They can't give it away, you know. But sellers of DRAM, the memory that is crucial to a computer's speed, have come pretty close. In a holiday sale, a 1-gigabyte memory stick recently sold at retail for a measly $5. "Terrible, horrific prices," moans Iain MacKenzie, CEO of Smart Modular, a leading supplier of PC memory.
The industry's pain is your gain. Now is the time to stuff your computer with DRAM, even if it means yanking out smaller chips that are in the way. Absent holiday discounts, it still can cost less than $50 to install two sticks of 1 gigabyte each. That would keep a PC humming even when shouldering the latest memory hogs: Windows Vista and Macintosh Leopard.
It has been a breathtaking collapse in the cost of dynamic random-access memory. Those 1-gigabyte modules would have cost more than $100 each a year ago. On average, memory prices have plummeted more than 70 percent in a year, according to market researcher iSuppli. Chip makers built too many factories in anticipation of Vista, which also isn't driving PC sales as expected.
PC upgrades steadily fall in price. It's always good to consider another easy improvement: adding an external hard drive for more storage. But most PCs ship with enough hard drive for initial use while still skimping on DRAM despite today's low prices. It has been about seven years since it was this cheap to fill a computer with recommended levels of memory, says Andy Paul, CEO at Corsair, another leading seller of PC memory. And while it's in his interest to make today's prices seem compelling, Paul makes a good argument for why they might soon rise. Prices have not only dropped below the cost of making chips—they've even dropped below the carrying costs of the factories themselves. Every penny that manufacturers spend on chip supplies is another penny lost, Paul says. "They can conserve cash by shutting the factories." That should translate to higher prices.
Then again, this is the memory-chip business. A good year sees prices fall only 30 percent, says Nam Hyung Kim, an analyst at iSuppli. So he predicts that, at worst, prices might rise a bit in coming months before beginning to slip again.
Still, this seems the time to give a computer breathing room. More memory is often the best boost to PC performance and affects how quickly a computer boots or switches between programs. Many Vista computers, particularly laptops, still ship with 1GB or, shudder, only 512 megabytes. Most analysts say Vista runs comfortably with 2GB. Some desktops can hold 4GB, but that's into diminishing returns, says Rus Miller at Crucial, another memory vendor: "We'll sell it to you, but we won't recommend it."
Be aware: PC makers charge a premium to install added memory. Dell wants $250 to add two 1GB modules that can be found elsewhere for a fifth of that price. Installing memory is also easy. Electronics stores often do it for about $30, though you might have to buy their sticks at prices higher than online. Handy tools at sites like Crucial.com, Corsair.com, and Kingston.com explain the installation process, including which DRAM to buy. Just open the case and plug it in. Painless, especially at today's prices.