Memory Management - Dude where's my RAM??

Memory Management - Dude where's my RAM??

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Only a couple of years ago, desktop machines with 4GB of RAM were rare.  Only high-end CAD designers and ultra-hardcore gaming enthusiasts were considering, let alone actually installing, 4GB of RAM in their machines.  Today however, RAM is much less expensive, and system builders such as Dell or HP routinely offer the option to build  a system with 4GB of RAM.

Because of this, we are often asked why Windows Vista / Windows Server 2003 / Windows XP etc. only sees a portion of the installed memory.  It is pretty common for a machine with 4GB of RAM to actually show between 3.1 and 3.6GB of RAM installed, although this number may actually be less depending on hardware.  The screenshot below is from a Vista Ultimate RTM machine with 4GB of RAM installed - notice how much RAM is reported as being installed:

It is important to understand that this is not really a problem with the OS, but is more hardware related.  Let’s talk about the OS first since it is the simpler part of the issue.  On any 32-bit Operating System (not only Windows), you only have access to 4GB of address space by default.

We discussed this in a previous blog post: Memory Management 101.  A 32-bit Operating System can actually handle 4GB of memory.  Using the /PAE switch allows the OS to handle memory above this range as long as the application is designed for it.  Keep this in mind because it will come up again after the next section: hardware.

The issue is the way in which the hardware allocates memory for its own resources.  The hardware needs to allocate memory space to use for things like the PCI bus, BIOS, the video card and others.  It allocates this from the address space presented to it, which is not necessarily the same as the amount of physical RAM installed. Also of note, it allocates this memory from top to bottom.  The problem is, when you have 4GB of RAM installed, the amount of physical memory installed is the same as the address space.  I think you can see where this is going.

If you have 4GB RAM, and the hardware needs to allocate a large chunk of memory for its own use, and it does this from top to bottom, the memory that is blocked off starts at 4GB and allocates downwards.  So, the final amount of RAM the OS will be able to see is the difference.  This is because when it actually allocates for the physical RAM in the system, it has to skip the chunk that was blocked off by the hardware.  Since a 32-bit OS can only see 4GB, the rest of the RAM is invisible because it is above the 4GB barrier.  By using the /PAE switch, you enable the OS to see above this barrier, and you can see all of your RAM.  Sometimes.

The real problem comes back to hardware.  As I am sure you can imagine, the OS can only handle whatever resources are shown to it by the hardware BIOS.  If the hardware does not support a large enough addressing range, then it simply won’t report anything above that so the OS is in the dark.  If the hardware supports 36-bit PAE Intel Extensions or the AMD equivalent, and you use an OS that supports PAE, you should be able to enable both and see all of the RAM.

The resources below go into additional depth regarding this particular topic.

Additional Resources:

 - Tim Newton

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  • I ran into this exact issue yesterday, and intended to write a post. Fortunately, the ASKPERF Blog covers

  • If your ever skeptical about the RAM reading inside Task Manager/System Properties, Bring up "System Information" (Start->Run->Winmsd) and this will give you the true reading regardless if you have PAE enabled or not.

  • tengo un portatil acer con 4 gb de ram en 2 tarjetas ddr2-2gb markvision bus 667 mhz con windows vista home premium preinstalado pero solo me reconoce 3.70 gb que hago para que me reconozca los 4 gb?gracias

  • The amount of RAM reported by the System Information tool (msinfo32) is the actual

    RAM that has been added to system. The size of the RAM shown in System Properties

    dialog box is what is available to the system. The hardware needs to allocate

    memory space to use for things like the PCI bus, BIOS, the video card and others.

    This memory is not available to the OS. This is because when it actually allocates

    for the physical RAM in the system, it has to skip the chunk that was blocked off

    by the hardware. Thus the amount of memory which is shown in system properties is

    (Actual RAM - Amount of RAM used by h/w). This value may differ depending on the

    type and no. of h/w that is installed to a system. Adding the PAE switch will make

    the OS to detect the entire 4 GB, as you can see in sysinfo.

    There’s a known issue with the system properties not reporting the correct value,

    as discussed in KB888664 <> in Windows

    XP SP2.

    One should use the System Information tool (msinfo32) to obtain Total physical

    memory size information

  • I am satisfied with the explanations.  At least I know now that the discrepancy between my actual RAM space and that reported in Task Manager is a known issue.  I thought some virus had hijacked my RAM.

  • I must disagree with this article at all. 32 OSes can handle much more than 4Gb of Ram just as it was the case with 286 processors. Actually most of 32 bit Pentium processors can handle 36 bit of address space which is 236=68719476736 bytes. Windows XP particularly is not able to handle more than one segment which is limited to 4Gb, but you can install Windows 2000 Advance Server (with /PAE switch) which is able to handle all 4Gb, actually it can handle up to 8Gb! This is just internal limitation of Microsoft XP products; therefore Windows XP Home Edition can handle only 1Gb or RAM and this is not connected to any hardware limitation at all!

    PAE is the mechanism for addressing 36 bit address space on the IA32 processor. The following operating systems can use PAE to take advantage of physical memory beyond 4 GB: Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server, Microsoft Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, Microsoft Windows Server 2003, Enterprise Edition, Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and Datacenter Edition.

    Attention: to enable PAE, use the /PAE switch in the Boot.ini file.