See, I told you it was unique.
The important thing to remember is that “unique” does not necessarily mean “good.” Does the DDR Booster live up to its promise? We’ll soon find out.
When you open up the DDR Booster box, you’ll see an instruction sheet, a power cable and the DDR Booster itself. The Booster looks like a cross between a DIMM, a motherboard and… a stereo. No, seriously. Take a look:
On the far left is a two-digit voltage readout that tells you the current voltage (i.e., 26 when the voltage is 2.6V) when the Booster is installed and the system is powered on. Next to this are two Molex jacks with stickers, which just so happen to match the Molex plugs on the included power cord. Speaking of the power cord, it plugs in between the motherboard and the power supply using ATX connectors. The pinouts on the two Molex connectors are completely custom, so while you could in theory plug a couple of Molex plugs off your power supply into the Booster, doing so would almost certainly fry any number of components.
To the right of the power connectors are a number of voltage regulators that are covered with a big, passive heatsink. Finally in the upper right corner is a potentiometer that will adjust the amount of voltage the DDR Booster supplies to memory.
Installation is as simple as can be, with the understanding that only a fairly hardcore geek would be interested in a device such as this. Plug the power cable in between your power supply and motherboard, and then plug each of the color-coded Molex plugs into the appropriate socket on the Booster. Finally, install the DDR Booster into an empty memory socket.
That’s the short version. However, there are some things of which one should be aware in regards to the DDR Booster. First, it’s tall:
The circuit board itself isn’t that much taller than a DIMM, but by the time you factor in the Molex connectors and the cables coming out of them, the DDR Booster is pretty dang tall. I mention this only because one might be tempted to use a clip-on RAM cooler like Abit recently started making. Unfortunately I don’t have one here to test, but given the DDR Booster’s height I’m doubtful it would fit.
Here’s a side view of the DDR Booster installed next to some OCZ DIMMs. You can see that the potentiometer is touching the top of the closest DIMM, but this isn’t really a problem. However, I should point out that of the five brands of memory that I tested, the OCZ was shorter than all the others. Let’s switch to a different brand of RAM. . . .
With the Corsair DIMMs, the potentiometer really starts to be a problem. You have to basically force the DDR Booster into the DIMM socket with these DIMMs, and it sort-of-but-not-completely fits, as you can see by the tilt of the Booster in the DIMM socket. Finally, notice that in this configuration, the Booster effectively takes up two DIMM sockets, meaning that if you’re installing on a motherboard with only three sockets and you want the Booster “behind” the DIMMs, the placement of that third DIMM socket will become very important.
Of course, the smart ones out there are saying “Well why not just swap the memory and the DDR Booster?” Good point. Let’s try that out.
No Leaning Tower of Booster this time, so that’s good. Notice, however, that the component leads on the back of the DDR Booster circuit board are awfully close to the heatspreader. The metal, presumably electrically conductive, heatspreader. I could have just crammed a sheet of paper or cardboard between the Booster and the DIMMs, but stability on the motherboard I used for testing suffered significantly when the memory was farther from the processor like this, so I wound up going with the first configuration, leaning Booster and all.
And for the smart ones out there who are now saying “Well why not just move the DDR Booster to the first DIMM socket instead of the second?” I’ll say “good point” again. Unfortunately, a couple of capacitors interfere with the DDR Booster’s heatsink, making installation in the first DIMM socket impossible.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, it may be difficult to determine whether or not the DDR Booster will work or even fit on a given motherboard. If you’re interested in the product, I suggest checking out this page at OCZ’s web site, which has compatibility listings for a variety of motherboards. Also, it’s important to note that the maximum voltage reachable by the DDR Booster varies between motherboards, so the same page lists the maximum voltage for each motherboard that is compatible.
Now that the installation has been covered, it’s time to crank this baby up. Before doing so, OCZ recommends turning the potentiometer counter-clockwise until you hit the stop. This ensures that the Booster starts up at the lowest setting of 2.6V as opposed to, say, 3.9V. When you power the system on, the numeric display will indicate the current voltage level. In my experience testing the Booster, I found that it was a good idea to verify the voltage reported on the Booster using the motherboard BIOS or a monitoring utility like Motherboard Monitor. A smaller potentiometer (think jeweler’s screwdriver small) under the numeric display allows you to adjust the calibration if you find it to be off.
