It didn’t matter. I got buried under an avalanche of e-mail from people asking where they could buy the glowy DIMMs. So the things didn’t actually work rightbig deal. People like the blinkenlights.
Corsair first capitalized on folks’ affinity for glowy things with its XMS Pro series of memory modules, DIMMS with a strip of multicolored LEDs running up their spines that were triggered by memory activity. The apparent success of the Pro series has prompted Corsair to take the bling-bling, or should I say blink-blink, to the next level with its new XMS Xpert modules. On the inside, these are your everyday, above-average DDR400 memory modules suited for ultra-low-latency 2-2-2 timings and backed by Corsair’s lifetime warranty. On the outside, they are an electronic symphony of light emitting diodes in various configurations, from an adaptation of the Pro’s activity-based EQ pulse to a full-on scrolling alphanumeric marquee.
Some of you will probably be turned off immediately by the combination of these two elements, practical people that you are. I feel your pain. In between the quality RAM and the light show, however, is the Xpert’s ace in the hole: a microcontroller that monitors conditions on the DIMM and reports them back to the user, either via the LED marquee or Corsair’s monitoring software. This additional capability makes the Xpert DIMMs a little something more than just a flashy curiosity, though they are definitely that.
Vegas at night
I’ll dispense with further attempts at describing the Xpert modules and go right to the pictures, so you can know what we’re dealing with here.
That’s the money shot: the Xpert module doing its thing. As you can see, the DIMMs are reporting voltage and temperature in the picture above. By default, they cycle through those displays plus a few more, including a clock speed display and a little bit of self-identification/advertising. I’ve chosen to take a picture of the two modules out of sync so that I can show you both a voltage and temperature display at once. Most of the time, though, a pair of DIMMs running the default display will remain perfectly matched.
Obviously, you’ll need at least a case window, at the very minimum, in order for the Xpert’s Vegas-style entertainment to be visible to awed observers and mesmerized domestic animals.
Look closer, and you’ll see that the XMS Xpert module has a pretty strange shape for a DIMM.
The display is twice as wide as the module itself, so that those numbers and letters can be properly large and legible. That requirement led Corsair to create a DIMM with an L-shaped profile. The Xpert stands quite a bit taller than other DIMMs, and its display only protrudes out into space well above the DIMM socket. That means the Xpert should be compatible with most lower profile modules out there, even from Corsair’s competitors.
That’s kind of funky, but what happens when you put a pair of Xpert modules directly next to one another, or when space is otherwise tight? Well, to understand that, you’ve gotta see how the Xpert’s two-piece design works.
How the Xpert’s two-piece design works
You see, the display is actually a separate unit, and can be removed.
The display unit can connect to the DIMM in one of two positions, changing the direction in which the display protrudes from the top of the module. Given enough room on either side, a pair of Xpert modules can cuddle up to one another like so:
Clever, no? Of course, not all DIMM sockets face the same way, which presents another problem: upside-down text. The Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe mobo that I used for testing the Xpert DIMMs had this problem. Corsair’s solution is to invert the display in software. That works fine save for one thing: the blue glowy Corsair “ship” logo, which is static and can’t be inverted. So all of my pictures of the Xpert in action have upside-down Corsair ships on them. Now you know why. Corsair’s clever design for the Xpert modules solves many problems, but not all of them.
Shoehorning a pair of Xpert DIMMs into a system probably won’t be difficult most of the time, but aspiring modders may sometimes find that their electric blue ships run aground on clearance problems. Not every motherboard has enough room between the DIMMs and other tall things, like heatsinks for the VRMs, north bridge, or CPU. Small form factor boxes promise to be especially tricky, if not impossible, and I worry about the Xpert displays bumping into wind tunnels on BTX systems. Massive coolers like this Zalman beast also threaten to sink a pair of Xperts. This is a product for case modders and PC builders who know their stuff, and clearance issues must be part of that equation. Measure twice, purchase once.
Corsair’s Memory Dashboard software
Corsair supplies a Windows program called Memory Dashboard with the Xpert modules. This software is key to the Xpert’s customizability and usefulness. Here’s a look at the main screen.
The utility shows basic clock speed and timing info for each DIMM up top, and in the lower pane, it shows the parametric data coming in from the microcontroller on the Xpert module. The more intriguing stuff is in the options pages for the individual DIMMs.
