Top 10 memory tips of the year

Advice on working with flash drives and allocating memory dominated the top 10 hardware-related tips of 2005 from SearchWinSystems.com. Here are our top 10 tips, which came from regular contributors and readers alike.

Tip #1: Create a bootable USB flash drive -- in a flash!

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USB flash drives, also known as keychain or thumb drives, have become the de facto replacement for floppy disks. They have much more space for holding data, they're faster, smaller, less prone to damage, and they work on just about any computer that has a USB port.

The one disadvantage is that making a USB flash drive into a bootable drive isn't that easy. But this popular tip, from regular SearchWinSystems.com contributor Serdar Yegulalp, explains how to do that.

Tip #2: Watch those NTFS cluster sizes
When you format a disk as NTFS in Microsoft Windows 2000, Windows automatically chooses the optimum cluster or allocation unit size for the disk. The allocation unit size is the smallest amount of disk space that can be allocated to hold a file. Because files are almost never exactly the same size as a multiple of the allocation unit size, every disk has a certain amount of wasted space on it. But this tip, from Serdar Yegulalp, provides pointers on how to create the optimum NTFS cluster size.

Tip #3: Open source tool does more than wipe disk clean
When a computer or hard drive is put out to pasture, it's considered good computer hygiene to erase the hard drive first. The drive might be recycled into another computer, donated to charity or simply sold off -- but whatever its fate, wiping it clean before putting it into anyone else's hands is common sense. It's often hard to tell what can end up on a given computer, who may see it, and what they might be able to do with it.

Reformatting the hard drive can be a tedious operation, especially if it's the only drive in the system and Windows doesn't allow you to format its own system disk. In this tip, Serdar Yegulalp recommends an open source tool that will help you wipe your drive clean.

Tip #4: Utility gives USB flash drives new 'space'
USB flash drives can store up to 4 GB of data on a small, solid-state device. Plug a USB drive into a USB port, and you can copy files to or from the drive at high speed. But there is a downside: Flash drives only have a finite amount of space and they are still pricey. If you use flash drives to take lots of different kinds of data with you, you're often stuck copying one set of data out and another set of data in by hand. In this tip, Serdar Yegulalp recommends a utility that will eliminate the need to do this.

Tip #5: Freeware claims unused memory for a process
In this tip, Serdar Yegulalp discusses a freeware command-line tool that forces 32-bit Windows to minimize the working set, or allocated physical memory, dedicated to that particular process. If you are choosing among several applications and want to pick the most efficient one with memory (perhaps because you're running several instances of it at once on a server), WORKSET.EXE is one way to determine how much of a margin between needed RAM and allocated RAM a given app uses. It can also be used as a way to test one's own custom applications for this kind of bloat if you're trying to write something that's as conservative about using memory.

In theory, you can use this tool to preemptively free up memory from other programs before launching a big application. However, WORKSET.EXE is not really intended to be used as a memory optimization tool. In the past, other applications have claimed to compress or optimize memory use when, in fact, all they did was second-guess the way Windows's own memory manager worked, which created more problems than it solved.

Tip #6: How to fix fickle USB drives
USB devices are designed to be plugged in and unplugged without having to power down the computer they're attached to. This includes hardware devices such as scanners or cameras, but also removable drives (whether actual hard drives or the flash-memory "keychain" variety).

Sometimes after a device is repeatedly inserted or removed -- or when a given device is unplugged once without being stopped by the user first -- the port it's plugged into may stop responding. If the port in question is on a hub, then all devices on the hub may stop responding as well. This tip, from Serdar Yegulalp, tells you how to use the 'disable selective suspend' feature on USB devices to get around this problem.

Tip #7: Memory-hungry XP apps get their due
Recent versions of Windows support a switch option in BOOT.INI called the /3GB switch, which adjusts the way memory is allocated between the user and the operating system. By default, the split is fifty-fifty -- up to 2 GB for the user and 2 GB for the operating system. The /3GB switch option sets those limits at 3 GB maximum for the user and 1 GB for the operating system.

As the name implies, /3GB was originally meant to be used in systems that have 3 GB or more of RAM -- which is no longer as rare as it used to be. However, even if you don't have 3 GB or more of memory, you can still use the /3GB switch if you are running memory-hungry desktop applications. Photoshop, for instance, is infamous for staking out as much RAM as it can. With /3GB enabled, there's that much more memory that the application can use. This tip from Serdar Yegulalp shows how to add the /3GB switch as a separate boot option.

Tip #8: Windows Server 2003 utility improves hard disk performance
Two Windows command-line utilities -- Diskpart and Diskpar -- can improve hard disk performance by as much as 20% by aligning the partition tracks with the disk tracks. This is especially important for applications such as Microsoft Exchange, which have highly random I/O.

Diskpart comes with Windows Server 2003. Diskpar is an older version that comes with Windows 2000. Both do the same job in much the same way. This tip, from regular SearchWinSystems.com contributor Rick Cook, sheds some light on how these utilities work and also lists some other ways to improve performance of Windows storage in general.

Tip #9: Respond to 'USB Device Malfunctioned' error -- part 2
Do you ever get the "USB device malfunction" message on your fully patched Windows XP SP2 box? Sometimes, the 'Unknown Device' error still reappears under the Universal Serial Bus Controllers category even after you've tried disabling the system. According to reader Andy Macdonald, who became a tip of the month winner with this bit of advice, this is when it's time to use Registry Editor. You will need to use the modern Registry Editor, regedt32.exe, because you must give yourself rights to delete a key.

Tip #10: Crack CMOS' memory space
When a user or administrator configures a computer using its BIOS, the configuration options available through BIOS are written to a memory space known as CMOS. CMOS is generally non-volatile; it persists even when the computer is turned off or unplugged. When the BIOS is password-protected, the password is stored in CMOS. Unfortunately, if you need to enter BIOS and make changes and you don't have the password, there is usually no easy way to get it. A system reclaimed from another organization or division might be password-protected, for instance.

The typical strategy when dealing with such a system is to wipe the CMOS -- typically by applying a motherboard jumper setting -- and start from scratch. But in this tip Serdar Yegulalp suggests another solution for when wiping the CMOS is not an option.

More information from SearchWinSystems.com

This was first published in December 2005

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