Troubleshooting Memory Errors


MemTest86 detected errors in my memory. Is there something wrong with my RAM?

Please be aware that not all errors reported by MemTest86 are due to bad memory. The test implicitly tests the CPU, L1 and L2 caches as well as the motherboard. It is impossible for the test to determine what causes the failure to occur. However, most failures will be due to a problem with memory module. When it is not, the only option is to replace parts until the failure is corrected.

Sometimes memory errors show up due to component incompatibility. A memory module may work fine in one system and not in another. This is not uncommon and is a source of confusion. In these situations the components are not necessarily bad but have marginal conditions that when combined with other components will cause errors.

Often the memory works in a different system or the vendor insists that it is good. In these cases the memory is not necessarily bad but is not able to operate reliably at full speed. Sometimes more conservative memory timings on the motherboard will correct these errors. In other cases the only option is to replace the memory with better quality, higher speed memory. Don't buy cheap memory and expect it to work reliably. On occasion "block move" test errors will occur even with name brand memory and a quality motherboard. These errors are legitimate and should be corrected.

All valid memory errors should be corrected. It is possible that a particular error will never show up in normal operation. However, operating with marginal memory is risky and can result in data loss and even disk corruption. Even if there is no overt indication of problems you cannot assume that your system is unaffected. Sometimes intermittent errors can cause problems that do not show up for a long time. You can be sure that Murphy will get you if you know about a memory error and ignore it.

We are often asked about the reliability of errors reported by MemTest86. In the vast majority of cases errors reported by the test are valid. There are some systems that cause MemTest86 to be confused about the size of memory and it will try to test non-existent memory. This will cause a large number of consecutive addresses to be reported as bad and generally there will be many bits in error. If you have a relatively small number of failing addresses and only one or two bits in error you can be certain that the errors are valid. Also intermittent errors are without exception valid. Frequently memory vendors question if MemTest86 supports their particular memory type or a chipset. MemTest86 is designed to work with all memory types and all chipsets.

MemTest86 cannot diagnose many types of PC failures. For example a faulty CPU that causes Windows to crash will most likely just cause MemTest86 to crash in the same way.

Why am I only getting errors during Test 13 Hammer Test?

The Hammer Test is designed to detect RAM modules that are susceptible to disturbance errors caused by charge leakage. This phenomenon is characterized in the research paper Flipping Bits in Memory Without Accessing Them: An Experimental Study of DRAM Disturbance Errors by Yoongu Kim et al. According to the research, a significant number of RAM modules manufactured 2010 or newer are affected by this defect. In simple terms, susceptible RAM modules can be subjected to disturbance errors when repeatedly accessing addresses in the same memory bank but different rows in a short period of time. Errors occur when the repeated access causes charge loss in a memory cell, before the cell contents can be refreshed at the next DRAM refresh interval.

Starting from MemTest86 v6.2, the user may see a warning indicating that the RAM may be vulnerable to high frequency row hammer bit flips. This warning appears when errors are detected during the first pass (maximum hammer rate) but no errors are detected during the second pass (lower hammer rate). See MemTest86 Test Algorithms for a description of the two passes that are performed during the Hammer Test (Test 13). When performing the second pass, address pairs are hammered only at the rate deemed as the maximum allowable by memory vendors (200K accesses per 64ms). Once this rate is exceeded, the integrity of memory contents may no longer be guaranteed. If errors are detected in both passes, errors are reported as normal.

The errors detected during Test 13, albeit exposed only in extreme memory access cases, are most certainly real errors. During typical home PC usage (eg. web browsing, word processing, etc.), it is less likely that the memory usage pattern will fall into the extreme case that make it vulnerable to disturbance errors. It may be of greater concern if you were running highly sensitive equipment such as medical equipment, aircraft control systems, or bank database servers. It is impossible to predict with any accuracy if these errors will occur in real life applications. One would need to do a major scientific study of 1000 of computers and their usage patterns, then do a forensic analysis of each application to study how it makes use of the RAM while it executes. To date, we have only seen 1-bit errors as a result of running the Hammer Test.

There are several actions that can be taken when you discover that your RAM modules are vulnerable to disturbance errors:

  • Do nothing
  • Replace the RAM modules
  • Use RAM modules with error-checking capabilities (eg. ECC)

Depending on your willingness to live with the possibility of these errors manifesting itself as real problems, you may choose to do nothing and accept the risk. For home use you may be willing to live with the errors. In our experience, we have several machines that have been stable for home/office use despite experiencing errors in the Hammer Test.

You may also choose to replace the RAM with modules that have been known to pass the Hammer Test. Choose RAM modules of different brand/model as it is likely that the RAM modules with the same model would still fail the Hammer test.

For sensitive equipment requiring high availability/reliability, you would replace the RAM without question and would probably switch to RAM with error correction such as ECC RAM. Even a 1-bit error can result in catastrophic consequences for say, a bank account balance. Note that not all motherboards support ECC memory, so consult the motherboard specifications before purchasing ECC RAM.

Why do I get errors only when testing RAM modules together, and not when individually tested?

Most memory systems nowadays operate in multiple channel mode in order to increase the transfer rate between the RAM modules and the memory controller. It is recommended that modules with identical specifications (ie. "matching modules") when running in multi-channel mode. Some motherboards also have compatibility issues with certain brand/models of RAM when running in multi-channel mode.

When you see errors while runnning MemTest86 with multiple RAM modules installed, but not when they are tested individually, it is likely that the multi-channel configuration is the culprit. This could be due to mismatched RAM specifications, or simply using brands/models of RAM that is incompatible with the motherboard. Most motherboard vendors release a list of known compatible RAM models that have been tested to work with your motherboard. Replace the modules with a matching set of known good ones and see if you get better results.

