When I first started using Windows Vista, one of the features that I dismissed early on was Windows ReadyBoost, the Vista technology that lets you use the memory in a USB flash drive as a pseudo-RAM drive, dedicated to caching the Vista pagefile. On my desktop computer, a 3.6GHz Pentium 4 with 4GB of RAM, I wasn’t seeing any consistent performance improvement, and I determined that ReadyBoost would benefit system performance on computers that were more memory constrained. Since I prefer to max out the memory configurations of my computers, I doubted ReadyBoost would help me.

Recently, I needed to upgrade my notebook computer to run image-editing applications and decided to go with Vista. However, my notebook had only 2GB of RAM (the maximum supported by the hardware). Although 2GB is plenty of memory for most applications in 32-bit Windows, you'll recall that I subscribe to the "more is better" philosophy when dealing with memory. I remembered ReadyBoost while I was using a flash drive to move data between computers--when I inserted the flash drive, Vista offered me the option to use it to speed up my system. I decided that the flash drive hanging off the side of the notebook would get in the way, so I declined the offer.

However, a few days later I was sorting through memory cards for my various cameras and discovered a 2GB Secure Digital (SD) card that I didn’t immediately need. My notebook computer has a side-mounted SD card slot in which the card sits almost flush with the computer case, so I let Vista configure the SD card for using ReadyBoost.

What I found is that the ReadyBoost implementation using the 2GB SD card significantly improves the load time of my applications, even though I've got 2GB of system memory, a top-of-the-line notebook with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and a 7200 RPM SATA notebook drive. The improvement is especially noticeable when I’m using image-editing tools and switching between those tools; for example, the load time for Adobe Photoshop CS2 quickened from almost 30 seconds to less than 7 seconds. Other complex application tools show similar load-time improvements. The performance improvement is so noticeable that I'm considering buying a fast 4GB SD memory card to use for ReadyBoost to double the available cache size. Then I'll pass the 2GB card on to one of my kids' computers, which is currently running with only 1GB of system memory but does have a built-in SD card reader. Using ReadyBoost and an SD card is certainly a cheaper and simpler alternative to any other option likely to improve system performance.

Tip -- If you'd like to try the various versions of Vista, you can install them from any Vista installation CD-ROM. When you launch the installation and are prompted to enter a valid license key, just hit Continue. When you're presented with an “Are you sure?” prompt, click No--you'll see a list of the Vista versions and the option to install any of them. You will get an activation period from 14 to 30 days to test drive the software.