Making sense of Windows’ confusing RAM stats

Fred langa By Fred Langa

“Available RAM” statistics can be confusing and even lead to poor hardware decisions.

But once you know what the numbers really mean, you can make an informed judgment about your PC’s RAM requirements.

Is 4GB of system memory a poor investment?

Chris Coddington was seriously bugged about a recent discussion of installed RAM versus available RAM, and I can’t say I blame him. It can be baffling.
  • “Your August 19, 2010, article, ‘The not-so-strange case of missing RAM,’ got my attention. And then more attention on the forum.

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    “When I purchased my system running the infamous Vista, it came with 1GB RAM. There was no doubt that 1GB was insufficient. I found what I could about increasing memory, and the consensus seemed to be that while 4GB would be nice, very little of it would be available. In fact, [after installing 4GB] I have only about 2GB available.

    “I see a statement on the forum which says that 1GB is lost to I/O pages. And in a quote included by Andy Rowlands, he indicates that we should expect to get only 2.2GB with 4GB installed. That makes 4GB a total waste of money!”
It can look that way, Chris, but things aren’t as they seem. Let’s walk through it:

As you discovered, standard 32-bit Vista (and Windows 7) will run on a PC with 1GB of RAM. The OS will shoehorn itself in alongside essential hardware drivers and services. (See the previously cited article for a discussion of how your system allocates RAM for hardware drivers, low-level services, and the OS itself.) When additional memory is needed, Windows will use the hard drive’s pagefile (swapfile). Performance won’t be great, but it’ll work.

If you add 3GB of RAM to that same system, bringing it to 4GB total, you might think that the extra 3GB would be tacked on as empty and available. But were that the case, Windows and all the necessary drivers, low-level services, etc. would have to remain confined to that original 1GB of RAM. You’d still have the crappy performance of a 1GB system with the other 3GB of extra RAM just sitting there, unused. What would be the point of that?

When you a run 32-bit Windows system in a 4GB system, Windows sees the additional RAM and uses it to operate more efficiently. Roughly half of the RAM is set aside as a place to store frequently accessed code and data — for Windows itself and other system-level software. Windows relies less on the slow, hard drive–based pagefile for low-level memory functions, and that makes the whole system more responsive .

The rest of the RAM is held in reserve for user-initiated tasks such as loading your applications and documents into memory.

It seems counterintuitive at first, but when a 4GB system shows only around 2GB of free RAM, that’s exactly what you want! Windows is using the new RAM you bought and paid for. If the RAM were sitting there, empty and unused, it’d be doing you no good at all. Idle RAM is wasted RAM!

Incidentally, those software utilities that promise to “free up your RAM!” are a scam. As I just noted, the last thing you want is for RAM to lie empty and unused. These utilities are actually working against you by moving code and data out of fast RAM and onto the much slower hard drive. D’oh!

So, let Windows manage your RAM. Your 4GB investment will not go to waste.

Best way to clean out unneeded program files

Dick Parker wants to clean up his system.
  • “In going through my computer (following the recommendations given in your excellent Aug. 12 article, “Preparing Windows XP for the Long Haul”), I found many files and folders in C:Windows and C:Programs that I couldn’t identify and was afraid to delete. Is there a source or easy and safe method for identifying unwanted or unnecessary files?”
With few exceptions, the programs in those two folders are put there by various installation routines. The best way to remove programs from those folders is by the reverse method: uninstall routines.

Control Panel makes it easy to uninstall software, most of which resides in your Programs folder. If you’d like an uninstall refresher, Microsoft Support article 307895 explains the process. (Dick’s using XP, so I’ll focus on that. But the process in Win7 and Vista is nearly identical.)

Many Windows users might not realize this, but Control Panel also lets you uninstall many Windows components from the Windows folder tree. In Control Panel’s Add or Remove Programs applet, look in the left-hand pane and select Add/Remove Windows Components. This opens the Windows Component Wizard (see Figure 1).

Windows component wizard
Figure 1. The Windows Component Wizard lets you remove (or add) various operating system components.

