Windows XP / Beginners

Getting enough memory (RAM)

Random Access Memory (RAM) is the type of memory that your computer uses to hold the programs it is running and the data they are working on. If a Windows XP system has too little RAM, it has to keep writing one piece of code or data to a swap file on your hard drive to make space to read in another. A little while later, it has to write something else to the swap file to make space to read the first item back in.

This situation can reduce your computer's overall performance, even to the point where the computer spends more time writing things to the swap file and reading them back than it spends doing useful work. Thus you may be able to increase your computer's performance by adding more RAM.

How much RAM you need depends on the types of applications you run, and to some extent on your working habits, such as how many different applications you tend to run at one time.

RAM is measured in megabytes, abbreviated MB. A megabyte is roughly a million bytes. A kilobyte (KB) is 1024 bytes. A byte is the basic unit of computer storage, commonly equated with one character, or eight bits. A bit is a one or a zero. If that has you confused, ask your eight-year-old niece. Trust me. She understands this stuff better than the guy at the computer shop.

As a rule, a Windows XP computer needs at least 128MB to run at all, particularly if you're using Microsoft Office. If you use more than one Office program at a time, or if you use Outlook in Office XP or Office 2003 (which automatically launches a hidden copy of Word), you need at least 256MB. Applications that work with graphics, such as movie editors and drawing programs, often require 256MB and do much better with 512MB.

To decide how much memory you need, look for recommendations in the documentation for the applications you run. Also observe your computer's behavior. If your computer tends to have fits of frantic disk activity while you're working with a file that's already open, more RAM may well be useful. The same is true if your computer uses the hard drive a lot when you switch from one open application to another.

Here's how to tell how much RAM your computer has now:

  1. Choose Start?Control Panel.
  2. Click Performance and Maintenance and then click System.
    Windows XP opens the System Properties dialog box.
  3. The General tab displays the amount of RAM in your system.

Adding more RAM is reasonable if you just suspect you need it. RAM is not very expensive, and adding it can't hurt. If you do need it, it can help you a lot.

Different computers require different types of RAM. This is an issue of compatibility with the computer's motherboard, not with Windows XP. Be sure to buy memory that is compatible with your computer.

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