Personally, I would recommend relying on the LED display only as a general guide. This has less to do with the calibration of the device and more to do with its precision. When dialing in 2.8V for example, you could be dialing in anywhere from 2.79V to 2.89V without knowing it, because the display on the Booster lacks a hundredths digit.
Once the system is powered on, OCZ recommends you enter the system BIOS before adjusting the voltage, because the act of adjustment can cause an operating system to lock up. I did manage to blue-screen Windows a couple of times by turning the knob too quickly, but generally I found that if I moved in slow, small steps, the system tolerated it just fine.
In terms of operating the device, that’s basically all there is to it. Disappointed? What did you expect for a device whose control mechanism consists of a single knob?
Testing notes and our testing methods
OCZ’s description of the DDR Booster is interesting:
OCZ DDR Booster Diagnostic Device with Patent pending PowerClean Technology™ allows users to supply cleaner power to their memory modules, resulting in more stable memory. Additionally, users are able to view memory module voltage with the digital LEDs on the DDR Booster, allowing simple and inexpensive troubleshooting of the memory modules.
That’s the official version. I suspect the unofficial version is more akin to ‘It lets you overvolt the snot outta your RAM!” but I don’t have any confirmation on that. Nonetheless, the “cleaner power” claim is an interesting one, and it bears further examination. As a result, I decided to set up four testing scenarios: Stock motherboard voltage (2.6V), maximum motherboard voltage (2.8V), the equivalent of maximum motherboard voltage supplied by the DDR Booster (2.8V) and a significantly higher voltage supplied by the DDR Booster (3.3V). The idea with the second and third test conditions is to see if letting the DDR Booster supply the power will result in higher stable RAM speeds than the motherboard alone. If so, it would imply that the power coming off the DDR Booster is of higher quality than the motherboard power.
OCZ sent along some memory modules which they said responded well to higher voltages, but I wanted to test a variety of RAM, so I assembled a total of five sets of dual-channel DIMMs from a number of manufacturers. Timings were set manually to 2.5-3-3-8 to set a level playing field. In all cases, these were looser timings than the SPD of the memory, which should hopefully allow for higher speeds.
The objective here was to crank the memory speeds as high as possible. Motherboard Monitor was used to set the voltage as close to the target as possible; I found that relying on the DDR Booster display alone could result in significant variance in the actual voltage, and a few hundredths of a volt could significantly affect the maximum speed of the memory.
Our Sphinx speech recognition benchmark was used as a quick stability test for the memory. (Over time, we’ve found that Sphinx is very good at exposing iffy memory configs.) Essentially, I would start at a memory clock of 205MHz (5MHz over stock) and run Sphinx to determine if the test configuration was stable. If so, the memory clock got bumped 5MHz higher and the process was repeated until Sphinx crashed. Then, the speeds between the last stable setting and the unstable setting were tested to determine the highest stable speed to the nearest MHz. This procedure was repeated for each combination of DIMM type and voltage.
Since I was only testing for maximum memory speed, I didn’t want any other component to get in the way. Consequently, I lowered the multiplier of the CPU from 12X to 8X, locked the AGP and PCI busses at their default speeds, and lowered the HyperTransport multiplier to 2X.
Finally, I decided that I would just go hog-wild on whichever RAM performed the best in the above tests. That RAM would undergo one final max stable speed test, this time at 3.7V. Speaking of which, OCZ maintains that while the DDR Booster does get very hot, active cooling is only necessary if the voltage is 3.4V or above. After running some initial tests, the heat of the Booster and the memory just made me too nervous, and I resolved to come up with an advanced, high-tech cooling solution. Behold!
That’s right, baby. Ph34r my m0dding skillz.
