previous page: Solutions for Common PC Problems and Possible Fixes for Windows ME
page up: Operating Systems
next page: What is the Difference Between Windows ME and Windows 2000?

What's the difference between RAM & Resources?

"System resources" are among the most misunderstood elements of Win95 and Win98 (and most otherwise good references don't touch on the subject -- the first two Windows textbooks I picked up don't even have "resources," in this sense, in the index). This FAQ file is intended to address some of the common questions about this topic.

Q. Could someone give me a breakdown of what constitutes:

a) Windows 98 "resources" and
b) "Memory"?

System Resources are of two kinds: User Resources, and GDI (Graphic Device Interface) Resources. In the Windows 98 Resource Kit, check the article titled "Core System Components." Much of what follows comes from that article. The Win98 Core consists of User Resources, GDI Resources, and the Kernel.

"The User component manages input from the keyboard, mouse, and other input devices and output to the user interface (windows, icons, menus, and so on). It also manages interaction with the sound driver, timer, and communications ports. Windows 98 uses an asynchronous input model for all input to the system and applications. As the various input devices generate interrupts, the interrupt handler converts these interrupts to messages and sends the messages to a raw input thread area, which in turn passes each message to the appropriate message queue. Although each Win32-based thread can have its own message queue, all Win16-based applications share a common one."

User Resources are limited to a fixed 64 KB. You cannot increase this. "The Graphics Device Interface (GDI) is the graphical system that manages what appears on the screen. It also provides graphics support for printers and other output devices. It draws graphic primitives, manipulates bitmaps, and interacts with device-independent graphics drivers, including those for display and printer output device drivers." GDI Resources are limited to a fixed 64 KB. You cannot increase this.

Why these 64 KB limits? They are used to ensure backward compatibility for 16-bit programs originally written for DOS and Windows 3.x. This backward compatibility is one of the main reasons Windows 95/98 would be chosen by a user instead of Windows NT (which has much poorer and less reliable backward compatibility for 16-bit programs). Note that the 64 KB limitation on User and GDI Resources does not exist in Windows NT (which, however, may not be able to run some of the particular programs causing the "Resources drain" in Windows 95/98). The Resource Kit article "Understanding System Performance" gives more details of this that you might want to examine.

In contrast to this, "Memory" is generally used to mean RAM (although, technically, there are several kinds of 'memory').

I've always kind of lumped "Resources" and "Memory" together.

This is a very common misunderstanding.

My Resources drop as low as 50-60% a lot of the time. What's wrong? Should I worry?

Having only 50-60% Resources available is not a problem at all. You can easily have resources drop to 10-15% without a problem. I have run the computer with less than that (on one occassion, as low as 0%!). When Resources get in the 15% range, it is maybe time to think about shutting down some programs for a while.

This does not match my experience. When my Resources get to a certain low level, by computer starts running very slowly, or freezing, or otherwise misbehaving. Are you sure you can run the computer with Resources that low?

Yes. I am sure -- provided Resources is the only problem. However, there are often other things going on a the same time that Resources get low. Especially with today's advanced hardware, users are easily tempted and encouraged to run more and more programs, of increasing sophistication, at the same time. Resources are consumed when this happens -- but it is not the only thing consumed! They may be just a symptom. At the same time the Resources are dropping, you are probably consuming more RAM. You may be pushing your swap file functioning much harder. Also, not all programs "play well together." That is, some of them tend to interfere with each other (especially if they include older 16-bit DOS or Windows 3.x programs). Using more programs at once increases the chance that you will encounter this type of conflict. But Resources are not the problem in this situation. (I emphasize this because it is more likely you will find out what is really causing your problem if you do not persist in believing it is something else!) You may benefit from examining how your Windows memory management is configured. Especially in versions of Windows later than Win95, zealous memory management commonly causes problems resulting in system slowdowns and even freezes or lockouts.

Where does one see the quantity of resources being consumed, as opposed to "memory"? Does Norton System Doctor show you, for example?

Yes, you can set Norton System Doctor monitors for "User Resources" and "GDI Resources." These show as "USER Free" and "GDI Free." I recommend setting them. Also, the Windows Resource Meter (RSRCMTR.EXE) will monitor these nicely with very little overhead; and there are several freeware utilities that do the same thing. (Note that any utilities to monitor resources will, themselves, consume system resources -- at least a little.)

Why do system resources not return to their full value after I have exited all of my programs?

There are two kinds of reasons for this: good reasons and bad reasons. These are discussed in the Knowledge Base article "Free System Resources Do Not Return To Previous Value." In brief, the reasoning is this:

The "good reasons" involve particulars of how Windows handles system initialization. Windows defers much of system initialization until the first time a program asks for a particular service. For example, each font is initialized when a program first asks for it, rather than initializing all fonts at system startup. Then, if a program requests a service that uses deferred initialization, the service remains initialized after the program has exited -- the system resources associated with that service are not freed. The system keeps the service initialized so that the next program that requests the service does not have to wait for the service to be initialized. (This behavior is by design.)

In addition, for compatibility reasons, Windows does not free system resources abandoned by Win3.1-based programs until all Win3.1-based programs have been closed. Only when there are no Win3.1-based programs running can Windows safely release abandoned system resources. (This behavior is also by design.)

The "bad reasons" are that a particular program sometimes will not free resources upon exit, as it is supposed to do, perhaps because it was badly written. This is, surprisingly, relatively rare.

How is one supposed to handle applications that consume large resources?

Be careful about loading several of them at once. These resources are finite. Programs with heavy graphics demands are among the biggest hogs (GDI resources usually go down faster than User resources, at least where heavy graphics demands are involved). Heavy multimedia use puts demands on both. (See the functions of each near the top of this post for some clarification.)

According to Knowledge Base article "System Resource Decrease After Starting and Quitting a Program," additional decrease in resources (without their release) can occur if you start to load a program and then quit it before it has completely started. Can't I just "throw" more memory at them? As it is, how can I be sure that Windows actually uses my 128 MB of RAM?

You cannot effectively throw RAM at resources, because the size of the two categories of resources is limited to a specific amount. Whether you have 16 MB, 128 MB, or 1,024 MB of RAM will not affect this. Are there any third party apps that allow one to successfully "handle" such resource-guzzling applications?

There are programs that claim to do this, but probably Win98's resource allocation cannot be improved while maintaining full backward and lateral compatibility. Memory managers and resource managers are, first of all, programs that demand memory and resources! Secondly, they don't tend to work that well (if at all). And one thing that is certain is that they cannot increase resources per se. Note that Win98 releases resources back to the system far more efficiently than Win95 did, though there are still limits to this and you ultimately will need to reboot. (I have to do this about every 5-6 days of normal use.)

It seems that "resources being drained" and "memory disappearing" into the murky waters of Windows 98 are two entirely separate entities!

Absolutely! You've got it!

See more articles on similar topics

previous page: Solutions for Common PC Problems and Possible Fixes for Windows ME
page up: Operating Systems
next page: What is the Difference Between Windows ME and Windows 2000?