Here, one can specify the types of messages to be displayed by the Xpert and the duration of the readout. Messages too long to show on the Xpert’s 10-character alphanumeric display will automatically become scrolling messages, and the software allows users to choose the scroll speed for those messages.
Here’s a look at the different message types available. They pretty much encompass the types of data the Xpert modules can report about themselves, but there’s also a custom message type, so mad modders can have their machines say what needs to be said.
Custom messages are limited to relatively short strings of text, all uppercase, and they can’t include special characters, or you’ll hear about it:
Memory Dashboard is still at version 1.0, and it shows. The program does pretty much what it should, but it’s not yet what it could become. The interface isn’t bad, but it’s not always silky-smooth intuitive, either. More importantly, Corsair hasn’t yet tapped all of the potential here. Memory Dashboard could relay other system information via the display, such as the CPU type and speed, OS, and temperature readings off of the motherboard, for instance. I’d also like to be able to choose alarm conditions, for when the voltage or temperature of the DIMM goes out of the expected range. It’d be nice to have extended logging and graphing of the data, too, instead of just the simple high, low, and average numbers reported by Memory Dashboard.
Corsair says the microcontroller and display on these DIMMs won’t draw enough power to cause any problems. In my experience, that’s correct. I tested these modules at 2.75V at their stock 2-2-2 timings in a couple of Athlon 64 systems without any trouble. In fact, these DIMMs generally required less voltage to achieve stability than the pair of standard Corsair XMS 3200XL DIMMs that I was playing around with a couple of months ago. The Xperts survived over 40 hours of Memtest86+ torture testing in the warm confines of Damage Labs without throwing a single error.
As for overclocking, well, let me tell you a story about that. I was trying to see what kind of peak clock speeds these things could hit by overclocking them on an Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe mobo, and I set the HyperTransport speed in the BIOS to 250MHz. The system booted up and ran just fine, came up into Windows, and seemed happy. I double-checked the actual clock speeds, as usual, with CPU-Z, and it reported a memory clock of 250MHz. The Xpert display, however, told a different story: the RAM was clocked at 237MHz, not 250MHz. Something in the Asus BIOS wasn’t setting the right clock speed ratio, and CPU-Z didn’t know any better. Without the Xpert readout, I never would have known about the problem.
I’ve run into similar problems with misreported voltages on motherboards in the past. Or at least I think I have. If I’d had a pair of Xpert DIMMs, I’d have known more about the exact nature of the problem.
As I was trying to remedy the 237MHz clock speed problem, the A8N-SLI decided to croak on me, so I really don’t know how high these DIMMs will overclock. Your mileage will likely vary from one DIMM to the next, anyhow. I know the modules that I have are quite happy at 237MHz with 2.5-3-3 timings.
By the way, the Asus board’s untimely demise didn’t seem to be connected to the Xpert modules at all. I swapped in all manner of graphics cards, CPUs, DIMMs, and the like in an attempt to revive the board, to no avail. The Xperts, meanwhile, went on to complete their 40-hour marathon in Memtest86+ on another mobo. The Asus board’s death did give the Xperts another chance to show off, though. Whenever I powered on the ailing A8N-SLI board in an attempt to get it to POST, I could tell that nothing much was happening because the Xperts gave me a “0MHz” clock speed reading, indicating they hadn’t been initialized. Even after clearing the CMOS, swapping CPUs, and the like, the Xperts never budged from 0MHz. This board was too dead to start, and the Xperts helped me confirm it.
When I first saw the Xperts doing their thing, I thought they were a kind of funny novelty item, not anything I’d want for myself. My overclocking misadventures taught me otherwise. I think a pair of these puppies will be very useful to have around Damage Labs, and not just to impress visitors. Sometimes, for certain uses by certain types of users, including hardware testers like myself, the parametric data coming out of the Xpert DIMMs can prove invaluable.
As for the blink-blink, well, that is a matter of taste. I’ll let you decide about that. I’m not as susceptible to the appeal of glowy lights as some folks, but I have to admit they’re kind of fun to watch.
Corsair says an Xpert 512MB module will be priced about $60 above one of its Pro XL modules (with only activity lights) and about $75 above a standard XMS DIMM. Right now, a pair of XMS 3200XL 512MB DIMMs is going for around $250, while the Pros are at about $275. Xperts, meanwhile, are selling for nearly $400 or more, depending on the retailer. That $150 premium for a pair of Xperts is by no means cheap, but at least these glowy things are attached to some very decent memory.