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Personalizing and Configuring Windows 7 : Performance Tweaks (part 4) - Improving Windows 7's Memory

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6. Improving Windows 7's Memory

A long time ago PCs of a bygone era had woefully inadequate amounts of RAM, and the versions of Windows used back then had to regularly swap large chunks of RAM back to slower, disk-based storage called virtual memory. Virtual memory was (and still is, really) an inexpensive way to overcome the limitations inherent in using a low-RAM PC; but as users ran more and more applications, the amount of swapping would reach a crescendo of sorts as an invisible line was crossed and performance suffered.

Today, PCs with 4 to 8GB of RAM are commonplace, so manually managing Windows 7's virtual memory settings is rarely needed. That said, you can still do so if you want. In older versions of Windows, you had to jump through quite a few hoops. With Windows 7's Start Menu Search enhancements, finding and opening this dialog is much easier.

  1. Open the classic Performance Options dialog by performing a Start Menu Search for adjust perf.

  2. In the Performance Options dialog that appears, navigate to the Advanced tab and click the Change button. The Virtual Memory window will appear, as shown in Figure 8.

    Figure 8. Virtual Memory options

    By default, like previous versions of Windows, Windows 7 is configured to automatically maintain and manage the paging file, which is the single disk-based file that represents your PC's virtual memory. Windows 7 will grow and shrink this file based on its needs, and its behavior varies wildly depending on how much RAM is on your system: PCs with less RAM need virtual memory far more often than those with 4GB of RAM (or more with 64-bit versions of Windows 7).

    While we don't generally recommend screwing around with the swap file, Windows 7's need to constantly resize the paging file on low-RAM systems is one exception. The problem with this behavior is that resizing the paging is a resource-intensive activity that slows performance. Therefore, if you have less than 2GB of RAM and can't upgrade for some reason, you might want to manually manage virtual memory and set the paging file to be a fixed size—one that won't grow and shrink over time.

    To do this, uncheck the option titled Automatically manage paging file sizes for all drives and select Custom size. Then determine how much space to set aside by multiplying the system RAM (2GB or less) by 2 to 3 times. On a PC with 2GB of RAM, for example, you might specify a value of 5,120 (where 2GB of RAM is 2,048MB, times 2.5). This value should be added to both the Initial size and Maximum size text boxes to ensure that the page file does not grow and shrink over time.

    NOTE

    Optionally, you can put the paging file on a faster, separate hard disk (a physical hard disk, not just a second partition) for better performance.

6.1. Using ReadyBoost

Another way to improve performance on systems with 2GB or less of RAM is to use a new Windows 7 feature called ReadyBoost. This technology uses spare storage space on USB-based memory devices such as memory sticks to increase your computer's performance. It does this by caching the most frequently accessed information to the USB device, which is typically much faster than reading directly from the hard drive. (Information cached to the device is encrypted so it can't be read on other systems.)

There are a number of caveats, of course. First, the USB device you choose to use must meet certain speed requirements or Windows will not allow it to be used in this fashion. Second, storage space that is set aside on a USB device for ReadyBoost cannot be used for other purposes until you reformat the device.

NOTE

In previous versions of Windows, you were limited to the use of only one USB device and a maximum ReadyBoost cache size of 4GB. Both of these limitations have been lifted in Windows 7.

In our testing, ReadyBoost seems to have the most impact on systems with less than 1GB of RAM, and it clearly benefits netbooks and notebooks more than desktop PCs, as it's often difficult or impossible to increase the RAM on older portable machines.

When you insert a compatible USB device into a Windows 7 machine, you will see a Speed Up My System option in the Auto Play dialog that appears. When you select this option, the ReadyBoost tab of the Properties dialog of the associated device will appear, as shown in Figure 8, enabling you to configure a portion of the device's storage space. It recommends the ideal amount based on the capacity of the device and your system's RAM (ensuring a RAM-to-cache minimum of 1:1 and a maximum of 2.5:1).

Obviously, ReadyBoost won't work unless the USB memory key is plugged into your PC. This can be a bit of a hassle because you need to remember to keep plugging it in every time you break out your portable computer. Still, ReadyBoost is a great enhancement and a welcome feature, especially when a PC would otherwise run poorly with Windows 7.

NOTE

If you're using a PC containing a solid-state drive (SSD)—a drive similar to a flash stick vice a spindle of spinning platters—ReadyBoost will be turned off, because the disk is fast enough that ReadyBoost will unlikely provide any additional gain in performance.

Figure 9. ReadyBoost provides an inexpensive and simple way to boost performance on low-RAM PCs.

6.2. Adding More RAM

This final tip may seem a bit obvious, but Windows 7 is a resource hog (albeit less so than Windows Vista), and it will steal whatever RAM you throw at it. Our advice here is simple: 2GB of RAM is the minimum for a happy Windows 7 PC; most PC users would be better off with more. If your PC can support 4GB or even 8GB of RAM, upgrade. Memory is inexpensive these days, so cost is rarely an issue.

NOTE

Microsoft says that 32-bit versions of Windows support up to 4GB of RAM (while 64-bit versions support quite a bit more). While this is technically true, 32-bit versions of Windows are actually limited in their support of RAM because of its underlying architecture. Therefore, even on systems with a full 4GB of RAM, 32-bit versions of Windows can really access only about 3.12GB to 3.5GB of RAM, depending on your configuration. In the initially shipped version of Windows Vista, the System Information window would accurately portray how much RAM it could access, but this confused (and probably infuriated) those who paid for and installed 4GB of RAM, so with Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1), Windows now reports that your PC has 4GB installed, even though it can't use all of it. Windows 7 carries over this behavior unaltered.

The obvious question is whether you should even bother upgrading to 4GB of RAM when your 32-bit version of Windows 7 can't actually address almost 1GB of that storage space anyway. The answer is an unqualified yes, for two reasons. First, you'd have to really go out of your way to upgrade a PC to 3GB of RAM instead of 4GB, and the cost differential would be minimal. Second, who says you're always going to be using a 32-bit version of Windows? You may later decide to go the 64-bit route. When that happens, you'll be happy you went for the full 4GB of RAM instead of saving a few pennies to no good end.

For the record, we max out the RAM on every single PC we purchase because the costs are so minimal and the effect is extremely positive. You just can't overstate how important more RAM is to Windows. 8GB of RAM may have been a fantasy a few years ago, but for a modern, Windows 7–based PC, that's just a starting point.

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