Solving the Out of Memory Error

Category: Memory

A reader asks: 'My computer is giving an Out of Memory error and I can't continue. Do I need to delete some files, get a new hard drive or is it something else?' Here's the solution to this common problem...

Out of Memory?

A number of different things can cause "out of memory" error messages. Lack of hard disk space is one of them, in some circumstances. But when your computer complains about not having enough memory, it's (almost always) referring to RAM -- the working memory that's installed on your computer's motherboard, not your hard hard drive. When you turn off your computer, everything in RAM memory goes away. Your hard drive is for permanent file storage.

If you open a lot of programs at once, you may run into an "out of memory" error caused by something Microsoft calls "the desktop heap limitation" on Vista or Windows 7. Closing some of the open windows before retrying the program may help. But there's also a registry tweak that can eliminate the problem without having to pick and choose which programs remain open. See this Microsoft Support page for details and instructions on how to implement the fix.
Out of Memory error

Also, you may run out of memory because you just don't have enough memory installed. Remember, this means RAM, and has nothing to do with the space available on your hard drive. If you have less than 1 GB of RAM, you can expect "out of memory errors" often. For Windows XP, 4 GB of RAM is ideal. You'll need a 64-bit version of Windows Vista or Windows 7 to make use of more than 4 GB of RAM. (To find out how much RAM you ahve, and if you have a 32 or 64-bit system, click Start > Control Panel > System and Maintenance > System.)

Are you limping along with limited RAM memory? See my related article How to Upgrade Your Memory for help with the task of selecting and installing additional RAM memory in your desktop or laptop computer.

Even if you only use one program at a time, an "out of memory" error can be caused by a program that manages memory badly. If you encounter this error with one specific program, you might seek an alternative to it. Open the Windows Task Manager (press Ctrl-Shift-Esc) and click on the Processes tab to see which programs are using the most RAM memory. Clicking on the Mem Usage column header will sort the list for you.

It's not uncommon for web browsers to consume 500MB or even close to a gigabyte of memory. Firefox and Chrome seem to gobble up RAM like candy. Some programs just hold on to memory too long, or fail to free it for other applications. These are called "memory leaks" in software. Usually just closing down the offending program and restarting it will bring you back to good. Sometimes you'll need to restart your computer if things get too fouled up.

Here's Why I Said "Almost Always" ...

When your computer runs out of physical RAM, it can grab a chunk of hard drive storage and magically create virtual memory. Windows' virtual memory system temporarily stores data that won't fit into RAM in a hidden special file called pagefile.sys. By default, this file grows and shrinks as needed. If there is no free disk space anywhere, pagefile.sys can't expand and you could get an "out of memory" error.

So yes, you can try cleaning up your hard drive to see if that solves your "out of memory" problem, if none of the other remedies above have done the trick. (See my article How to Clean Up Your Hard Drive for some tips and how-to's.) If your hard drive space is critically low, you're probably seeing other error messages indicating that's the case. But it never hurts to tidy up your hard drive.

You can also run into problems if your settings prevent the automatic management of virtual memory. Instead of seeing "out of memory" errors, you might be getting "low virtual memory" errors. See my companion article How to Fix 'Low Virtual Memory' Errors for further instructions.

Your thoughts on the "out of memory" or "low memory" issues are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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This article was posted by on 20 Jun 2012

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Most recent comments on "Solving the Out of Memory Error"

Posted by:

20 Jun 2012

Bob - you got me thinking about this a few months ago. I have all XP computers and want them to last until Win 8 stabilizes, so I added a caching hard drive and upgraded to 3 gb of ram. I choose 3 because the Dell lap tops come with 2gb (that is 1 gb per memory slot).
By buying a 2gb memory card I didn't have to spend more money upgrading the other memory card.
3gb works fine for our work.

Posted by:

Linda Benson
21 Jun 2012

Hi Bob, I love learning! I liked reading this article because I learned that I have a Windows Vista 64 bit and all that. I had a Microsoft class in 2010 and learned all about computers(even the binary & MegaHz? & passed all the tests!), but I never had a computer. Now, I have a computer & don't remember a thing I learned! DAH! I'm saving this article so I can go back over it when I need to. Thanks for sharing your brain Bob. I sure do appreciate your knowledge!

Posted by:

Des M
21 Jun 2012

Following the recommendations of a well-known memory chip supplier, I bought from them four 1GB chips to replace and upgrade my memory from 2GB. Too late I found that Windows 7 Pro (32 bit) is limited to 3 GB of RAM. Grr!!

Posted by:

21 Jun 2012

Thanks, as always, for the info, Bob. I need almost-full hard help, though. I've removed all the files I can find and have less than 1gig of space left, which I am sure will cause all kinds of problems. I've removed temp files, all my pics, videos, personal files, and can't find anything else to remove. All my Outlook 2007 archives are on external resources. I have iTunes installed on my PC (Vista) and understand I can't move the iTunes stuff to my external hard drive. Surely I haven't accumulated 95 gigs of iTunes files in 9 months? I'm getting really worried. Any help will be appreciated. Thanks.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Solving the Out of Memory Error (Posted: 20 Jun 2012)
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