Reclaim your RAM

We've been longtime fans of RAMBooster at CNET, but it's not the only RAM cleaner out there. Here are two other options in case that perennial favorite is causing more problems than it's worth.

Even in these days of cheap RAM, where you can get an extra gigabyte of the stuff for around $40 or so, there's not much you can do about must-have programs that leak memory short of seeking out an alternative. That doesn't mean you're tied to incessant program restarts and operating system reboots, though: a few useful programs such as RAM Idle LE, RAMBooster, and Instant Memory Cleaner make it their business to reclaim wasted bits.

Instant Memory Cleaner sports a main interface several times smaller than its options window. (Credit: CNET Networks)

RAMBooster is well-known to longtime Daily Download readers. We've featured it in our Windows Starter Kit and in a First Look video. For a freeware program not updated since 2005, it functions amazingly well. Using program defaults or modifying the setting through the Preferences screen of the Edit menu, determine how much RAM you'd like it to free up and at which point of resource consumption. RAMBooster will keep track of RAM usage and scrub your RAM free of flotsam left behind by closed windows and background programs.

As free memory falls, the system tray icon will change color from red and black to yellow. Mousing over will reveal your current available RAM, and right-clicking will access the user-initiated cleaning menu.

This is all well and good, but I've noticed that when running multiple programs that leak memory or otherwise consume a lot, RAMBooster seems to hamper performance more than enhance it. Everything from typing to Web site downloading will be sluggish, and when I kill RAMBooster it goes away. It's an imperfect standard, to be sure, but sometimes you've got to go with what works, and what doesn't.

RAM Idle LE sports a more contemporary interface, and doesn't seem to suffer from the same endurance problem that plagues RAMBooster. The left nav offers the RAM Optimizer and a System Information tab. The information is culled from your computer's version of Windows, the amount of RAM you have, paging memory, version of Internet Explorer installed, and more. Most of it is nice to know but not really essential for a RAM rescuing program.

RAM Idle doesn't look unique, but it does a great job of cleaning your RAM while in use. (Credit: CNET Networks)

Just as in RAMBooster, RAM Idle lets users set the amount of RAM they need to have available, and it also has automatic settings to keep things running smoothly without constant attention. It's nearly double the size of RAMBooster, at just under 900 KB, but it offers many more settings for you to play with.

The main RAM Optimizer pane is kind of useless, with an unlabeled graph that I think is supposed to represent CPU usage taking up most of the space. From below it, though, or from the context menu for the system tray icon, users can enable or disable the program, manually set the free RAM target and minimum free RAM, as well as enable further RAM-optimizing functions.

Users can set a certain amount of RAM to be freed within 60 seconds after start-up, and they can also set a smaller amount of RAM to be freed regularly thereafter if the amount of free RAM falls below a certain percentage. So, for example, 64 MB can be freed every 4 minutes if there's more than 25 percent of your system's RAM in use. Enacting any of the changes made requires hitting the Save button that lives over the left nav. Clearly, the layout could use an overhaul.

Still a fan-fave, RAMBooster hasn't been updated in three years. (Credit: CNET Networks)

The RAM Idle system tray icon shows the amount of free RAM as part of its icon, but it drops a digit in numbers larger than 999. The program also has context menu tools for restarting, shutting down, and hibernating Windows, and predetermined amounts of RAM that you can force it to free. Overall, it benefits from the added features, compared with RAMBooster's minimalist approach.

Instant Memory Cleaner is another tiny program for freeing bogged-down RAM. The freeware sports an equally tiny interface, a small box that loads in the bottom right of your screen. The boxy user interface shows available RAM in real time, and if you want more information you can click the pen icon to get a detailed breakdown of what's eating up your memory. A Windows-logo knockoff icon instigates the memory clean, and other buttons lets users minimize or exit the program, and access the help menu. A bar in the center of the program provides mouse-over information.

Some users may be bothered by Instant Memory Cleaner's atypical and hard-to-see interface, but since these programs should be used for their effect and not their aesthetic standards, simple is better here. Although it lacks the useful advanced settings of RAM Idle, it does what it's supposed to at least as well enough as RAMBooster, and without all the extra hang-ups.

RAM Idle does the job for me--I especially like how I can set a specific level of RAM to keep open. If you have a favorite RAM cleaner that you use, tell us about it in the comments below.