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Q. I've maxed out the RAM on my year-old Dell, but it's still sluggish. My brother says I can boost the performance by fiddling with the paging file. What in tarnation is the paging file, and what sort of surgery should I perform?
A.The humble paging file is what Windows turns to when there's no more RAM to be had. Say you're running a bunch of programs at once, and your Dell's 256 megabytes of system memory aren't sufficient to keep things humming. So the PC snags a bit of the hard drivethe paging fileand uses it as so-called virtual memory. It's a poor substitute, as virtual memory creeps along at one-sixtieth the speed of system memory. And thus your problems with sluggish performance.
Though he sounds short on details, your brother's spot-on in recommending that you noodle with the paging file. Priority number one should be moving the file off your C drive. You'll need a partitioned drive to get that donego back and read Mr. Roboto's past advice ("Part Way," March 39) if your My Computer panel doesn't already feature at least C and D drives, rather than just a C.
OK, drive partitioned and all that? Good, good. If you can, use PartitionMagic (powerquest.com) to create a drive especially for the paging filemaybe, like, six gigabytes or even smaller. It's not a requirement, but the more you can separate the paging file from applications, the better.
Now it's time to wade through the System options, in the Control Panel. (I'm assuming you're running XP, given that your box is just a year old.) Go to the Advanced tab and click the Settings button under Performance, then go to the Advanced tab (yes, another one) and click Change under the Virtual Memory heading.
All that's left is to select No Paging File for the C drive, then create a fresh one on the D drive or the E drive, or wherever you're stashing the doohickey. When you fill in the range for the minimum and maximum file sizes, use the same number for both; that way, your PC doesn't have to constantly resize the file, which can gum up the works. (Mr. Roboto's paging file is set to be 1.5 gigs, if that's any help.) Restart your Dell, and you're golden.
Or almost. Mr. Roboto heartily recommends setting Windows to clear the paging file at shutdownnot strictly for performance issues, but rather because such files store unencrypted passwords and other valuable data. This step involves futzing with the registry, which should not be done lightly: Delete the wrong key, and you could be on the fast boat to Windows Hades. Use the detailed instructions at the Microsoft Knowledge Base (support.microsoft.com) to learn what's what. Just search for "paging file," and you'll get the goods right quick.
You should notice a nice little uptick in performance, especially when you're rocking a Web browser, an e-mail client, and Word all at once. For maximum enjoyment, be sure to defragment the drive with the paging file from time to time (again, thumb the Knowledge Base for help). Your machine will thank you, perhaps by not freezing when you download that Cameron Diaz s/m video.
Service Pack 2.2
A big tip of the helmet to longtime reader Michael Horowitz, who teaches a "defensive computing" class up at Hunter College. Picking up on an item from a few weeks back in which Mr. Roboto recommended that XP users reinstall Java after downloading Service Pack 2, Horowitz sent in a link to his invaluable website, javatester.org. It'll automatically find out what version of Java you're using, then help you upgrade and configure the options. Presto, no more teeth-gnashing over espn.com's real-time scoreboards.
Porn fiends and cloak-and-dagger types are always hitting up Mr. Roboto for advice on deleting data beyond recovery. The best option for skinflints may be the simply named Eraser, a slab of freeware from Ireland's Heidi Computers (heidi.ie)nice smooth interface, and you can even wipe unused portions of your hard drive to increase performance.