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Supercharge your PC with a RAM disk

Brad Chacos | Aug. 21, 2012
If you've ever wished that you could emulate the performance of a solid-state drive without installing a new piece of hardware, consider creating a new virtual hard drive on your PC that runs purely from RAM, also known as a RAM disk. Setting one up is a little tricky, but the performance benefits (if your system has enough RAM) are worth the effort.

If you've ever wished that you could emulate the performance of a solid-state drive without installing a new piece of hardware, consider creating a new virtual hard drive on your PC that runs purely from RAM, also known as a RAM disk. Setting one up is a little tricky, but the performance benefits (if your system has enough RAM) are worth the effort.

What is a RAM disk? The name says it all: A RAM disk is a virtual hard drive stored in your computer's RAM. Creating a RAM disk requires dedicated software and utilizes a chunk of your system's available memory; though a RAM disk appears as just another drive on your PC, the RAM that you use for the RAM disk is unavailable for general memory tasks.

Why would you want to use memory as a makeshift hard drive? Speed, pure and simple. RAM is insanely fast compared with traditional storage, as you can see in the above screenshot comparing benchmarks from a 7200-rpm hard drive (left) and a RAM disk created with Dataram's RAMDisk utility (right).

Setting Up a RAM Disk: Pros and Cons

RAM disk read/write speeds blow away the speeds of even top-of-the-line SSDs. That makes a RAM disk a wonderful tool for hastening operations in which your machine must read and write a lot of data, such as media encoding or editing large batches of photos.

The biggest everyday performance gains occur when you fully install a program on a RAM disk. For example, moving Word, Excel, Firefox, and Acrobat off of my laptop's 7200-rpm hard drive and onto a RAM disk resulted in the apps' loading nearly twice as quickly, rivaling the opening speeds on an SSDespecially when opening large files.

Games run more smoothly from a RAM disk too, although coaxing Steam titles into working with a RAM disk is a bit of a hassle, and storing a whole game in a virtual drive requires a big chunk of memory.

Of course, running important programs from a RAM disk has some notable disadvantages, too. The storage capacity is severely limited in comparison with that of a standard hard drive, and the inherent volatility of random access memory can be a headache if you store important files or programs on your RAM disk. Size limitations are a significant drawback: The size of the virtual drive is constrained by your system's total RAM, and you'll want to leave at least 4GB of memory untapped and available for general computer use (more is recommended). That means most people won't be able to set up a RAM disk that's larger than 4GB.

Since RAM disks are volatile, they lose their data every time the PC loses power. Most RAM-disk utilities bypass this problem by including an optional feature that automatically saves the contents of your RAM disk to a hard drive during shutdown, and then reloads the data to the RAM disk during startup. This arrangement works well (unless you suddenly lose power), but it adds considerable length to the PC's startup and shutdown times, especially if you're running a large RAM disk on a traditional hard drive. A 4GB RAM-disk image, for example, takes several minutes to copy to a 7200-rpm hard drive. (SSDs save data much faster.)

 

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