The Infamous Page File – How Big, Where Should I Put It, and Do I Need It?


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The Page File

Ah, the Page File, or Swap File as it has been called.

The Page file has been a source of debate for decades- How big should it be? Where should it be located? Do I need one at all?

To answer these burning questions we have to think about the logistics and how Microsoft implements it on a clean installation of Windows.

It used to be, and maybe still is so, that the size of the Page File was based on the amount of RAM you had installed on your computer. The formula is very simple: 1.5 times RAM. So, if you have 1GB of RAM, the Page File would be sized at 1.5GB.

That may have made some sense in the “old days” when ~64MB was the norm. These days, we’re talking about RAM in the Gigabyte realm.

Think about this for a minute. I have 16GB of RAM installed on my system. Now, does it make sense to you that I should then have a 24GB Page File? Of course not. In fact, I shouldn’t need a Page File at all. But there are proponents of keeping a Page File even with large amounts of RAM installed. Listen to this:


“Some feel having no paging file results in better performance, but in general, having a paging file means Windows can write pages on the modified list (which represent pages that aren’t being accessed actively but have not been saved to disk) out to the paging file, thus making that memory available for more useful purposes (processes or file cache). So while there may be some work loads that perform better with no paging file, in general having one will mean more usable memory being available to the system (never mind that Windows won’t be able to write kernel crash dumps without a paging file sized large enough to hold them).”
– Mark Russinovich

So, that answers the question about implementing a Page File, or not. If you don’t care about crash dumps, and have plenty of memory to handle all your running programs, then, I guess, you don’t need one.

Note: I haven’t used a Page File for several months now as an experiment. It turns out that Windows works just fine without one and, keeping in mind that I have a lot of RAM to play around with,   I really don’t see any reason to implement one. But. I am gong to do so anyway to see if there is any notable difference in the responsiveness of my system. I’ll let you know how it goes in the near future. Remind me…

You’ll see near the end of this article that I don’t recommend disabling the Page File. Adjustments are fine. Do as I say, not as I do. It’s my job to take risks in order to save you the headaches.

How to Manually change Its Size

In Windows 7 click the Start Button, choose Control Panel, then System. That will open this window:

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In the left pane, click Advanced system settings to get to this window:


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Clicking the Settings Button in the Performance box will bring you to this window:

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You’ll notice the little check box indicated in the above image. This determines whether you are in control, or Windows. I’m sure you can already guess how I feel about this.

It’s time to make some decisions. Ideally, you’re going to want your Page file on your fastest hard drive. If you have more than one hard drive, it is better to put it on the hard drive that does not include your operating system.

Here are some general rules of thumb:

  • If you have one HDD, then it’s a no-brainer. You have no choices to make. Putting a page file on a second partition does not help; in fact, it may even slow things down.
  • If you have 2 drives, then put it on the second drive. That’s the one without your Windows Operating System. Put it on the first partition of that drive as it is the most quickly accessed. Even if it is somewhat slower than your primary drive, this can still be the fastest setup. You really don’t want the Page File on your system drive if you can help it.
  • As an aside, I’d like to point out that Temporary files, such as browser caches, should also be put on a second drive for the same reasons.

How to tell which drive is faster?

There’s a great, free utility called HDTune that will do just that. There is also a Pro (paid) version available.

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Note: the above image is of HDTune Pro. There is a free version available, too.

If you download this program and run it against all your drives, then all your questions will be answered regarding HDD speeds. You can find it here: HDTune Download Page

How Big should It Be?

As I pointed out earlier, Windows will recommend a Page File size of 1.5 times the amount of RAM you have installed in your system. That’s a 24GB Page File on my 16GB-RAM computer. What if I was one of the lucky people out there that had 32GB of RAM? Then what? A 48GB Page File?! Horse hockey!

Let’s get back to reality here.

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On my computer, 16MB is the smallest Page File Windows allows. (Actually, you can disable it but Windows will complain.)

You want to make sure to uncheck the indicated box at the top of the above image (you don’t want Windows to manage the Page File in this circumstance). You want to be sure to have the Radio Button labeled Custom size ticked.

The above image is an old one and no longer represents my current recommendations. You’ll see that the primary C drive has a dynamic Page File setting of 16MB – 1024MB. This means that Windows will initially set up a 16MB Page File, but if it needs more, it can expand this size to a full Gigabyte (1024MB). Don’t forget to click the Set Button to invoke your settings. If you fail to do this, nothing will change. You will have to reboot your system for these changes to take effect and Windows will not forget to remind you of this.

You may have Page Files set up on every drive/partition on your computer. I can’t think of a single reason to do this. If you do choose to set them up on more than one drive, it is my understanding that Windows is smart enough to use the fastest one. I have not personally tested this and cannot make any claims to its accuracy.

Static vs Dynamic Page Files

There are two ways you can set these things up. Static or Dynamic.

A Static Page File has its minimum and maximum sizes set the same. There will be no changes from its original (minimum) size. The advantage here is that no disk fragmentation will occur.

A Dynamic Page File will begin its life at the minimum setting but may grow as the system needs increase.

The choice is yours.  I prefer a Static Page File because of the potential fragmentation problems that will be incurred by a dynamic Page File.

Conclusions

I don’t recommend eliminating the Page File. The crash dump reason pointed out by Mike Russinovich in the earlier quote is good enough reason for me.

It all really boils down to how much RAM you have installed and, once again, what your particular computing habits are. If you don’t have very much RAM and like to open a lot of applications, then you’ll need a larger Page File to accommodate that type of behavior.

A Word About RAM

After doing considerable poking around, Googling (yes, that’s a verb now), and Binging, and Groking, and reading far too many benchmark results, I have come to the conclusion that Windows 7 has a sweet spot when it comes to RAM. It seems to like 4 Gigabytes. Speed tests with more than 4GB on up don’t show a significant boost in performance. The only exception would be with video editing and CAD where RAM becomes extremely critical.

Before the advent of Solid State Drives a RAM upgrade was the single best bang-for-the-buck improvement you could make to your computer. And it still is if you are RAM shy. RAM is dirt-cheap these days.

If you are running Windows 7 and have less than 4GB RAM, and have a computer that supports it, buy some RAM for a big boost in performance. You’ll know if you need it because your Page File is being utilized. If you need a Page File, you don’t have enough RAM to begin with.

Note: If you are running a 32-bit version of Windows, then 4GB is the most RAM that system can access. Anything more than that is wasted.

Many people get concerned when all their RAM is being used. They seem to think this is a problem. There are many shady software vendors out there that will try to convince you this is a bad thing and also attempt to lighten your wallet in the process– you know, to fix it. This is a terrible misconception.

“Unused RAM is wasted RAM.” You really do want it all used, all the time.

Happy tweaking,

Richard

About the Author

Richard Pedersen

Richard received his first computer, a C-64, in 1982 as a gift and began dabbling in BASIC. He was hooked! His love for computing has led him from the old “XT” boxes to the more modern fare and from clunky 10MB hard drives to smooth and fast modern day SSD drives. He has run BBS services, Fido mail, and even operated his own computer repair business.

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