This fatal flaw in Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me is never going to go away. No software utility can fix it.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983
Why the memory problem in Windows 95, 98 and Me isn't fixable
April 15, 2001
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2001, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2001, The Syracuse Newspapers
The standard versions of Windows have a big problem handling memory. This is hardly news to most of us who use Windows, but there's a hidden side to the problem that makes it worse than it might seem.
Even people who are otherwise knowledgeable about Windows miss the significance of the problem. The basic flaw is bad enough -- Windows has only a tiny area of memory to keep track of what's going on -- but the hidden aspect is that the problem can't be fixed.
Crazy as it seems, this fatal flaw in Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me is never going to go away. No software utility can fix it. Neither MemTurbo nor RAM Idle, two of the most popular programs that claim to fix Windows memory handling, do anything to fix the problem. Nothing will.
Keep that in mind the next time you see claims about programs that supposedly fix problems with Windows. A software program can't fix this Windows memory flaw any more than a set of racing tires can turn a Hyundai into a Ferrari. The design of Windows makes a fix impossible. Only a complete redesign of Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me would work -- and, in fact, that's what Microsoft is doing for the next home version of Windows, which it plans to introduce later this year. That version is Windows XP.
Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me are like big cars fitted with tiny gas tanks. They will run fine for a while and then sputter to a stop when they use up their allotment of memory.
The memory I'm referring to isn't the standard kind of memory that all computers need to function properly. It's a special area of memory unique to Windows. It's called "resource" memory, where Windows keeps its pointers to what's going on.
When that memory area gets full, Windows loses control. Your mouse might stoop responding or you'll find that you can't close a window on your screen. You'll be stymied just trying to close programs, and your Windows PC will freeze. You'll lose what you were working on.
Ready for the wacko part of this? This storage area is so small, so improbably tiny, that it's not even expressed in megabytes. Your PC's hard drive probably has hundreds and hundreds of megabytes of storage. (A megabyte is 1 million bytes, and a byte is the smallest unit of storage.) If it's a modern computer, your PC's actual memory probably reaches all the way to 64 megabytes or more.
It sure would be great if Windows knew what to do with 64 megabytes for its resources. But let's not be so greedy. It would be just fine if it knew how to deal with 32 megabytes. Or with 16 megabytes. Heck, I'd settle for 8 megs. Or even 1.
But even 1 megabyte is out of the reach of Windows when it's dealing with resources. Want to hear the really bad news about this resource memory? Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me can't set aside any more than 64 kilobytes for this vital storage. No matter how much memory your PC has -- and most new ones have at least 64 megabytes of memory -- all that Windows can use for resources is 64 kilobytes (usually called "64K").
This means Windows can only use one-tenth of 1 percent of the typical memory in a modern PC for the all-important function of keeping track of what's going on.
This is the bad news that seems to follow Windows users around like a toothache. I get dozens of letters a week from Windows users looking for ways to keep their Windows 95, Windows 98 or Windows Me computers from running out of memory and crashing. They often ask if memory-enhancing programs they see on the Internet actually fix the problem.
The answer is no. The 64K limit in Windows 95, 98 and Me is a barrier that can't be taken down. No program can change this. Adding more regular memory (adding RAM, in other words) won't fix it, either. Rebooting (shutting down and starting up again) can help by clearing out resource memory. When resource memory runs low again, reboot again.
Apart from rebooting, which hardly counts as a "fix," there is no way to cure this flaw in these versions of Windows. If you want to run a version of Windows that handles memory properly, you have two current choices -- Windows NT, an older version that is about to be retired, or Windows 2000, a new version I've raved about in print and on TV. Or you can wait for Windows XP later this year.
With the introduction of Windows XP, which, because of Microsoft's nearly total monopoly on PC operating systems, will show up on practically every new PC sold by the end of the year, Microsoft will at last be making an advertised version of Windows that is reliable and able to keep running for weeks without the need for rebooting. If you're not drawn to the Mac or to Linux through your frustrations with Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me, and if you're scared away by Microsoft's refusal to tell you that Windows 2000 actually exists, you will want to upgrade to Windows XP as quickly as possible.