What's the ideal amount of memory?

According to Microsoft, Windows Vista requires 512MB to install and run, while Windows XP requires 64MB. In practice, systems with these memory allocations will work, but won't be able to keep all your active programs and data in RAM at once, so they'll be slowed down by constant hard disk access.

The solution is to add more memory - but how much do you need for a smooth Windows experience? To find out, we used our standard 2D benchmarks, which run numerous real-world tasks in common applications including Word, Excel and Photoshop. We ran them on an Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 system, with varying amounts of RAM, and both XP Professional and Vista Home Premium. You can see the results in the graphs on p126.

Our results show Vista is distinctly slower than XP. With its plethora of extra bells and whistles, the newer OS makes heavier demands on the system than its predecessor, particularly the RAM. On a 512MB system, our benchmark tasks were bogged down by constant paging, and even a 4GB system couldn't keep up with XP on an eighth as much RAM.

While adding RAM helps, the ideal amount depends on how you use your PC. For pure number-crunching, boosting memory has only a small benefit. In our audio-encoding benchmark, quadrupling Vista's RAM from 512MB to 2GB yielded only a 1.4% speed increase. Video encoding derived a mere 5% benefit from the same upgrade. But when it came to multitasking, the benefit of more memory shone. Going up to 2GB sped things up by an astonishing 35%, and in Photoshop the improvement was more than 40%.

When we added RAM beyond 2GB, several applications saw no benefit at all, and though multitasking and graphical applications continued to run more smoothly, there was nothing like the dramatic leap you'd see in going from 512MB to 1GB, or from 1GB to 2GB. In conclusion: 2GB is the sweet spot for Vista, but if you make heavy use of your computer, you can always add more.

Next: Is there an upper limit of RAM?

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