Our test system was configured like so:
|Processor||Athlon 64 FX-53|
|Memory size||1024MB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||Corsair XMS3200LL PC3200 DDR SDRAM
Crucial Ballistix PC3200 DDR SDRAM
Kingston HyperX PC3200 DDR SDRAM
Mushkin LII V2 PC3200 DDR SDRAM
OCZ Gold Edition VX PC3200 DDR SDRAM
|RAS to CAS delay||3|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB|
|Hard drive||Seagate Barracuda V 120GB SATA 150|
|OS||Microsoft Windows XP Professional|
|OS updates||Service Pack 2, DirectX 9.0b|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Sphinx 3.3
The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
I could go on at length here in an attempt to add to the suspense, but you can already see that everything boils down to a single graph, so let’s just get started.
First of all, I should point out the obvious: Don’t take the results above as any sort of statement about the quality of the memory tested. The only measurement here is how well each type of memory reacts to (in some cases silly amounts of) overvolting.
Starting at the bottom, the Kingston RAM didn’t seem to like either the relaxed timings or the higher voltage at all. The speed here is listed at 199, but all that’s really signifying is that the HyperX wasn’t stable even at stock DDR400 speeds when its voltage was raised. I suspect that the HyperX is simply designed with really tight timings at stock voltage in mind, and this sort of thing just isn’t its bag, baby.
Next up is the Mushkin. It doesn’t benefit very much from additional voltage, but at least it wasn’t hampered by it. Pushing the voltage all the way up to 3.3V did result in a significant increase in top speed.
The Corsair RAM started out with a reasonably good overclock and responded pretty well to the additional voltage, as well, especially at 3.3V, where it topped the 2.8V speed by 23MHz.
The Crucial Ballistix did very well for itself here, hitting a top memory clock of 244MHz at stock voltage and extending that all the way to 261MHz at 3.3V.
OCZ said that their Gold Edition RAM responded well to overvolting, and they weren’t kidding, but it also managed to nab second place for the stock voltage tests. It also posted the largest gains with increased voltage, including a first place finish (by a nose, or a MHz anyway) in the 3.3V category.
Since the OCZ RAM was the top finisher, it got the, umm…. honor of being subjected to 3.7V. The added voltage allowed it to up its high score by 5MHz, but I suspect there’s more to the story than that. Throughout my stability testing, all of the RAM failed in a very consistent way, either crashing Sphinx or causing it to throw an error message, such as a divide by zero error. However, when I was testing the upper limits of the OCZ RAM at 3.7V, the failures were much different, always resulting in a hard lockup.
Based on these differences in behavior, I suspect the limiting factor here may be the motherboard and not the memory. I tried everything I could think of to make the motherboard more stable, from lowering HyperTransport multipliers to bumping up north bridge and CPU voltages, but the result was always the same. Perhaps with a different motherboard, the OCZ Gold Edition-DDR Booster combination could hit even greater heights.
On a more general note, you’ll notice that in no case did the 2.8V DDR Booster test configuration allow for higher stable speeds than the 2.8V motherboard configuration. Either the Gigabyte motherboard used in this tests provides cleaner power than other boards, or the advantage of the DDR Booster is more its upper voltage range than the “cleanliness” of the power it delivers.
Like most truly unique items, the DDR Booster certainly isn’t for everyone. From a physical compatibility standpoint, one has to be careful to pair the DDR Booster with the proper motherboard, and the testing reveals that different types of RAM have very different responses to the Booster. Setting those items aside for a moment, there is even the very real possibility of causing permanent damage to your memory or other components if you’re not careful with the DDR Booster, a fact that is plainly stated in the installation guide.
Fortunately, the type of user who would be most at risk of damaging his system in this manner is protected by the fact that he probably wouldn’t have the slightest interest in the DDR Booster. This is a tweaker’s toy, and in almost all cases, the person who buys it is going to be very much aware of its potential for both good and evil.
And in spite of all its fit limitations, compatibility requirements and quirks, the bottom line is that the DDR Booster does have its place. For the hard-core tweaker who spends entire evenings wringing every last bit of performance out of his system, the DDR Booster represents an exciting new avenue of exploration. So long as you keep the caveats in mind, OCZ’s DDR Booster has the potential to be a great bang-for-the-buck purchase for the true overclocking freak.