Windows 7 And ReadyBoost – Ready to, ah, ‘Boost’?

…In a nutshell, yes – but not maybe how you expect. Here’s how to use it – and why it makes sense for some people…

Has this ever happened to you: Time to upgrade, you’re *almost* ready to buy, but in the meantime the old computer is starting to get older and older in your view (probably because you’re itching to upgrade NOW). That’s my situation, now that I’m planning to go for something faster (and roomier) than my 2008 model.

That decided, upgrades for this computer now are verboten: New RAM? A waste of money. Bigger hard drive? Get it for the new computer. And so on.

The result is that I’m running an older computer that bumps the ceiling frequently – in particular, too little RAM memory. Or at least until ReadyBoost.

Initially, I thought ReadyBoost was a joke. Put a USB drive in a port, then use Windows Explorer to ‘Turn On’ ReadyBoost (via the drive’s Properties and the ReadyBoost tab on it), and magically the computer will speed up. And if you look online, it’s apparent that many Vista users hoped so, but then “experienced” it, and had almost no benefit.

But I’m on Windows7 64 bit, so I finally decided to give it a try – after all, I had a spare 8gb USB drive lying around, and it would take only a few minutes to see.

The result? I’m still running it with the USB drive in, and I’m seriously thinking about using it with my new computer as well!

The idea behind ReadyBoost is that it stores a duplicate copy of key data on the drive as well as your regular hard drive (safely encrypted of course, just in case someone “borrows” your USB key). However, the data is mainly the “random” data, the data that causes your computer to churn when you come back to a program after a long time: That’s the sound of the hard drive skipping all over the place trying to collect all the information you need, and it’s a strain on the hard drive as well as a time waster. Using ReadyBoost, those files are duplicated on the USB drive, and the computer goes there instead for random access. Less drive churning, plus more speed (a USB drive is roughly 10x faster than a hard drive).

In my case, I decided to give it a try after running Windows continually (and heavily) through a few days of coding – you know, when you’ve left Windows open too long and it’s all sluggish? I inserted the key, moved to its drive letter, right-clicked for Properties, clicked on the ReadyBoost tab, then selected “Dedicate this drive to ReadyBoost”, and exited. The computer churned for a few minutes hard – so much so I was regretting my decision – and then fell eerily quiet. Not only that, but the sluggishness I had in Windows after a couple days was gone: Programs became as responsive as they are right after a bootup.

Normally, I’d be offering up some caveats here, but it’s all surprisingly good – still. Since then, my drive runs much quieter: It still runs a bit on program startup and file I/O of course, but those are mainly sequential reads, so there’s very little chattering of the hard drive. I watch the flickering of the USB drive light, and I’m very surprised how often it flashes in use. Plus, since the goal behind it is to offload random file I/O, I think it might even be useful when I upgrade my memory amount (and computer), since I’ll still be using a swap file. Now I’m wondering: If I turned off my swap file and used the key exclusively, what would happen?

So, if you’re bumping against memory ceilings, save the cost of memory for now, and grab a new USB disk drive. While not as great as computer memory, it’s still a useful addon – so much so I actually expect it will be handy alongside the new memory when I upgrade.

In closing, just a few more notes:

  • I didn’t like the idea of trashing a USB drive from all the writing I thought ReadyBoost would do (USB keys are limited in the amount of writes each spot on the chip can handle before “burning out”). However, Microsoft states on their site they expect a key to last 10 years, so they must be balancing the writes on the key very effectively.
  • ReadyBoost doesn’t seem to erase the drive when you dedicate it to use, so make sure the drive is empty before you first start it up to get maximum benefit.
  • And when you set it up, use the option “Dedicate this drive to ReadyBoost” – after all, are you really going to use this drive for anything else?
  • Once you’ve tired of watching it flash it’s in use, plug it in one of your computer’s backside USB ports – and tape a ‘do not touch’ sign on it!
  • Microsoft estimates you need a USB drive with a capacity about 2-2.5x the size of your RAM. In my case, I had about 2.5gb computer RAM available (3gb, with some dedicated for video), so a 8gb was right in line – and quite effective.
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