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.

    “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.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2010-09-23:

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.