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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  • Zebo - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    I'm still on 2k pro which I think is faster and more power-user friendly than XP. Is this true in general? I've never noticed a security issue in the first place so these security features and especially those silly "do you really want to run this program" dialog boxes drove me crazy on XP when I tried it. Does vista have a lot of those? Stupid OS I wouldn't have clicked it if I didn't want to run/install/throw it away etc. Reply
  • Aikouka - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    Zebo, it sounds like if you run Vista and don't disable UAC (User Account Control), you will drive yourself crazy. UAC almost literally warns you about every executable opening (I believe certain ones are allowed automatically, like Windows Explorer. I can't remember since I turned it off :P).

    Other than that, I don't see anything really different from XP in terms of user warnings and such. There's still the balloons from the system tray and such.

    One interesting change that I haven't seen anyone mention is how Windows Update is now an application instead of a website. It seems a bit nicer having it that way as the website with the ActiveX controls always felt so slow to figure out what needed to upgraded. This new WU also includes Ultimate Extras and direct program links to adjust your WU settings (which is handier I think).
    Reply
  • Zebo - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    quote:

    One interesting change that I haven't seen anyone mention is how Windows Update is now an application instead of a website.



    I guess thats a good idea if you use windows update. I don't update just for updates sake subscribing to the "if it aint broke don't fix it" axiom...probably why I still use w2k:)
    Reply
  • Zebo - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    quote:

    There's still the balloons from the system tray and such.


    Oh that's maddening. I literally offered $100 to anyone in a forum thread who could turn those yellow balloons off completely when i tried XP. No one could do it. You can't turn certain ones off despite tens of registry tweaks we tired.
    Reply
  • Zorba - Friday, February 02, 2007 - link

    The balloons are easy to get rid of. http://www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/downloads/power...">TweakUI - FTW

    Not sure if it will be in Vista or not, but works great in XP, never seen a balloon except right after I install XP. PM me and I'll let you know where you can send me my check ;).
    Reply
  • Zebo - Friday, February 02, 2007 - link

    BS doesn't work. Been there done that! Show me a SS with you holding mouse over Start button and it doesn't say "click here to begin" I'll gladly pay you $100 for the fix. You can't do it. BTW this drives me fusken crazy! I've been using MS start buttons for eight years like I don't WTF Start means and designates ..Arrr Reply
  • Zorba - Friday, February 02, 2007 - link

    Ah I thought you were talking about the system tray balloons like that one that always pops up for no reason that always says "now connected to wireless network." That one drives me crazy when I use someone else's lappy.

    I never even notice the ones over the start button, I guess I never hold my mouse over it long enough. I could see how you would find them annoying though.
    Reply
  • Zorba - Friday, February 02, 2007 - link

    BTW: I just checked and Win 98 has those boxes over if hold your mouse over the start button, etc too. So it isn't just an XP thing. (Yes I still have 98 on a box at home) Reply
  • stash - Thursday, February 01, 2007 - link

    quote:

    Zebo, it sounds like if you run Vista and don't disable UAC (User Account Control), you will drive yourself crazy. UAC almost literally warns you about every executable opening (I believe certain ones are allowed automatically, like Windows Explorer. I can't remember since I turned it off :P).

    Not even close. UAC will prompt you for things that require elevated rights, which besides installing apps or making changes to the system, should be very infrequent.

    Which is why I want to know specifically which common 3rd-party apps the author is referring to on the first page.
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Friday, February 02, 2007 - link

    Well, I guess my statement may've been a bit zealous, but you can't forget that literally every application that I ran while UAC on was an install or a system executable to install software that I needed or change settings. The changing the settings may've seemed the worst, as trying to open the system menu from another menu required your authorization. It was a bit crazy sometimes... Reply

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