I am trying to resurrect an old but good-in-its-day laptop for my son to use for his A-levels. I have bought a cheap 256GB SSD to improve the read/write speeds, but it seems I am stuck with the current 4GB of memory. Its two memory slots could support 8GB but 4GB DDR2 memory modules are prohibitively expensive at roughly £65 each. It doesn’t seem to make sense spending that sort of money on outdated memory technology for a 10-year-old laptop.
What is the best way to set up Windows 10 so it runs fast on relatively limited memory? Is it worth using a different browser to Chrome? Is Microsoft Office too much of a resource hog?
There must be a lot of perfectly good machines awaiting an opportunity for a second life. Matt
Chip costs are driven by production volumes, so obsolete types of memory are no longer in production, or are very expensive to produce. Often, there are alternatives, such as buying second-hand memory modules, and cannibalising laptops sold on eBay for “spares or repair”.
In this case, there are very few second-hand modules for sale. When DDR2 was standard, many laptops had 2GB, but very few had the 8GB that would need two 4GB modules.
If your laptop can use ECC error correcting memory, then you might be able to buy some of that. ECC memory modules have an extra chip for parity checking, and were used in servers. Even decades ago, servers had lots of memory, so 4GB ECC chips should be easier to find.
On the bright side, 4GB laptops have been common for most of the past decade, and some people still buy them. It’s better to have 8GB, but 4GB is usable.
Microsoft has spent more than a decade making Windows more memory efficient. A laptop that could run Vista well in January 2007 can probably run Windows 10 well today.
Of course, Microsoft had ulterior motives. One was to enable PC manufacturers to make cheaper laptops. Another was to enable Windows to run on smartphones and tablets that only had 1GB or 2GB. Probably neither of those is still important thanks to tumbling memory prices and the failure of Windows smartphones.
A couple of years ago, Microsoft experimented with a version of Windows 10 called Windows Lean, but it didn’t use less memory. Its main purpose was to fit on tablets and cheap laptops with only 16GB or 32GB of storage. Thankfully, that idea seems to have been abandoned. Nobody should be buying laptops with less than 128GB of SSD, or a bigger hard drive.
The simplest speed-up routine is to tell Windows to optimise itself for performance. To do this, type “adjust” in the Start menu’s search box and click “Adjust the appearance and performance of Windows”. This will bring up the Performance Options properties sheet from the Control Panel. Select “Adjust for best performance” and Windows will drop all the fancy graphical effects such as sliding things in and out of view. You can use the Custom settings to retain any features you want to keep, such as “Show window contents while dragging”.
Next, run the Control Panel, type “power” into the search box in the top right and select “Choose a power plan”. Most laptops are set to “Balanced”. “Power saver” will reduce performance to extend battery life. “High performance” will deliver the best performance but use more energy.
Windows memory management
When we were using Windows XP and Vista, geeks could improve on Windows’ use of memory. Those days have more or less gone. Windows 10 makes such good use of memory, its swapfile (pagefile.sys, hidden on your hard drive) and other resources that it is best left to do its thing.
In my experience, Windows 10 can use anything from 1.2GB to about 3.5GB or more, depending on how much memory you have. If you have more, it will use more. What happens when it runs out of space? It saves the pages of code it’s not using to the swapfile and reloads them into RAM only when they are needed. That’s one reason why fitting an SSD makes a laptop feel much more responsive: swapfile pages reload much faster.
In reality, Windows 10’s memory management is more complicated than that. It distinguishes between many types of memory, depending on whether pages are in use, can be swapped out when necessary, can be overwritten because they are no longer needed, or free. Type resmon into Windows 10’s search box, run the Resource Monitor app, and click the Memory tab for a coloured representation of the RAM used for different purposes, including “hardware reserved”.
What’s eaten my RAM?
Sophisticated memory management techniques – including compression – make it hard to know how much memory any particular program is using. Should you include pages that are in RAM but not in use, that are in the swapfile, or use shared resources? Windows provides a lot of common code through dll library files, and if six programs are using the same megabytes of shared code, it’s counted six times instead of once.
The Task Manager provides a crude but useful guide. To run it, press Ctrl-Alt-Del or right-click the taskbar and select Task Manager. Click on Name to sort apps to the top. The Memory column shows how much each program is using. To make the column easier to understand, right-click in the header area, choose “Resource values” from the drop-down menu, then Menu and then Percents. On my PC, two browsers, Opera and Vivaldi, are now using more than 20% each, and nothing else matters. The next highest score is Voidtools’ Everything, with 2.6%. Word 2010, with six documents open, is consuming 0.6%, and a small Excel spreadsheet 0.4%.
Microsoft’s Process Explorer provides more details. Double-clicking a program’s name tells you how it’s using memory, how much code is shared, and how much virtual memory (ie swapfile space) it’s using. The Working Set Private number, which excludes shared code and swapfile space, tells you how much real RAM a program is using at the time. Obviously, it can vary. As a general indicator, the Peak Working Set number is probably as good as any.
Once your laptop is up and running, a quick check with either utility will tell you if any programs are using more memory than they are worth.
Start-up programs and services
The Task Manager has Start-up and Services tabs that tell Windows what to load when it boots. Both are more or less obsolete. It is worth checking for start-up programs and disabling ones you don’t want, but do that from the Apps section of the Settings (cogwheel) app.
When we were using clunky old XP and Vista, disabling services could make a big difference, and some of us swore by Black Viper’s guides. Today, I wouldn’t make the effort, and Black Viper stopped providing service configurations with the April 2018 version of Windows 10.
If a process or service “goes rogue” – which can include a single browser tab – it’s easier to find it in Process Explorer, right-click it, then suspend, restart or kill it. Task Manager also lets you suspend and kill tasks, which can be handy if malware grabs your browser.
Every Windows browser will run in 4GB, but the “lightest” common browser is Microsoft Edge. This is partly because it’s low on features and extensions, and partly because it’s a modern Windows Store app. Store apps can be suspended in the background, though this is hidden away in the Privacy section of the Settings app, under “Background apps”.
But Microsoft is now switching to a heavier version of Edge based on open source Chromium code, just like Google Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi, Brave and many others, except Firefox.
There’s not much to choose between the Chromium-based browsers: they all consume massive amounts of memory and resources. Opera has generally been the lightest, but “Edgium” could change that. I’ve been using the beta test version and it works well. Also, the code has been de-Googled, which is a plus point for people avoiding Google’s “surveillance capitalism”.
Otherwise, the keys to managing browser memory are not to install many extensions and not to open too many tabs. If you can’t help having hundreds, use a “lazy loading” browser. With lazy loading turned on, the browser will only reload or refresh current tabs when you click on them. I once had more than 600 tabs in Firefox and about 300 in Vivaldi, and both still worked perfectly. Alternatively install a tab suspender such as the Great Suspender for Chrome, which unloads dormant tabs but saves the URL so you can go straight back to it if you want. If the browser does slow down, just close and re-open it to free up some memory.
The old advice about turning it off and on again has been replaced by “restart your browser”.
Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.