The Vista RAM puzzle: Is 2GB enough?

The Vista RAM puzzle: Is 2GB enough?

Summary: If you're using Windows Vista, you might be tempted by low, low prices to bump your system RAM from 2GB to 4GB. You want it, but do you need it? In my experience, you should only consider adding that extra RAM if you belong to one of two exclusive groups. Do you fit into either of these exceptions?

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A couple weeks ago, my buddy Dwight Silverman asked whether he should be tempted by low, low prices to bump the RAM in his Windows Vista machine from 2GB to 4GB. He asks:

My problem is this: I want the RAM, but do I really need it? I seldom, if ever, use all the memory now in my PC -- the RAM gauge I use as part of Yahoo Widgets seldom goes above 65 or 75 percent. I have no performance complaints. (I also use a 2-GB USB flash drive for Vista's ReadyBoost, which helps.) Would spending $80 to kick my RAM up a single gigabyte to 3 GB be worth it? Would I be better off spending $160 and going to 4 GB?

ItÂ’s hard to use 2GB of RAM, even in VistaI've got a lot of experience with different PC configurations, and I can say with confidence that 2GB is more than enough for even the most demanding business user. There are two important exception to that rule: If you use one or more virtual machines in the same session, you'll benefit from as much RAM as you can install, and 2GB probably won’t be enough. You’ll also need (and want) the extra RAM if you run 64–bit Windows Vista, a topic I'll get to shortly. First, let's talk about that 2GB configuration.

I've used Vista on more than a dozen machines from at least six manufacturers. Currently, my working machines are an Asus Tablet PC and a Dell XPS 410 desktop, both with 2GB of memory. In more than a month of sometimes insanely heavy use with each one, I have never reached a state where either one performed unacceptably because it was gasping for RAM. It's really, really difficult to use 2GB of RAM with any edition of Windows Vista. At the moment, as you can see from the Task Manager snippet on the right, I'm running 81 processes on this desktop PC, including the following:

  • Two instances of Internet Explorer 7 with a total of 40 tabs open (note that this load would have brought the system to its knees if I hadn't also increased the size of the desktop heap)
  • Firefox 2.0.0.6 with five Ajax-heavy tabs in use
  • Adobe Acrobat Standard
  • Outlook 2007, with a 610MB OST file synching with an Exchange Server about 2000 miles away
  • Two remote sessions, one to Windows Home Server (via its own console), the other to Windows Server 2008 (via Remote Desktop).
  • OneNote, with 90MB of notebook files open
  • Four Windows Sidebar gadgets
  • Windows Media Player, connected to a library of 20,000 songs and pictures stored on a Vista-based media server in the living room
  • 11 Windows Explorer windows representing local folders, network shares, searches, and bits of the Windows Control Panel like the Installed Programs list, Network and Sharing Center, and Sync Center
  • A bunch of useful programs running in the background, including RoboForm, ClipMate, SnagIt, the Windows Home Server Connector, and Windows Live Messenger
  • Oh, and I'm composing this in Windows Live Writer

That's a lot of stuff, but I'm not even close to using up the 2GB of RAM installed on this machine. According to Task Manager, 1.44GB are in use by all processes from all users, including caches and indexing tasks and other system functions. From experience, I know I could open another half-dozen programs and rip a music CD and still not notice any change in performance.

If you use a similar mix of apps, you should see similar results. For that type of heavy multitasking, the bump from 1GB to 2GB has a clear impact and costs very little. But adding an extra 2GB beyond that doesn't usually result in any noticeable improvement in performance or reliability.

As I noted earlier, there are two big exceptions to this general advice. The first is virtualization. If you run Linux or Windows (any version) in one or more virtual machines on the same PC, you'll hit that 2GB ceiling sooner rather than later. In that case, you need extra RAM. You also need to join the second group and go to 64-bit Windows Vista, which can actually use all that RAM (with 32-bit Windows versions, you can only use roughly 3GB of RAM, regardless of how much is physically installed).

For the past few months, I've been switching between 32-bit and 64-bit Windows Vista machines. Thanks to the wonderful new VMWare Workstation 6, I think I'm about to go all 64-bit on the desktop. I'll have more on why VMWare and 64-bit Vista are such a great match (and why licensing issues are still such an unnecessary hassle) in my next post.

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Windows

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111 comments
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  • 1GB is enough

    Been running Vista Enterprise on a machine with 1GB RAM for awhile now. It's more sluggish than XP opf course, but it runs fine.
    toadlife
    • Maybe that's why it's sluggish ;) (nt)

      nt = no text
      CobraA1
    • Why would you or anyone want to run sluggishly?

