Memory in Vista: How much do you need?

Meeting with memory makers has been fun these past several months - they're all so happy. It's a stressful business, but these days the memory makers are quite excited about Vista and after using the OS for a while now we can understand why. You've undoubtedly been hearing that Vista's memory requirements will be greater than those of XP, but how much greater are they in practice and why?

First and foremost, Vista's memory requirements are higher than XP's simply because there is much more to Vista than XP. There are far more background tasks to take care of, a much more complex UI, and a code base that's significantly larger than that of Windows XP. All of these items require memory, and thus when you boot up a Vista machine with 512MB of memory, almost all of it is already being used.

Microsoft and software makers in general are notoriously bad about understating minimum system requirements, so when you see that the bare minimum requirements for Windows Vista list a system with 512MB of memory, you should know right off the bat that this isn't going to be a pleasant experience. Although Vista will do its best to disable background tasks and neat effects to make using your computer less painful with 512MB, we simply wouldn't recommend it. You can get by running a single application, such as IE7 or Outlook, but multitasking is out of the question. In one of our test scenarios we had four applications open and attempted to close one of them. This process took around 2 seconds if we had 2GB in the system, but it took over 12 seconds if we only had 512MB. Most of us really don't like using Windows XP on a system with only 512MB, and needless to say Windows Vista turns that dislike into outright hatred. Windows XP is more tolerable with 512MB, but we would make a very similar characterization about the overall experience on a system with such little memory.

The experience completely changes with 1GB; the improvement is tremendous. Searches appear quicker, applications launch and close faster, and using the OS is just so much better. Once again, we're not telling you anything you haven't heard before, except that 1GB should really be the minimum for any Vista machine and not just those that are Premium certified. Even our budget Buyer's Guides have recommended at least 1GB of RAM for over a year, and Vista pretty much makes that a requirement.

It's the above-1GB range that really has most of us concerned. For the longest time, 1GB was sufficient for most enthusiasts under XP. As applications and usage models got more demanding, and as memory prices dropped, the move to 2GB made sense. Above and beyond 2GB never really made a lot of sense because Windows XP didn't seem to do much with the added memory. Even if you had unused memory, Windows XP didn't really make the most of it resulting in even recently used programs being paged in from disk instead of loaded out of the main memory cache. Vista changes all of this.

If your memory usage under XP kept you just under needing more than 2GB, you'll need 2GB with Vista. We took two identical installs, one with Windows XP and one with Vista, both equipped with 2GB of memory and ran the following scenario on them:

We opened 104 images in Adobe Photoshop CS3 from our recent trip to Las Vegas for CES 2007; with all 104 images opened and loaded, we then timed how long it would take for Microsoft Word to start. In Windows XP, despite some swapping, Microsoft Word 2007 started in just under 8 seconds. On our Vista test bed, starting Word took almost 20 seconds due to constant paging to disk. The only difference? Vista's heightened memory requirements took a stressful situation that worked reasonably well under XP and made it far more painful with the same amount of memory.

We then upgraded the Vista machine to 3GB and ran the test again; thanks to faster application load times and intelligent prefetching, Word started in 1.31 seconds. If you thought that 2GB was the sweet spot for Windows XP, chances are 3GB will be the new minimum for you under Vista.

Thus far all we've talked about, at a high level at least, are static memory requirements and how they are impacted by Vista. Vista uses more memory and in turn, you'll need a bit more memory to get a similar experience to what you had under XP. With SuperFetch however, Vista can actually significantly improve your system's performance if you throw more memory at it.

New I/O Features SuperFetch Performance Analysis
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  • Zak - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    I've finally got around to installing RC2 last week: Dell Inspiron 2GHz CoreDuo, 2GB RAM, 7200RPM HD, 256 Nivdia video. Vista is slow, network transfers are 50% slower or so than in XP, GUI is sluggish and all the improvements are pretty annoying. Interface is too busy and overdone. A simple copy message contains a long unnecessary explanation of what's about to happen. Even after turning off the security features one can't escape the annoying popups and messages. And my hard drive was crunching non-stop all day, I can't even imagine what it does to battery life. I haven't had a virus or spyware in years and I don't see any compelling reasons to switch to Vista. I haven't even tried any multimedia features as none of my DVD and video playback software worked properly and I will not use WMP if my life depended on it, so I can't comment nt on DRM and stuff but I've had enough after few days and restored my XP image back to the laptop. If MS tries to force this on people as its, without major improvements, I see Apple and Linux getting lots of switchers. But them XP was bad at first too so maybe Vista will become usable with SP2:) I myself will desperately look for an alternative to Vista. I don't play games that much any more so this won't be "a must" for me.

    Z.
    Reply
  • Zebo - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    I'm very afraid Zak. I will upgrade due to Microsoft forcing the issue on us gamers with dx10 vista only but with total dread. I may have to start listening to those console fans and linux fans after all. But the lack of TBS games kills consoles for me...SIGH..

    I totally agree with you about Virus and spy/malware issues. All are resolved or blocked with free third party apps many years now for anyone with the slightest clue. Same goes for Firewall/searching and other features MS lists on their "100 advantages" site. Vista is just late to the party with what we all know how to do and cripples your computer performance and makes everything so dumbed down visually and practically.
    Reply
  • mlambert890 - Saturday, February 03, 2007 - link

    You guys must be using a different OS. I havent heard of anyone with this dismal of an experience at all. If you hate the UI, just run it in legacy mode and it will look like XP. Disable all of the security add ins and they ARE gone. Ive take a Vista machine and set it up to the point that the person using it had no real clue it was Vista but did notice that their laptop seemed quicker.

    Have fun on Linux though. Linux is a LOT easier to use/live with than any MS OS! (I need an eyeroll smiley here)
    Reply
  • jonp - Monday, February 05, 2007 - link

    I would be interested to know if you have installed and worked with SUSE 10.2? as I assume your "...a LOT easier..." is sarcasm. Reply
  • kalrith - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    The second sentence of the third paragraph states, "The reason the low end AMD cards look better off here".

    I think you meant ATI instead of AMD.
    Reply
  • kalrith - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    Another typo is in the last sentence on the first page. It says, "What's a question we hope to answer..." What's should be That's. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 02, 2007 - link

    Technically, ATI is now AMD, which is why we are now referring to the cards as AMD cards. Same thing as ATI, but since they were bought out.... :) Reply
  • kalrith - Friday, February 02, 2007 - link

    You're right...I completely forgot about that. Reply
  • stash - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    WMDC was RTM'ed yesterday: http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?Fa...">http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/deta...0-af33-3... Reply
  • stash - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    quote:

    Similarly, launching an application that requires administrative rights is still more difficult than it needs to be. As we touched upon this briefly last time, with the launch of Vista a lot of common 3rd-party applications will continue to require administrative privileges to run correctly, and it will continue to be this way for some time until everyone has had a chance to retrofit their applications for Vista


    Which common 3rd-party apps are you referring to here?
    Reply

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