Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to adjust the virtual memory paging file in Windows XP

The paging file, also called the page file or swap file, is an area on your hard drive that your computer uses as "extra memory" when it runs out of RAM (Random Access Memory).  It's a neat concept, but it doesn't always boost performance as much as it would seem to.

Windows picks a default page file size based on the size of your hard drive.  You are free to adjust the size of the page file as often as you'd like, or even disable it completely.  (Disabling the page file will be discussed later in this article.)

To increase or decrease the page file size, right-click on the My Computer icon (either on your desktop or the Start Menu) and select Properties.  When the System Properties box pops up, go to the Advanced tab (at the top) and and click the Settings button under the Performance heading.  Another box will open up (Performance Options), and again select the Advanced tab.  Towards the bottom of this box will be a heading called Virtual Memory -- click the button labeled Change.

Now you have accessed Windows' virtual memory settings.  Here you will see all kinds of information, including your page file's initial size (current size), maximum size, minimum allowable size, and recommended size.  To change the page file size, click on the Custom Size radio button (the white circular button that fills with a black dot when you click it) if it isn't already selected, and in the space labeled Initial Size, type the size you would like to set the page file to (in megabytes).  If this size is larger than the maximum size (listed right below), you will have to increase the maximum size.  Once you have chosen a page file size and typed it in, click the button labeled Set.  A message will appear telling you that you need to restart the computer in order for the changes to take effect.  Close this box and click OK on each open screen until you have exited all of the open settings boxes, and then close any open windows and restart your computer.  When it boots back up, your new page file size will have taken effect.

A large page file is beneficial for a couple different reasons.  It gives Windows extra room to store temporary data and programs if it runs out of RAM (which tends to happen when you have a lot of windows open at once).  It also allows some recovery of data if there is an unexpected system crash.  But having a large page file can also slow down your computer in some instances.

It takes your computer a lot longer to access data stored on the hard drive than it does to access data stored in RAM.  Since the page file is part of the hard drive, Windows will noticeably slow down when it is reading data from the page file.  A larger page file, while it does provide more space for temporary storage, can also cause more performance issues as it will take Windows longer to search through it for the specific data it wants.

An alternative to this slowdown is to disable the page file.  There are pros and cons to this approach, and each user will have to determine whether or not the page file is beneficial to them or not.

By disabling the page file, you are forcing Windows to use RAM for storage of open programs and data, which is great if you have enough RAM for everything you are running.  If your computer runs out of memory and does not have the page file to fall back on, you may get frequent system crashes or memory errors.  If you're going to disable your page file, you should make sure you have plenty of RAM installed first.  RAM is cheap these days, so you can max out your system's RAM without shelling out a lot of cash.

To disable the page file, access the virtual memory settings as described above.  Towards the middle of the screen you will see a radio button labeled "No paging file" -- select this button and click Set.  Restart your computer, and your page file is no more.

If you find your computer crashing or becoming unstable after disabling the page file, simply go back into the virtual memory settings and re-enable it.  Like many things technological, determining the optimal page file settings for your needs is a matter of trial and error.

(Originally published Helium.com, February 2009)

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