Although it sounds more like a ray gun in a videogame, ReadyBoost is an often overlooked performance feature within Windows Vista and 7. It’s designed to improve PCs’ speed and responsiveness. Let’s talk about if it’s right for you, how you can enable it, and how much of a performance gain you can expect to see using it.
What is ReadyBoost?
ReadyBoost uses flash memory (e.g. a USB thumb drive or an SD card) to improve performance. The way it works is, the more memory your PC has, the more program data or SuperFetch data can reside in it. We covered SuperFetch on this blog a few weeks ago. Here a quick refresher:
SuperFetch predicts which applications you will run next and preloads all of the necessary data into memory. It also does that with boot files. This helps prevent accessing the slower hard disk too often. The result? Programs launch much quicker, and Windows boots faster.
Your PC performs faster because your computer’s processor is able to shuffle a couple of GB a second (impressive!) to RAM—and back. When you run out of memory, the program data needs to be flushed out of RAM and onto the hard disk, which is able to read and write data at a rate of about 50-100 MB a second. Compare that to the speed when data is just stored in RAM, and you’ll get the picture. And it’s not just about the raw data speed. This improves access times as well. While in RAM, accessing data is done in fractions of a nanosecond. Going to your hard disk, it usually takes between five and 30 milliseconds for data to be accessed and read.
At any rate, the main goal of Windows is to keep as much frequently used data in memory as possible, so it doesn’t fall back to the hard disk. On a PC with four or eight GB of main memory, this isn’t an issue. But what if you’re on a netbook or an older PC with just 512 MB of RAM? Or maybe one GB?
In any low-memory scenario, Windows Vista and 7 have to shuffle data in and out of RAM because there isn’t enough space for all of the data and programs. While doing this, it is constantly accessing the much slower hard disk. This kills your PC’s performance. Note, this issue can still occur on a two GB RAM configuration, depending on how much you use your PC.
This is where ReadyBoost comes in
This feature uses USB flash memory or an SD card to store information from Windows’ memory manager (like Superfetch data). So instead of accessing the hard disk, Windows accesses the much faster flash memory. The good thing is, all of this data is simultaneously being copied to the hard disk. So even if you suddenly unplug the USB thumb drive or the SD card, there is no risk of data loss.
Should I enable ReadyBoost?
We encourage you to give it a try, especially if you only have a relatively small amount of RAM in your system, like 512 MB or one GB. Even on higher memory configurations, you may notice an advantage. Check out our benchmarks in the “Performance shootout” section below.
How do I enable ReadyBoost?
Well, first of all, you obviously need flash memory. This can be a USB thumb drive or an SD card. Simply insert it into your computer and wait for the AutoPlay dialog.
If this window never pops up, go to “Computer”, right-click on the flash memory drive and select “Properties”. From here, go to “ReadyBoost” and select “Use this device” (Vista), or click on “Dedicate this device to ReadyBoost” (Windows 7) to use the entire flash device—which we recommend on devices up to eight GB of memory.
On Windows Vista, you can only reserve four GB for ReadyBoost—no matter how big of a USB thumb drive or SD card you’ve inserted. On Windows 7, however, there is no such limitation. We strongly encourage users of this operating system to format the flash memory drive as NTFS or exFat, as this enables the use of more than four GB of ReadyBoost memory.
Simply hit “OK” and you’re good to go. Windows will now shuffle memory to your flash drive to increase performance. Want to see how much of a performance gain we experienced? Read the next section!
Note: If you encounter the error…
…then you’re out of luck. The memory you’re using does not provide enough bandwidth to really improve your system’s performance. In this case, ReadyBoost won’t work.
We used our low-end test bed with a 1.8 GHz processor and 512 MB of main memory to see if and how much ReadyBoost was able to achieve. We’ve focused more on Windows and application startup times, because this is where having little memory really bogs down performance.
We performed each of these benchmarks at least three times to get exact results. After we enabled ReadyBoost, we used all of these applications for a couple of days and then performed the benchmark.
For a flash device, an eight GB USB thumb drive was used, and its entire space was reserved for ReadyBoost. The results are quite telling. Have a look.
Windows Startup Performance
Yes, this machine needs about three minutes to boot into Windows 7. No surprise, 512 MB RAM is simply not up to today’s standards, and even with optimized performance, this couldn’t help much. ReadyBoost wasn’t able to achieve anything here. Although we didn’t expect it to, we wanted to prove a point. Windows’ start-up speed depends much more on the amount of RAM and the speed of the hard disk—there is no way boot performance is able to increase just because Windows is caching files onto a USB thumb drive.
Application Startup Performance
The performance benefit of ReadyBoost was apparent when launching applications that we regularly use and have already been recognized by Superfetch.
General Application Performance
Starting Microsoft Security Essentials got a tad faster, but the scanning procedure itself took almost the same amount of time. However, we noticed a bit of an improvement when converting our 130 MB audio book. Windows 7 was able to assign more RAM , and the conversion job was done in seven and a half minutes, compared to the original nine minutes without ReadyBoost.
The machine felt like molasses without ReadyBoost. Before, Windows 7 did not perform very well. Beyond surfing and (maybe) playing a bit of iTunes music in the background, you couldn’t really do anything without waiting for programs to launch. You could tell that Windows was constantly shuffling data in and out of RAM. For example, I would launch Google Chrome and then listen to a podcast on iTunes. After 10 minutes or so, I would go back to the browser, and it would just take forever until I could do anything. I could almost watch the window being drawn—it was that slow.
With ReadyBoost, things got better. Launching applications (as mentioned above) was cut by half in some cases, due to the fact that the memory cache did not need to be read from the slow hard disk but from the faster USB thumb drive. Also there wasn’t as much of a lag while switching between multiple applications or Windows Explorer windows. Everything just got smoother.
That being said, please don’t accept any sort of magical performance improvement. You can shave a couple of seconds off of the programs’ launch time, and some applications might benefit from less hard disk access (thanks to the cache being offloaded to flash memory). But overall performance is still less than stellar when you run Windows 7 with 1 GB of RAM or even 512 MBs. We also tested ReadyBoost with a machine that has 2 GB of RAM built into it, took a couple of benchmarks but couldn’t really see any differences in launch times. However, we noticed that, while switching between a lot of simultaneously running programs, Windows 7 felt more responsive. Windows came up quicker and programs could be used without any noticeable delays.
If you have flash memory lying around, make use of it and enable ReadyBoost; it doesn’t matter if you have a half, one or two GB of main memory. You will notice a slight increase in performance in any case. Better yet, get a fast SD memory card, insert it into your PC or notebook and never bother with it. It just sticks in there and isn’t as intrusive as the typical USB thumb drive.
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