Contrary to what some technophobes claim, operating systems are actually streamlined as efficiently as possible to ensure that computers are as user-friendly as possible while still allowing for a framework flexible enough to accommodate as many differently-configured programs as it can run. The Mac OS X, whose installable programs are tightly controlled by Apple itself, ensures the smoothest operations possible; which makes it doubly impressive that Windows’s open-ended structure (i.e. program installations are free-for-all) is still able to function as well as it does.
At least, for the most part.
While the OS X isn’t exactly immune to system crashes, it certainly handles itself better than Windows does; again, due in no small part to the stringent program provisos imposed by Apple. This isn’t to say that Windows system crashes are as frequent as some people make them out to be, but the OS’s open-endedness does make fixes and adjustments too complicated for the average user.
One of these problems is handling Windows’s pagefile allocation for maximum efficiency.
Simply stated, pagefiles are gigabytes of hard drive space (that’s the current norm; pagefile terabytes will be commonplace sooner than you would expect) that the OS uses as memory expansions when the available RAM isn’t up to snuff to (multi-) program demands.
To get a better grasp on the concept, you first have to understand what RAM actually does. No, it doesn’t increase the speed of the computer; at least, not directly. What RAM does is it allows many programs – both active and background – to run simultaneously. It also allows resource-heavy programs to run smoothly. The more RAM a computer has, the more programs it can run, and the bigger these programs can be.
However, not all of us are blessed with the financial resources of the 1%. This means that chances are, our computer’s available RAM sometimes just isn’t enough.
This is where pagefiles come in handy. What the OS does is it transfers the data packets of running-but-currently-inactive programs (as opposed to “inactivated” programs, which aren’t running at all) onto a hidden file called pagefile.sys. This frees up the RAM to cater to programs which are currently being worked on by the user (and are therefore more important at that given moment).
To Disable or Not to Disable
The quick explanation is that having pagefiles sacrifices hard drive space, while on the flipside, having no pagefiles puts considerable strain on the RAM. It is because of the latter that many people insist on disabling pagefiles altogether if they have a lot of available RAM. The logic behind this is that if the computer’s memory is large anyway, the hard drive space can be better used for file storage functions.
The things is, they are arguably right; but only when they really do have more than enough RAM to run all the programs they need to run at all times. However, it isn’t entirely impossible for them to suddenly find themselves lacking computer memory, especially if they like to keep up with program updates that call for more and more resource consumption. If that happens and their RAM chips all reach their limits, system crashes are sure to occur. Furthermore, some programs like virtual drive makers and defrag utilities just won’t work as well as they should without pagefiles enabled.
Expanded Purpose, By Extension
Meanwhile – and as explained – the benefit of having pagefiles turned on is that it frees up your RAM with more breathing room for running programs, as well as for unforeseen complications.
Additionally, it allows more space for read-write caches of files like Word documents. This is especially true for Windows Vista onwards, which utilizes an improved caching system called SuperFetch. Not only does it cache files on-the-fly, but it also uses part of the RAM to store data packets of the most commonly opened programs on the computer.
In other words, SuperFetch is one of the many functions largely responsible for the zippy access speeds of current-gen Windows OSes; and it can be maximized by letting pagefiles carry some of the memory workload.
The Balancing Act
Now that the merits of pagefiles have been put forth, the question becomes: Just how much hard drive space should you allocate for pagefiles?
Many users will likely suggest using 1.5 to 2 times the amount of RAM you have. So for example, if your computer carries 4 GB of RAM, 8 GB of hard drive space would be used for pagefile purposes. However, because so much HD memory is consumed, your hard drive could slow down, if not crash outright.
A better idea would be finding out your peak memory usage (which combines both maximum RAM and pagefile usage) via memory management software and doing simple calculations from there. For instance, say you have a peak memory usage of 7 GB. If your computer has 6 GB of RAM, allow for 1 GB of pagefiles. You may even go with a maximum of 2 GB to allow for a buffer.
Now, if your peak usage is 4 GB and you have 6 GB of RAM, it would still be wise to go with 1 GB of pagefile memory, because of the benefits mentioned above.
The bottom line is that ultimately, turning on pagefiles does more good than otherwise; as it’s supposed to. Otherwise, Microsoft wouldn’t have it installed in the first place.