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Additional memory and Windows XP

I was startled to learn just how low RAM prices are these days. RM73 (USD20) for 2GB of Mushkin Enhanced Basic DDR2/800? Sweet mother of mercy. I think I paid more than that for 1GB a little over a year ago.

Though my system runs reasonably well with 1GB, I was curious about the performance benefits of additional RAM in a Windows XP Home system.

Now, according to Microsoft:

In general, adding memory is the easiest and most effective way to improve a computer’s performance.

Of course the same article goes on to claim:

Although it is recommended, Windows XP does not require 128 MB of RAM. The operating system can run with 64 MB of RAM.

A computer with 64 MB of RAM will have sufficient resources to run Windows® XP and a few applications with moderate memory requirements. Office productivity applications and Web browsers fall into this category of applications.

According to Windows Task Manager, Opera’s peak memory usage on my system is 86MB as I write this. Have fun running Microsoft Office 2007 on a Windows XP box with 64MB of RAM, smart guy.

The real question users have to deal with in 2008 is not what the minimum should be but what Windows XP’s maximum addressable memory is. With RAM prices being as cheap as they are, users will naturally be tempted to shove as much memory into their systems as possible. It turns out, however, there’s a limit to how much memory a system with a 32-bit OS like Windows XP Home can handle.

Daniel Rutter of Dan’s Data has an article with more detail than most users will need (or even want) but the bottom line is this: 3.5GB is the most you’d want in a 32-bit Windows XP box but RAM prices are so low that one might as well get 4GB.

Depending on who you talk to, even 3GB may be overkill for Windows XP Home. That said, I would definitely recommend at least doubling your RAM if you’re currently getting by with 1GB. While it’s not a dramatic night-and-day type of noticeable improvement, it is discernible.

After going from 1GB to 3GB, my system feels snappier and smoother overall. There’s less hard disk thrashing and the system responds faster to user input after closing a memory-intensive application. Even browsing the web is a smoother experience since it’s not uncommon for me to have over a dozen image-heavy web pages open simultaneously in Opera while I’m on the hunt for links for my link blog.

Memory and games

I’m a little embarrassed to say I haven’t actually done much in the way of serious testing with games. Most modern AAA titles tend to be both graphics- and memory-intensive and 1GB of RAM has gone from being the recommended requirement to the minimum one. It stands to reason that more memory would mean smoother performances.

The game I’m currently engrossed with is from 1999 and has modest memory requirements, and my attempt to check out the performance of Guild Wars, a newer title, was curtailed because my ISP, the world’s worst, was once again trying its level best to reduce a broadband connection to dial-up speeds.

I did, however, find an interesting document from Corsair titled “Gaming Performance Analysis – 4GB vs 2GB“. It’s in PDF format but Google has a HTML version sans graphics.

Bear in mind a few things as you’re reading it. For one thing, testing was done on a 64-bit OS (Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit). The other thing to keep in mind is Corsair sells memory so when its employee claims “… 4GB of memory is now an essential upgrade for gamers” you’re entitled to raise an eyebrow, smirk and ask him if he realises “essential” and “desirable” aren’t synonyms.

Still, there are a couple of points that are relevant to 32-bit Windows XP users. One is the dramatic improvements seen during task switching. The second point worth highlighting is:

… graphics cards have the most significant impact on available memory since they can be equipped with up to 1GB of on-board memory. This means that the available memory in a PC equipped with a 1GB graphics card will be reduced by at least 1GB.

This will probably come as a shocking revelation to casual users since most would be under the impression the more RAM a graphics card came with, the less taxing it would be on system memory. If you’re running a Windows XP Home system, a graphics card with 1GB of RAM may not necessarily be a great upgrade if you haven’t got that much system RAM.

Posted in Hardware, Software.

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