Vista Performance – Memory Check

Vista Performance – Memory Check

Before we begin checking Vista’s memory, may I ask you a question: ‘What action are you prepared to take?’  Would you be willing to:  Buy more system RAM?  Or invest in a USB RAM key?  Alternatively, are you merely looking for cost nothing configuration changes?

For my part, I just wish to give you the benefit of my advice.  I also want to prepare you for the idea that changing Vista settings such as the Pagefile will only produce limited improvement.  However, buying some form of RAM is by far more likely to speed up your machine, particularly if you only have 512Mb at present.

Topics for Vista’s Memory Check


Diagnosing Memory Performance in Vista

Classic symptoms of memory shortage
The operating system is slow to initialize.  Everything about the startup sequence seems in slow motion compared with other machines.  When you launch applications, they too are slow to open.  Any activity that results in reading or writing data to disk results in the program hanging.  Key point, the machine has less than 1Gb of RAM.

True diagnosis – Not masking
As you analyze Vista’s performance, beware of one problem masking another problem.  The classic example is slow file access.  What happens is slow disk reads and writes are mis-diagnosed as a disk problem; whereas the reality is shortage of RAM.  People have gone out and bought expensive disks when they should have invested in more RAM.

Another example, which particularly affects Vista, is one process hogging the processor and slowing down all the other applications.  Adding more memory to systems that already have 2Gb of RAM is not the best course of action.  Better would be to troubleshoot which program or driver is running out of control, and fix that problem.  Likely culprits are rogue drivers from hardware designed for XP, and antiquated anti-virus software trying to update their .dat files.  For a solution, start with Task Manager, Process tab, add sort the Images on the CPU column.

WEI (Windows Experience Index) – Find the weakest link

A good diagnosis will save you both effort and money, thus it’s worth spending time finding out what if anything is wrong with your machine’s performance.  What I recommend is you improve Vista’s performance by seeking bottlenecks.  Begin with a trip to the Control Panel –> System and Maintenance –> Performance Information –> Check your Windows Experience Index.  Is your Memory (RAM) score less than 3?  Does a low WEI score correlate to the fact that you have less than 1Gb of RAM installed?

Think of your machine’s performance as an oil pipeline.  Any constriction will reduce flow, thus removing the tightest constriction will produce the biggest increase in throughput.  Indeed Vista’s WEI (Windows Experience Index) works on this principle, the final rating is based on the weakest link and not the average of the 5 readings.

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Task manager (Performance tab)

The Task manager is the forgotten tool when it comes to detecting why a machine is running slowly.  For our purpose the key is the Performance tab (not the default Applications tab).

As usual there are at least three ways to launch the Task Manager; my favorite method is the keyboard combination of: Ctrl, Shift and Esc, whereas the traditional method is right-click the taskbar or Ctrl, Alt, Del then select ‘Start Task Manger’.

Physical Memory (on the Performance tab)

Total = Amount of RAM installed in Kilobytes e.g. 2Gb reading of 2045.

Cached = The more the better! Typically, 1300 Mb on a machine with 2000Mb of RAM

Free memory = Low is OK.  (This is a new counter in Vista’s Task Manger)

Free memory is usually below 50 Mb because Vista uses most of the available memory for the cache (see above).  One amusing trick is to launch a few applications – any of the Microsoft Office suite would be suitable, take a reading for free memory.  Now close the programs and see free memory rise.  The interesting part is when you return to the machine 10 minutes later and observe how the cache gradually uses up that free memory.  If nothing much happens then try opening and closing programs a few more times.

See how to set process affinity in Windows 8 »

Reliability and Performance Monitor

XP’s Perfmon has been boosted by a new summary screen and a longer name, ‘Reliability and Performance Monitor’.  Tuning the operating system performance is a black art.  Either stick with the basics where you look just at the superficial menus (explained below), or else undertake a long voyage to mastering the performance monitor counters.  Remember that detailed performance monitoring is more productive on a server than a desktop.  If a desktop machine only has 512 Mb of RAM what ever the counters say, the answer is always add more RAM.  Therefore bite the bullet, order that 72-pin RAM SIMM, and get on with the rest of your life.Reliability and Performance Monitor in Vista

Whether you are looking for a performance summary, or the low level detail, begin along this path:

Start OrbReliability Monitor Vista
Control Panel –>
System and Maintenance –>
Performance Information –>
Advanced Tools –>
Reliability and Performance Monitor.

As we are concerned with memory let us home in on the 4th bar ‘Memory’.

Hard Page faults / sec
20 is Guy’s magic number.  If the hard page faults are continuously above 20 then this confirms a memory problem.  Other experts will say that above 5 is cause concern.  All we experts agree that spikes are normal, and should be discounted when analysing any aspect of performance monitoring.

% Used Physical Memory
If Used Physical Memory is below 50% then you have sufficient RAM.  Consistent readings above 90% and you have a memory bottleneck.  For values in between, I would suspect shortage of memory, but would seek confirmation from other memory counters. See Windows 8 pagefile and swapfile.

