A few years ago, we routinely got 256Mb of RAM for our new Windows XP computers. Memory was expensive and 256Mb was sufficient to run Windows XP, an antivirus program, an e-mail program, and another application at a decent speed with a minimum of hard drive activity.

The most frequent complaint I hear now is about computers that have slowed down to a crawl. Sometimes I can remove adware/spyware, or disable some startup programs, and get back a little performance, but I’m realizing that the amount of system memory is the underlying issue.

It is no longer possible to get satisfying performance from a Windows XP computer with 256Mb of RAM. After years of upgrades and patches, Windows XP requires more memory to run. Our security programs have become more demanding. We run more background services to support our hardware (printers, handhelds, audio players, instant messengers, and much more). We run more programs simultaneously, and the programs require more resources. Several times lately Windows Desktop Search has tipped a computer over the edge – it’s not a heavyhanded program but if it uses the last available bit of memory and the computer begins to page to the hard drive constantly, performance can be drastically affected.

Check your system memory – click on Control Panel / System and look towards the bottom on the first tab. If you have 256Mb of RAM in a desktop PC, you can get a worthwhile boost in performance by purchasing an additional 512Mb of RAM – typically just under a hundred bucks. (Upgrading memory in a notebook is much, much different – this is about desktop PCs only!)

If you don’t want to open the cover, take it to a chain store and pay them fifty bucks in labor to do it.

You can do it yourself! Memory is extremely easy to install, if you purchase the right kind for your computer. I go to Buy.com and use the “Kingston Memory Configurator.” (Look for “Kingston” and follow the link to the “Kingston Superstore” – you’ll see a button for the “configurator.”) It leads you through the make and model of your computer to identify the right memory and advise whether you need to buy one stick or purchase in pairs. If you buy an additional 512Mb, you’ll be okay even if your existing slots are full and you have to throw away the existing sticks. If you’re lucky, there will be an empty slot or two and you’ll wind up with 768Mb of RAM total.

If you’re buying a new computer, buy 1Gb of memory at a minimum, and consider buying more.

For a preview of what lies ahead, read the post by Microsoft VP Jim Allchin about memory use in Windows Vista. At 512Mb, he gently suggests that Vista will be a slug. Vista really begins to shine at 2Gb of memory, and can easily put more to use. He mentions Vista technology that will automatically use USB flash drives as additional system memory while they’re plugged in, which is cool, but the best way to get Vista to perform will be to purchase computers that are loaded with memory to begin with. I expect to be recommending 2-3Gb of memory for Vista. Quite a change from 256Mb!

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