Boost performance with a RAM drive

We’ve previously covered the benefits of using spare RAM for disk-caching but there’s more than one way to put extra RAM to use: it may at first seem counter-intuitive to use RAM drive software to boost system performance — after all the contents are lost when you shut down — but it all comes down to how you use it.

The benefits of a RAM drive

Naturally a RAM drive gains the key performance metrics of system RAM: very low seek times and very fast transfer rates — faster than any hard drive or SSD can hope to match. Creating a RAM drive allows you to take advantage of these features for any tasks that might benefit from improved performance. Popular examples include audio image and video editing software that can use temporary ‘scratch space’ to accelerate its performance.

But a RAM drive has benefits for home users too — used as a cache for your browser it can speed up web surfing as a location for Windows temp directories it can speed up file operations like archiving and installing programs and if you make it large enough you can even run games from it for insanely fast loading times. It has extra benefits depending on your setup — laptops often with slower 5400rpm drives can get a nice speed boost. SSDs although already very fast can benefit by using a RAM drive for temporary file operations (like the browser cache) and spare unnecessary writes in turn increasing its longevity.

And the fact that data is lost when the power is turned off is often seen as a security benefit: all cached data will be irrevocably cleared as opposed to deleting on a hard drive where software could still recover fragments of data. There are lots of RAM drive products available both free and paid but we’ll focus on just one for this tutorial – RAMDisk. We’ve chosen this one because it comes with a number of nifty features that make it easy to use plus it has a free version that limits you to a maximum 4GB drive which is plenty for most home needs anyway.

Before we begin head here and download and install Dataram’s RAMDisk software.

Configuring RAMDisk

The options are pretty straightforward but some bear covering in greater detail:

Setting up temp in RAMDisk
Telling Windows to use the RAM disk for storing temporary data.

  • Size. When setting the size of the disk don’t be overzealous. Remember that any RAM you allocate to the RAM disk won’t be usable by Windows for programs so don’t make it so large that you cause Windows to use its swap file and thus slow your system down. If you have a 4GB system you won’t want to allocate more than 1GB. For 6GB systems and more a 2-4GB RAM drive will give you more flexibility.
  • Format. For format type choose FAT32. You can also leave it unformatted and then format it in Windows as with any other drive for example to NTFS but FAT32 is faster than NTFS for smaller volumes and especially for the type of data you’re likely to use.
  • Image saving. Under the ‘Load and Save’ tab you’ll find one of the more useful features: you can optionally save the contents of the RAM disk to a hard drive at shutdown and have it loaded again at startup. This is useful if you want to use the RAM drive to launch and run programs (including games) and so need the data to persist. Note that depending on the size of the RAM disk this may slow down both bootup and shutdown times for Windows as the image is loaded and saved respectively (though RAMDisk will compress it for you to reduce the impact at bootup).
  • AutoSave: If you do want to use it as a persistent drive the ‘AutoSave’ option will regularly save the image at the specified interval. Note this interval only triggers if the contents of the RAM drive are modified which helps to reduce unnecessary hard drive writes.

The uses of a RAM drive are really limited only by understandably the size of the drive you create. Using a persistent drive and installing programs to it is easy enough so we’ll show you instead a little more complicated setup to speed up browsing and Windows temp directory usage using a non-persistent drive.

RAMDisk Configuration Utility
RAMDisk comes with some useful features that make it easy to use it to boost system performance.

RAMDisk as a browser and temp cache

  1. Start RAMDisk and set the format to FAT32 and size to 1GB or more then click ‘Start RAMDisk’.
  2. When Windows says it’s found a new drive open it in Explorer and create a ‘Cache’ and ‘Temp’ directory. Under the Cache directory create another one for each browser you’ll be using (‘IE’ ‘Firefox’ and so on).
  3. In the RAMDisk settings click the ‘Load and Save’ tab and hit ‘Save disk image now’.
  4. Then tick ‘Load Disk Image at Startup’. Do not tick ‘Save image at shutdown’ unless you want the contents to be persistent. This way the image you’ve already saved an ’empty’ RAM disk is loaded each bootup with your directories already created.
  5. Finally we need to tell any browsers and Windows to use the RAM disk.

To redirect IE’s cache go to ‘Tools > Internet Options’. Then under ‘Browsing History’ click ‘Settings’ followed by ‘Move folder…’ (your RAM drive letter and browser cache directory).

To redirect the Firefox cache you need to dig a little deeper. Launch Firefox and in the URL bar enter ‘about:config’. Next in the search bar type in ‘cache’. If it’s not already present right-click and select ‘New > String’ and add the following
configuration key: ‘browser.cache.disk.parent_directory’. For the value of the key enter the path to the RAM drive and Firefox cache directory you made earlier.

To redirect Chrome the easiest method is to edit the Chrome shortcut. Just append the following to the end (after ‘chome.exe’): ‘–disk-cache-dir=F:CacheChrome –media-cache-dir=F:CacheChrome’ using the appropriate path to your RAM drive and cache directory.

    1GB is plenty for browser caching but not so much if you also want Windows to use it as a scratch drive for temporary files. If you create a drive one of at least 2GB or more you can also do the following:

    • Go to the Windows Control Panel and click ‘System & Security > System > Advanced system settings’ (in the left-hand pane). From here click the ‘Advanced’ tab and at the bottom click ‘Environment Variables…’. At the top you’ll see two variables defined for TEMP and TMP click on each and click ‘Edit…’ and type in the path to your Temp folder on your RAM drive.

    Note however the following caveat: while you can restrict cache size for the browsers you can’t do so for the Windows temp directory. If anything should require more space than is available in the temp directory the action will likely fail and Windows will report it ran out of disk space. The most likely scenario for this to happen is decompressing large archives of a few GB or more since Windows writes data temporarily to the Temp directory when it does so.

    This aside using a RAM disk can work well for TEMP because the contents aren’t needed once Windows shuts down and often you’ll find the temp directory on your hard disk filled with gunk and taking up disk space that Windows fails to clean out. With a RAM disk this isn’t an issue.

    RAMDisk benchmark
    Using a RAM disk allows you to take advantage of insane speeds and accelerates programs and tasks.

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    • Robert Paulson

      I use a RAM disk for a lot of different things… mostly because (1) it saves A LOT of writes to the SSD and (2) it eliminates annoying delays in games and delays in a lot of miscellaneous programs. You might just install (most) everything to the SSD to avoid delays but the SSD will probably fill up fast and that’s not good especially when combined with too many unnecessary writes. You might ask “how do all of the programs get installed on a (single?) RAM disk in addition to all of those (unnecessary) temporary files and aren’t they all lost when the computer is turned off?” (Note that data is only “lost” in the event of a power failure or user error.) My solution was to install 32GB of RAM and have a 20GB RAM disk initiated on every startup. –Install everything you can to the RAM disk (one at a time and then archive the data) and create a batch file to run the installed program – the batch file copies the program to physical memory (up to 20GB in my case), runs the program, and when the program ends only the files that have changed are saved back to a hard disk or SSD). Writes to the SSD and program delays are then reduced by a huge amount.