loose connection inside my laptop. That's why the problem is intermittent. It can probably be fixed, I think I’ll just turn it into a Linux server and stick it on a shelf, and take the other laptop (better screen and CPU but 16GB of soldered RAM) and use that as my Windows system.1

I’m not a big fan of soldered RAM either; but I’m comfortable—mostly, I still have an irrational fear of static electricity—opening up my computer and replacing user-replaceable parts. Most people are not, and for good reason: every time you open it up, you increase the chance of screwing something else up.

But everything is a trade-off, and soldered RAM is a good example of that. Loose connections have plagued home computing since the beginning, and soldered parts vastly increase connection reliability. This is especially true for any device that’s going to be dragged around a lot, such as a laptop. Soldered RAM that comes loose is a manufacturing defect that justifies a replacement computer. User-serviceable RAM that comes loose is… just what user-serviceable RAM does. That’s the whole point, that the RAM can be removed.

I still see the question “have you tried reseating your RAM?” when people ask for help about the kind of intermittent problems Pixy Misa posted. This was a problem when I started using computers in 1980 and it has never stopped being a problem.2 I have in my long computer career occasionally reseated RAM in the face of intermittent problems that look like a loose connection somewhere. And it has occasionally fixed those problems.

Reliability isn’t the only trade-off. The nearer you get the RAM to the CPU, the faster and cooler a computer can be designed to run. The Apple RAM he was complaining about on the new M3 chips goes a step further: instead of soldering the RAM onto the motherboard near the CPU, Apple builds the RAM into the CPU board. Calling it “soldered” RAM, while technically true, is a misnomer. It’s built-in RAM, a combination of things sometimes called “RAM onboard”, “integrated memory”, and “unified memory”.3 The RAM isn’t near the CPU, it is for all practical purposes part of the CPU.

Which means that besides increasing reliability, unified memory also increases speed. The technical terms are “high-bandwidth” and “low-latency”.

I feel the same way about ⅛-inch audio plugs and replaceable batteries. All else equal, would I prefer to use standard headphones and other audio accessories directly instead of via an adapter? Yes. Do I, overall, prefer that to integrated audio? No. All else is never equal, and I have never had a portable device whose ⅛-inch jack didn’t eventually become intermittent. I have never had a device whose integrated audio failed.4 Reliability trumps user-serviceability for me.

And while it was nice to be able to replace the batteries on my Blackberry, as well as my Walkman clone, I eventually had to resort to tape to keep that easily-replaceable battery from falling out on both of those devices. I have never had to do so on an iPhone.

Some people will prioritize user-replaceability over reliability in different ways than I do. That some manufacturers cater to those markets doesn’t make them wrong—it just means they’re making devices I won’t personally buy. And by the same token, manufacturers who prioritize reliability over user-replaceability are also not wrong. Everything is a trade-off, and that’s why we have 18 pairs of sneakers to choose from. Everyone’s computer needs, like everyone’s feet, are different.

In response to IT’s rarefied view of obsolescence: In IT, where everyone ends up trying to get the latest equipment, it is easy to forget that the rest of the world keeps using things until they are no longer useful.

  1. He seems to have recognized, albeit not acknowledged, the discrepancy because a few days later he wrote that while “It’s great… it commits the eighth cardinal sin of applumbo: Soldered RAM.”

  2. Unified memory actually combines other aspects of Apple’s approach into a single term, such as that the GPU and CPU use shared memory pools (possibly even shared with the system drive). I suspect not everyone is using these terms in the same way.

  3. Technically, my iPad has not had this problem—but I practically never use a headphone with my iPad.