Low Virtual Memory

Dear Computer Lady,

My computer routinely says that I am “running low on virtual memory.”  What exactly does this mean, and what can I do about it?  we have a Dell Dimension, a few years old, Windows XP Service Pack 2, and run mcAfee antivirus.  While I routinely try to clean it up, by the ‘clean up hard drive’ method and defragging, it always seems kind of slow.  Maddening!

Thanks for your help!  Sincerely, Heidi


Dear Heidi,

Let’s start with the first part of your question, what is virtual memory. In fact, I want to back up a little bit first and look at what “Memory” is in regards to your computer.

There are two things on your computer that people often refer to as memory. One is hard drive space, and the other is random access memory (commonly called RAM). Hard drive space is storage. Anything stored on your hard drive takes up space and remains on the hard drive even when the computer is turned off.

Random access memory (RAM) is active memory. The more RAM you have, the more things you can do at once. When you turn your computer on, it takes information from the hard drive (storage) and loads it into RAM so that it can be actively used. RAM needs power in order to hold information, and when the computer is turned off, the RAM is emptied.

Often, your computer needs more active memory that then RAM provides, so it uses a portion of the hard drive to store files that it will be using. This portion of the hard drive that is used to compliment the RAM is called a page file, and the combination of the RAM and the page file is what is called, “Virtual Memory”.

If you want a more detailed explanation of virtual memory, check out this web page:

What can you do about your specific virtual memory problem?
That really depends on what is causing the problem. It could be that your older computer doesn’t have enough ram to run the newer programs and your problem can be simply solved by installing additional RAM in your computer.


Often on older computers, your installation of Windows has just gotten old and developed problems and the best solution is to have your local computer shop backup your files, erase the hard drive and do a clean install of Windows XP.


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