      Seems counter productive. SPEED is one of the central reasons to be using a
      computer is it not? After all we could still be using pencil and paper if not for the
      whole speed thing.....:P

      Pagan jim
      Laff
      • $$$$

        Maybe someone doesn't want to spend $75. Could be....
        voska
        • Perhaps but then again a pen and paper is cheap still

          and sluggish...:P

          Pagan jim
          Laff
          • Yup and it seems Staples sell a lot of pens

            Seems the pen is more popular than PC. Personally I use a pen vs writing notes in notepad.
            voska
          • still to keep with the office supplies theme....

            it would seem too me that you would like to keep your pencils sharp, You pens full of
            ink, and your computers FAST. If memory (one of the less expensive factors in the
            speed equation) will do that then why not? Perhaps a person using at home would
            decide to NOT spend the extra $70 or what ever but if a business is that strapped for
            cash then it's time to re-think the business plan or maybe buy a pencil sharpner..heh
            heh heh

            Pagan jim
            Laff
          • that's a small business only viewpiont.

            For a mid-sized company with 500 machines, that $70 turns into 35k, enough to have to get the accountants involved.

            For the enterprise with 5000 machines, that's 350k.

            For either company, it's debatable if there's a real RIO by saving a few seconds at the start of the day.
            rtk
      • Only sluggish at bootup

        It's really only sluggish when starting up and logging on. Since I only log off or reboot once every blue moon, there is really no functional difference.
        toadlife
      • It depends on...

        ...if he's billing by the project or by the hour...If you're billing by the project, then yes, you DO want to get the job done quickly and efficently. But if you're billing by the hour, taking your sweet time, while it might be unethical, would be the way to make some green...
        Wolfie2K3
        • True

          Now that IS pretty true...you are getting payed to work, and probably not very much...although don't let your boss you are reading this...
          madshock
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  • ReadyBoost

    2GB has been good for me as well. I'd have to say that if you are running virtual machines (my experience has been with Microsofts virtual PC) I'd recommend plugging in a USB stick to the host and adding ReadyBoost to the mix. It's not that VPC hogs memory it's just a nice speed enhancement.
    Scott K.
  • Two Words: After Effects...

    I run Windows XP, and when I'm rendering something in after effects, my RAM usage goes up to about 85%, and my Page File runs between 2 and 3 gigs.

    If you live in office, you can probably get by with a gig. If you use After Effects, 3D Studio Max, Photoshop, or anything else involving graphics or video (heck even audio), you WILL use nearly every byte of RAM.

    Joey
    voyager529
    • Clarification...

      I have 2GB of RAM on my machine, and it runs Windows XP. If I ran Vista with 1GB, I'd be dead.

      Joey
      voyager529
      • I'll bet Vista with 2GB would be fine

        I'd be interested to see how it runs with Vista and 2GB. I bet it would work much better than you think, especially with a ReadyBoost cache.
        Ed Bott
  • I stuck with 2GB

    Ed,

    I indeed wound up sticking with 2 GB. After looking closer at how I was using my system, I decided to hold off and I'm glad I did.

    However, you're right about the VM usage. I've got 2 GB in my MacBook, and I use Vista in a Parallels VM, and there are times when I come close to maxing out RAM there.

    One category of user you did not address, though: gamers. Would players of graphics-intensive, state-of-the-art 3D games benefit from more RAM on Vista?
    dwight.silverman@...
    • RE: Games

      Speaking from experience, yes you want more RAM in that machine for games. Today's games pull a massive load through every piece of hardware on the machine it seems. And regardless of how good your current machine is, tomorrow's games will make you upgrade it, at least it seems that way.
      rward30
  • Interesting, but...

    I'm running Vista Home Premium with 4GB (32 bit, Windows sees 3.5GB). I have no performance issues even running Photoshop with a large number of images open concurently along with IE with multiple tabs and a few other apps. What has been bothering me though is that Visa seems to use well over 1GB as soon as I boot up and that goes up to about 1.5GB after running for a day or 2. This is with no apps running. I've cleaned out all the start-up garbage and as far as I can see it's Vista itself that's being such a pig. Is this just because the RAM is available so Windows is keeping everything in RAM or does this refute what you are saying?
    slopoke
    • It's not being a pig

      It's using the RAM you're offering to it for caching and other stuff. If you were to pull 2GB out, you would see the initial working set drop dramatically. If you were to pull another 1GB out, you'd see a similar drop.

      The point is in all cases the system should leave plenty of room for apps but should take advantage of the RAM you offer to it.

      Have you used Perfmon (the new Performance Monitor) to see what's chewing up all the RAM?
      Ed Bott