You can then deselect (uncheck) any Windows components you don’t want or need, and Windows will uninstall them for you. This will remove them from the C:Windows folder.

That’s usually all it takes. But if you still think there are unneeded files left on your system, most of the clean-up utilities we’ve regularly discussed — such as CCleaner and jv16PowerTools — have their own uninstall routines that can track down and remove even broken, stubborn, or otherwise hard-to-uninstall software. Combined with their built-in registry-cleaning functions, these utilities can help you get unwanted software off your system cleanly and completely.

Waiting, waiting, waiting for system shutdown

Ron is tired of waiting for his PC to turn off.
  • “When I go to turn off my computer, it takes a long time to shut down. Sometimes I have to force the shutdown. What can I do to fix this?”
In software terms, a system shutdown is mostly a startup in reverse. Many of the same things that cause slow startups also can cause sluggish shutdowns.

I suggest you begin by working through my July 22 column, “A step-by-step guide for improving boot times.” Odds are, some of the fixes there will also speed your shutdowns.

The other main cause of slow shutdowns is software components that won’t let go, that don’t respond to the shutdown command issued by the operating system.

Drivers are frequently a problem, especially with XP. (Vista and Win7 are better at recognizing — and sidestepping — unresponsive drivers at shutdown.) For information on getting all your drivers up to date, see my Sept. 16 item, “Best updated-driver source for brand-name PCs.”

Because this is mostly an XP problem, here are two additional articles on troubleshooting slow shutdowns with that operating system:
  • Ahuma.org’s article, “XP Shutdown & Restart troubleshooting”
  • Windowsnetworking.com’s tutorial, “Troubleshooting Windows [XP] shutdown problems”
Keep your PC’s system clock unerringly accurate

Internet time servers broadcast a precise timing signal you can use to keep your PC’s clock extremely accurate. That is, when everything works properly.
  • “Unless I’m wrong, Microsoft’s default time server (time.windows.com — used by Windows users to keep a PC’s clock synched) has been down lately, and it hasn’t worked reliably for some time. Please investigate. Thanks. — Derek”
I’ve seen it fail, too, especially when a gazillion PCs try to synch all at once. Peak times seem to be around the start of the business day in each time zone and around special dates such as New Year’s. But that’s not just a Microsoft problem: when any time server gets busy, you may be unable to synch.

However, there are easy ways to avoid this.

Windows’ built-in time-synching utility normally tries to go online for a time check every seven days — at the same time of day as the initial check. You can take advantage of this process by doing a manual synch at a less busy time of day. Pick an oddball moment — say, 10:53 a.m. or 8:13 p.m. or something equally random. Windows will remember and reuse that same time for future synchs.

Don’t try to synch at the start of the business day or at 12 noon or at other times when it’s likely that many other PCs are being synched. By avoiding the busiest periods, the Windows time server is usually available and responsive.

You also can use a time server other than time.windows.com. XP has one alternate time-server address built in; Vista and Win7 have four. (See Figure 2.)

Windows' built-in time-synching utility
Figure 2. Windows’ built-in time-synching utility can synch your PC’s clock with the time server of your choice.

You can also manually enter any time-server address you wish. For example, see the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Web site list of official (and free-to-use) time servers.

You can’t beat the accuracy of the government servers: the NIST timing signal originates with the U.S. Naval Observatory’s U.S. Master Clock (info page). The clock is actually a distributed collection of incredibly precise cesium-atomic clocks and a dozen hydrogen-maser clocks whose composite signal is accurate to within 100 picoseconds (0.0000000001 seconds) per day!

For more info on time synching in Windows, see:
  • XP: Microsoft’s support article 307897, “How to synchronize the time with the Windows Time service in Windows XP”

  • Win7/Vista: On Microsoft’s “Set the clock” page, scroll halfway down and expand the topic, “Synchronizing with an Internet time server”.
Your PC’s clock will never be picosecond-precise, of course, but regular synching with a free time server should keep your PC’s clock accurate to within a fraction of a second!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.