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MemTest86 reported the memory address of the failure. What does this mean?

When MemTest86 detects errors during the memory tests, the memory address, actual and expected data are reported to the user. The memory address is the location in system memory where the data contained does not match what was expected. This is the address that is specified by the CPU to the memory controller when requesting data from DRAM. The memory controller then decodes this memory address to identify the specific channel, DIMM, rank, DRAM chip, bank, row and column in DRAM using a chipset-specific address decoding scheme.

The address decoding scheme is the process used by the memory controller to generate the appropriate address signals to the DRAM chip. Depending on the memory controller, this process can get fairly complex as it is not simply a a direct mapping of the system address bits to the DRAM address bits. In order to increase the memory performance, strategies such as channel interleaving (for Dual, Tri and Quad channel setups), rank/bank/row interleaving, and address swizzling are used to increase the concurrency of memory accesses. For some chipsets such as AMD, the address decoding scheme can be configured/determined via PCI registers as described in the chipset specifications. For other chipsets (eg. Intel), however, the address decoding scheme is proprietary and not made available to the public. This makes identifying the DRAM address and correspondingly, the failing module, much more difficult. For that reason, MemTest86 does not have the capability to report the DRAM addresses and thus, the failing DIMM, of memory errors.

How does MemTest86 report ECC errors?

If ECC detection and correction is enabled on the system, MemTest86 is able to report any detected ECC errors to the user. Depending on the chipset that is used, the reported address of the ECC error may either be the system memory address (eg. 0x93801200) or the DRAM rank/bank/row/column address (eg. 0x3E0, 0x5F6D, 0x2, 0x2). This is entirely dependant on the chipset that is used and how the hardware reports the ECC error details to the system; Ie. MemTest86 does not have the capability to interchange between displaying the system address or the DRAM address.

If I know the address decoding scheme, can I configure MemTest86 to report the failing module?

For systems where the address decoding scheme is known, MemTest86 provides several configuration file parameters to aid users in determining the faulty module that corresponds to the memory address:

  ADDR2CHBITS=12,9,7
  ADDR2SLBITS=3,4
  ADDR2CSBITS=8

For each of these 3 parameters, a list of bit positions can be used to specify which address bits of a memory address to exclusive-or (XOR) in order to determine the corresponding [memory channel|slot|chip select (CS)] (0 or 1) of the failing module. This is only useful if you know that the memory controller maps a particular address to a [memory channel|slot|chip select (CS)] using this XOR-based decoding scheme. If these parameters are specified and MemTest86 detects a memory error, the [memory channel|slot|chip select (CS)] will be calculated and displayed along with the faulting address.

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How do I know which RAM module is failing?

Once a memory error has been detected, determining the failing SIMM/DIMM module is not a clear cut procedure. With the large number of motherboard vendors and possible combinations of memory slots it would be difficult if not impossible to assemble complete information about how a particular error would map to a failing memory module. However, there are steps that may be taken to determine the failing module. Here are some techniques that you may wish to use:

  1. Removing modules

    This is simplest method for isolating a failing modules, but may only be employed when one or more modules can be removed from the system. By selectively removing modules from the system and then running the test you will be able to find the bad modules. Be sure to note exactly which modules are in the system when the test passes and when the test fails.

  2. Rotating modules

    When none of the modules can be removed then you may wish to rotate modules to find the failing one. This technique can only be used if there are three or more modules in the system. Change the location of two modules at a time. For example put the module from slot 1 into slot 2 and put the module from slot 2 in slot 1. Run the test and if either the failing bit or address changes then you know that the failing module is one of the ones just moved. By using several combinations of module movement you should be able to determine which module is failing.

  3. Replacing modules

    If you are unable to use either of the previous techniques then you are left to selective replacement of modules to find the failure.

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How do I fix the memory errors?

Depending on what is causing the memory errors, you can try the following options:

  • Replace the RAM modules (most common solution)
  • Set default or conservative RAM timings
  • Increase the voltage levels
  • Apply BIOS update to fix incompatibility issues
  • Flag the address ranges as 'bad'

Once you have determined with certainty which RAM module(s) have failed, replacing them with a new set of RAM modules usually fixes the errors. When choosing which modules to use as a replacement, consider using one that is listed as compatible by the motherboard vendor as it would have been verified by the vendor itself.

Sometimes, memory errors only manifest themselves when RAM timings are set too aggressively in the BIOS (eg. overclocking). For certain modules that support higher performance XMP timings, consider using standard, non-XMP timings to see if you get better results. Consult your motherboard manual on how to set or reset your RAM timings to default settings.

For certain configurations (especially when using aggressive RAM timings), higher voltage may be required in order to operate the RAM in stable conditions. If you are using non-standard RAM timings, slightly increasing the voltage (eg. from 1.5V to 1.55V) may increase the stability. Increase the voltage at your own risk as excessive voltage may damage the components of your system

In certain cases, RAM incompability issues can be fixed with a BIOS update. Check the motherboard vendor for updated BIOS with RAM compaibiliy fixes.

Several operating systems allow the user to pass in a list of 'bad' memory ranges to prevent the operating system to use or allocate memory in that range. For a Linux kernel that is compiled with BadRAM support, BadRAM patterns may be passed in as a boot-time parameter. This work-around makes it possible for Linux to reliably run with defective RAM. For more information on BadRAM support for Linux, see the following page: http://home.zonnet.nl/vanrein/badram

Under Windows, the list of known 'bad' memory ranges can be passed in via the BCD system store. See the following page for details on managing the list of bad memory pages: http://superuser.com/questions/420051/running-windows-with-defective-ram