Rich Warren: When it comes to memory, you pay for what you get
Bob Hope died long before his theme song "Thanks for the Memory" would become spectacularly appropriate for modern technology.
Without the humble memory chip, few products would function.
While there are many types of memory chips, the most common are dynamic random access memory chips, DRAM for short, used in desktop and laptop computers and its cousin NAND, used in mobile devices.
Many varieties of DRAM and NAND exist, but manufacturers fabricate them in similar ways — making them a commodity item. Unlike the other components that make up consumer electronics, memory prices fluctuate wildly like gasoline.
When drillers strike new supplies of crude oil or an oil company opens a new refinery, and there's no political turmoil to disrupt delivery, while demand remands constant, the price of gas falls. Conversely, any change in the delicate equation sends prices soaring.
The same is true for memory. As with oil, a handful of companies manufacture most of the world's memory chips. Brisk demand motivates them to add more fabricating lines and/or build entirely new factories to increase supply. Often this floods the market, causing prices to collapse. If the world economy also sinks decreasing demand, prices fall even further.
In the past decade during brief periods, DRAM chips could be had for dimes. As with oil, if anything disrupts supply, such as a major factory burning down, which happened not long ago, political turmoil, and/or soaring demand, overnight, prices take off faster than a fighter jet from an aircraft carrier.
Like gasoline, DRAM and NAND markup when sold to major electronics manufacturers, is relatively small. A memory manufacturer must sell vast quantities to break even, let alone make a profit.
One of the world's largest memory manufacturers, Samsung, often loses money on manufacturing the chips.
Even when you purchase a memory module retail from a local computer shop, the markup is fairly reasonable. A gas station makes only a few pennies per gallon from what you pump.
Also, like gas, branding is more psychological than practical. A petroleum company spends a fortune to convince you its brand is better than a competitor's, but the difference is negligible. Similarly, there are dozens of brands of retail DRAM and NAND, all made by a few mighty manufacturers, and the brands usually differ in quality control, how they are assembled into modules and warranty.
Most of you may never purchase a memory module, so you may wonder where this arcane story is leading.
If you own a smart phone, tablet, MP3 player, or other portable electronic device that relies heavily on memory for data storage, which includes music and video, you're being taken for a ride.
Originally, laptop computers and other portable devices permitted accessing their memory slots. You could cheaply add memory, doubling the capacity of the average laptop for $30-$40.
Now, most manufacturers solder or glue the memory into place, so there's no option to increase it once you place your order.
When I bought my iPad, I paid $200 extra to quadruple the standard 16-gigabyte memory to 64 GB. If I went online and bought a similar, or even identical, 64 GB memory chip, it would cost me $40-$75, depending upon memory prices that week.
Many smart phone makers — such as Samsung and LG — allow you to easily add memory to your phones, but not Apple.
While every company should earn healthy profits on its products, sometimes profit looks like extortion. Furthermore, many of us don't understand or correctly estimate how much memory storing video, such as movies, requires, and buy Apple products with insufficient memory with no upgrade capability.
For day-to-day use, 16 GB is more than enough for a smart phone, but if you want to travel with a comprehensive music library or a few movies to pass the time, you'll need a minimum of 32 GB, if not 64 GB.
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at email@example.com.