The Quest for 4 Gigs Continues

Nearly a year ago, I reported that I'd purchased a new laptop with the dual intentions of running Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit and getting full use of 4GB of RAM. Unfortunately, I also had to report that while I did get Vista Ultimate 64-bit running, my HP NX6325 was able to use only 2.9GB of RAM. Since then, I've watched what might be called the "4GB frontier" and I have both good and bad news to report.

First, the bad news: Once you install Vista SP1 on your system, it's going to be a bit harder to figure out if your computer is indeed using the 4GB that you purchased. Prior to SP1, a look at the System applet on Vista showed how much memory your system was using, just as it had on Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, and Windows 2000. But for some mysterious reason, SP1 changed what the System applet shows from "memory Vista uses" to "memory your BIOS reports--irrespective of whether Vista can figure out how to use it." Why did Microsoft do this? No one to whom I've talked seems to have an answer, so come on, Microsoft, knock it off--reporting how much memory that I might have if only my OS could understand it but doesn't is just plain unfair. Why not do the right thing and fix this with the next Windows update?

Meanwhile, people wondering how much RAM their system really sees have a number of avenues. First, you can open an elevated command prompt and type

systeminfo | findstr /c:"Total Physical"

Or you can just open up Task Manager, click on the Performance tab, look under Physical Memory (MB), and read the number to the right of Total. Thus, in my NX6325's case, the System applet reports 4.0 gigs on the nose, while systeminfo and Task Manager report 2,943MB.

On to the good news: There are laptops that can deliver a full four gigs to 64-bit Vista. I've heard from three users of Lenovo's T61 ThinkPad that the T61 can easily accommodate and use four gigs with Vista (and yes, I did ask them if they verified that through Task Manager rather than the System applet). Many people who own the larger "mobile workstation" lines of laptops such as the Dell Vostro 1700 or the HP Pavillion DV9700T, tell me that they get access to all of their RAM with their systems. I like the larger systems, as they offer more space and can therefore accommodate a second hard disk. But they're of course heavier than the basic business laptops, and they just plain don't fit into many laptop bags, and so might not be the optimal choice for some.

After writing about my need to hit the four-gig frontier, many of you have written to ask me why on earth I need so much RAM. The answer: virtual machines (VMs), of course! With 2.9GB usable RAM, I can just squeeze a couple of Windows Server 2008 VMs and a Vista VM onto my system before it makes the painful transition from "useful computer" to "constantly paging system that takes 10 minutes to respond to a mouse click." I know that some of you also run VMs on your workstation, so while I'm on the topic, let me pass along a tip from one of my colleagues, Dan Holme. Dan tells me that the solid state "hard disks" that plug into an ExpressCard slot are fast enough to accommodate one large VM or a couple of smaller VMs, and by his report they make VMs run noticeably faster. I haven't had time to try that out yet, but I'm definitely going to soon--products like Lexar's 16GB SSD (solid state disk) run just a bit above $200, and 16GB would easily accommodate a Windows 2008 or Vista VM. Now all we need is a laptop that lets you outfit it with 16GB of RAM

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