Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Understanding the 4GB...errr, uhhh... 3GB RAM limit in Windows Vista

I recently purchased a new computer from Dell with Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate (32 bit version) installed. I opted to get 4GB of RAM in my new toy for various reasons. I wanted to "future-proof" my machine for one thing. I always seem to add RAM to all of my computers so I figured I would just forgo the trouble later in exchange for the added expense now. In addition to avoiding a RAM upgrade in the near future I also have a few "hobbies" that are resource intensive and I don't want to experience any frustration due to insufficient RAM. I like to tinker with development in ASP.NET, C#, and VB.NET. I also play with SQL Server 2000 and SQL Server 2005. I use all of these tools at work and find myself more and more interested in playing with them at home, too. (Some would suggest that I need to get out more, but that's another topic altogether.)

But I digress...back to the topic at hand here, RAM. Windows Vista in the 32 bit edition is said to have a maximum of 4GB of RAM. This is a little misleading. OK, this is VERY misleading.

It turns out that while I do actually have 4GB of RAM in my computer (the BIOS tells me that I indeed DO have 4GB) Windows (or any 32 bit OS) will not display this information to me. When I look at the system properties dialog box I see 3072MB of memory. Where's the rest of my RAM? Why don't I see 4096MB of memory? Here's why.

In a nutshell (read this for the long, technical version) 32 bit systems have the ability to map memory address space for up to 4GB. Since I have 4GB of system memory installed there is a limitation on how much of that RAM can be utilized by the operating system. Other components within the computer need the ability to map memory address space and those addresses must be mapped within the first 4GB of RAM. In other words, the amount of available system memory (that memory available to the OS and applications) is reduced in order to allow other components to map memory space. These components (PCI, Video) cannot be mapped to the same memory space as system RAM, so something has to give. System RAM loses this battle. So in reality the OS can only utilize up to 3.12GB of RAM (according to one MS KB article).

While I understand (at least partially) the technical reasons that I can't utilize all of the RAM that I paid for, I sure would have liked to this information before I purchased the XPS 410 from Dell. By virtue of the fact that Dell made the upgrade to 4GB an available option I assumed that I would be able to utilize that memory for the OS and applications. Now to be fair to Dell they do have an asterisk on the portion of their web site where you choose RAM. Did I scroll down to the bottom of the page to read it? Nope. Stupid me, I guess. Here is their "disclaimer":

*Systems configured with 4GB memory or more: The total amount of available memory will be less than 4GB. The amount less depends on the actual system configuration.

OK, OK, I should have read that line. But hey, how many of you have never skipped the footnote? Yeah, that's what I thought. At least Dell has the footnote. A quick tour of the Windows Vista footnotes page (yes, they have a separate page and yes it's sort of buried) reveals absolutely nothing about this 3.12GB RAM limitation. You have to Google your way into a Microsoft Knowledge Base article for that information.

So this is the fault of Dell and Microsoft for poor disclosure, right? The truth is that while both companies have done a poor job of informing consumers about this limitation, it's neither companies fault that the limitation exists. This is a problem inherent to any x86 based system. This blog has a pretty good explanation of the RAM limitation. And you'll find another (albeit pretty geeky) thorough explanation of a "workaround" offered by Microsoft in this article.

One way to avoid this problem altogether is to purchase one of the 64 bit versions of Vista but this comes with its fair share of difficulties, too. Driver support for 64 bit versions seems to be lacking. Some reports are that the lack of driver support is quickly becoming a thing of the past, but I know Murphy personally and his laws are...well...LAWS!

So I guess the moral of the story is "Do your homework". You either settle for 3GB of RAM (which isn't even an option on Dell's website), purchase a 64 bit version of Windows, or take the risk of remapping your memory addressing with PAE.

Good luck.

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