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Performance Monitor (Perfmon)Vista Performance Monitor

The Performance Monitor (perfmon) found in other Windows operating systems, has now been moved inside Vista’s Reliability Performance Monitor.  It is sufficiently hidden to encourage beginners to look at the summary sheet before tackling the Performance Monitor.  I have used Perfmon for years, and still regard it as a black art.  Difficulties include, so many counters that the data is confusing and, what do the values mean?

A useful Memory counter
To help you through the maze of counters, this is how I would begin a disk analysis.  From the diagram on the right, click on the big green cross, scroll down to Memory then expand the selection (double click).  I suggest that you add the two counters: Pages / sec and Page Faults /sec

Paging to disk is a bad idea, and thus a value is a clear indication of a memory bottleneck.

Memory: Pages / sec
Take care to distinguish between these two paging counters: 
1) Pages /sec (Hard page faults)
2) Page Faults /sec.  This counter is likely to be at least twice the value of the above.

I would concentrate on 1) Pages / sec.  Indeed I only mentioned Page Faults /sec to alert you that there are two counters with similar names.  When pages / sec is above 20 / second then the machine is short of RAM.  As ever it is safe to ignore activity spikes, what should be worried about is long periods where paging is above 20 / second.

You could also confirm your suspicions by adding the Paging File counter: % Usage.   Hopefully Pages /sec and % Usage should show parallel increases / decreases.

Windows 8 Experience Index (WEI)»

How much RAM memory does Vista need?

The simple answer is that in Vista 512mb of RAM is not enough memory to enjoy your programs.  1Gb is adequate, and enables you to run Aero Graphics, while 2Gb hits the sweet spot.

There are persistent rumours that Vista does not recognise more than 2.75Gb of RAM, (or 3.5Gb, depending on which blog that read).  I have not got to the bottom of this claim, partly because it may only apply to certain configurations.  However, the main message is that you are likely to get diminishing returns from increasing RAM memory beyond 2Gb. See Windows 8 Reliability Monitor.

ReadyBoost – A new way of adding RAM Memory in Vista.USB Flash drive for ReadyBoost

With Windows ReadyBoost you can add non-volatile flash memory; simply plug-in a RAM stick (key) into the USB 2.0 flash drive.  See picture on the right.

ReadyBoost is a built-in service which comes with all editions of Vista.  What it does is manage the ultra fast pagefile on the RAM stick.  If you like inspecting the system configuration, try this: Click on the Start Orb, in the Start Search dialog box type, ‘Services’.  After the MMC launches, check that ReadyBoost’s Startup Type is : Automatic.

What controls the ReadyBoost host service is a dll called emdmgmt.dll, you can find it amongst the other dlls under the %SystemRoot%\System32\.  Vista also employs a disk volume driver stored at: %SystemRoot%\System32\Drivers\Ecache.sys.  Incidentally references to EMD mean External Memory Disk, for example there is a registry key called EMDmgmt, which is sometimes needed to ‘tweak’ ReadyBoost settings.

XP does not have ReadyBoost; therefore to the only way to increase RAM in XP is to get out the screwdriver, undo the case, and then add the delicate RAM stick.  Vista’s method of inserting the RAM key into the USB port is much easier.  Pushing in a RAM stick is also safer because taking the covers off the system unit risks discharging static electricity through some vital motherboard component.ReadyBoost - A new way of adding RAM Memory in Vista

Once you plug in the USB stick, Vista is likely to display a confirmation message in the Navigation Area (Systray).  To configure the ReadyBoost settings, open Windows Explorer and select the Flash Drive.  Either go straight to the ReadyBoost tab (see diagram opposite), or else click on the General tab and select ‘Speed up my system’.  Naturally, make sure that the radio button is opposite, ‘Use this device’.

The extra memory (system speed) comes at the expense of disk space for storing data files.  Thus you need to adjust the slider to trade off memory (system speed) and traditional file storage.

ReadyBoost Limitations and Recommendations

The best ratio of system RAM to flash USB RAM is 1:1.  Once you have twice as much flash USB RAM as system RAM, performance starts to drop. 

From my testing, and from internet research, it seem that it’s possible to install only one ReadyBoost device (USB RAM key) per machine.  (See more on USB Group Policy)

No, you cannot use a spare MP3 player for ReadyBoost.  This is because the disk reading technology for the operating system is incompatible with that of the MP3 player.

Pagefile also called Swap File

When Vista runs out of address space in physical RAM it looks for substitute space on the hard drive.  Swapping memory addresses to disk is not a desirable goal in itself, more a necessary evil.  Hence installing 2Gb of RAM in those SIMM chips is a much better option. 

To check your Pagefile

Control Panel –> System and Maintenance –> System,
Advanced System Settings (Link), Settings (Button) Advanced (Tab).  N.B. If stuck call for Vista’s help.

A normal size for the Pagefile would 1 or 1.5 times the amount of Physical RAM.

In summary, the best thing that you can do about the Pagefile is avoid it.  If you must have one then position it on the second physical disk where it is not in contention with the operating system. If all else fails, then accept that a Pagefile of about 800 Mb may be of some use if you have only have 512 Mb of RAM.


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Configuring Windows Vista Topics:


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