How to Fix 'Low Virtual Memory' Errors

Category: Memory

Recently I installed a game on a friend's computer and when we tried playing it, we got a message saying 'Your system is low on virtual memory.' Does that mean I need to buy more memory, or could it be a software error? Can you please help us fix this problem?

Are You Running Low on Virtual Memory?

When all of your computer's real physical memory (RAM) is in use, Windows will try to create virtual memory by grabbing a chunk of hard drive space and treating it like real memory.

Your software can't tell the difference between real and virtual memory, but you might because virtual memory access is much slower, due to the hard drive activity it requires.

If you encounter the low virtual memory error message, then you have used the maximum amount of real plus virtual memory that is supported on your system. Sometimes programs that crash or ones that are poorly designed will not return their working memory space to the operating system when they're done using it.
low virtual memory

Other programs that need a large amount of memory to run may fail because Windows cannot "see" the available memory. In most cases, a shutdown and restart will resolve this problem.

Windows Knows Best, Usually

If you still see the dreaded "Your system is low on virtual memory" message then the first thing to do is make sure your computer is configured to allow Windows to automatically manage the virtual memory. To do so, follow these steps:

  • Click Start, then open the Control Panel.
  • Click Performance and Maintenance, and then click System.
  • Click the Advanced tab.
  • Under Performance, click Settings.
  • Click the Advanced tab.
  • Under Virtual memory, click Change.
  • On Windows 7, check the "Automatically manage paging file size for all drives" box.
  • On Windows XP, click the drive that contains the paging file (virtual memory) settings that you want to change. In almost every case, this will be your C: drive. Then click to select the "System managed size" option, then click Set.

  • Click OK to exit all the dialog boxes, then restart your computer.

    When you allow Windows to manage your virtual memory, it should make the optimum amount of virtual memory available, by automatically shrinking or enlarging the paging file as needed.

    If you continue to see the "low virtual memory" message, you can experiment with customized settings for the minumum and maximum page file sizes. Instead of selecting the option to let Windows manage the settings, select the Custom Size option. The default setting for minimum page file size is the amount of RAM you have installed, and the maximum size is three times that amount. If you have 2GB of RAM, those settings would initially be 2048 MB and 6144 MB. So you might try setting them to 4096 and 8192, restart, and see what happens.

    If neither method solves the low virtual memory problem, there are a few more things you can try...

    Eliminate Non-Essential Programs

    Over time, we tend to accumulate a bit of clutter on a computer. My article "Making Windows XP Run Faster!" will show you how to keep your system updated, eliminate viruses and spyware, scrub the hard disk of unneeded files, slim down your startup selections, and eliminate unnecessary system services. All of these things will free up resources in your computer, making it run faster and more reliably.

    Add RAM to Your System

    It might just be the case that your computer needs more real, physical memory. By this I mean RAM sticks that can be purchased in most computer, electronics, or office supply stores. If your PC is more than three years old, chances are it's close to being obsolete -- at least in terms of the ability to run today's resource-hogging software packages. And adding RAM to an older computer is the most effective thing you can do to upgrade it.

    To see how much memory you have installed, follow these steps under Windows XP:

  • Click Start, then open the Control Panel.

  • Click Performance and Maintenance, and then click System.

    On the System Properties window, you'll see the type and speed of your processor (CPU) and the amount of RAM. Note that Windows always seems to report that you have slightly less memory than you actually have. For example, if Windows reports 1.99 GB of RAM, you actually have 2 GB.

    The more RAM you have, the better your computer will perform. I recommend you have a minimum 2 gigabytes (MB) of RAM, but more is better, up to a point. See my related article How Much Memory Do I Need? for my recommendations, and Memory Upgrade for help with the task of buying and installing new RAM memory.

    Plan B: Recycle Your Computer

    If popping the hood on your old PC sounds like too much trauma, consider buying a new one. Computer prices have dropped a lot over the past few years, and the computing power you get for your money is going up. My How to Buy a Computer article will guide you through the Windows vs. Mac issue, what kind of processor you need, and will give you recommendations on monitors and software.

    Do you have something to say about the "low virtual memory" error? Post your comment or question below...

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    Most recent comments on "How to Fix 'Low Virtual Memory' Errors"

    Posted by:

    26 Aug 2011

    I am sure Bob is aware of the utilities "CCleaner" & "Speccy", free from (Piriform also offers "professional" version, for a fee.) They can assist in doing the jobs Bob describe. I use them often, for myself and "non-techies" I am "helping", with excellent results.

    Speccy gives all the details of a PC (CPU, chipset, operating system, motherboard, ram, software installed, software registration keys, etc), enabling you to know everything about the system you are trying to fix.

    CCleaner has many "cleanup" tools, allowing you to clean up the "crap" on your system. It includes a "start-up program controller".

    Hope this helps someone...

    Posted by:

    26 Aug 2011

    Just a note to thank you, Bob, for your very understandable explanations of various computer related issues such as this one. Your step-by-step instructions are always perfect and very easy to follow.

    Those of us who have been using computers for many years often forget that new users are coming online every day, and they're often totally lost on the first step of a "fix" instruction. By giving such basic guidance, confidence is created by the user. It might not seem important, but it is and I, for one, appreciate it.

    Posted by:

    Murray White
    27 Aug 2011

    In PC Tech as a admin (Paltalk room) I and others are asked this question frequently. Most are XP users and generally are trying to run a system with 512 MB of RAM with part of it being used for on board video.
    Users must learn to look at the Task Manager and view the commit charge and the peak usage commit. In variably the system is trying to function on less RAM than is required and the only positive solution is to either purchase additional RAM or as noted -- upgrade the system to something more current with considerably more RAM.

    Posted by:

    27 Aug 2011

    Windows 7 consistently sets virtual memory less than their own recomendation! I have to change to manual to set it to their recommedations. I believe in using at least twice the available real memory as the virtual setting.

    Posted by:

    29 Aug 2011

    I've always been told to set the page file size to twice that of the amount of installed RAM (i.e. midway between Bob's minimum and maximum recommendations). So far, at least, I've not received a "low virtual memory" warning.

    Also, I believe, allowing Windows to dynamically manage the page file size uses extra processing power.

    Posted by:

    31 Aug 2011

    I have always used 1.5 times the physical memory, but I think I will do 2 times now, it is easier math. LOL! The min and Max should be set the same, it cuts down on the fragmentation of the pagefile and the hard drive.

    Posted by:

    15 Feb 2012


    Posted by:

    S Flash Freestainton
    16 Jul 2012

    On my XP, I couldn't easily follow your instructions under "Windows Knows Best, Usually
    If you still (-----) allow Windows to automatically manage the virtual memory. To do so, follow these steps:"
    May I suggest the following modified recipes.
    (I can vouch for the efficacy of the XP version, but I'm assuming your original works for Win7.)

    · On Windows 7, click [Start], then open the [Control Panel].
    · Click [Performance and Maintenance], and then click [System].
    · Click the [Advanced tab].
    · Under Performance, click [Settings].
    · Click the [Advanced] tab.
    · Under Virtual memory, click [Change].
    · Check the "Automatically manage paging file size for all drives" box.
    · Click [OK] to exit all the dialog boxes, then restart your computer.

    · On Windows XP, click [Start], then [Settings], and open the [Control Panel].
    · Click [Performance and Maintenance], and then click [System]. ( If [Performance and Maintenance] is not visible, you may be in “classic view”: use switch near top left to “category view”)
    · You should have opened “System Properties”: click the [Advanced] tab.
    · Under Performance, click [Settings].
    · “Performance Options” opens: again click the [Advanced] tab.
    · Under Virtual memory, click [Change].
    · Now check the drive that contains the paging file (virtual memory) settings that you want to change. In almost every case, this will be your C: drive. Then click to select the "System managed size" option, then click Set.
    · Click [OK] to exit all the dialog boxes, then restart your computer.

    Posted by:

    25 Jan 2013

    Dear Mr Rankin.

    I just want to say thank you so much for this article, and of course the way you lay out easy how-to instructions.

    I've been struggling for months now, battling with my slow office PC. But after following this article, it's been going like a dream. Touch wood.

    Kind regards, all the way from sunny South Africa.

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