What is a Memory Leak?

It's not as scary as it sounds

Dripping tap

Tesletech/Pixabay

A memory leak might sound like the early stages of dementia, but it’s actually the description for a very specific computer problem which could lead to sluggish behavior on your system or device. However, it’s not the end of the world; your system isn’t going to forget your login information or where your prized images are, but it can make the whole thing run very slowly.

What is a Memory Leak?

In a nutshell, a memory leak is when your system doesn’t reallocate memory (RAM) after it’s been used and is no longer required, resulting in similar symptoms to when you’re trying to perform a task you don’t have enough memory for. It makes everything run super slow because instead of using super-fast memory to provide quick access to the information your CPU or GPU might need, it has to use far slower storage like your hard drive or SSD.

Why Do Memory Leaks Happen?

In theory, they shouldn’t. A memory leak is rarely, if ever, intended by a software developer and it almost always leads to problems. But they do happen, and it’s usually because of a bug or software that wasn’t well optimized.

Every time you open a new tab in, say, your browser, your system or device allocates a certain amount of memory to that process, giving it enough quick-access memory to remain snappy and responsive, delivering the digital information you’ve required in a timely manner. When you close that tab, the system is supposed to recognize that, and reallocate the memory into a shared pool for reuse by another process later, should it be required.

In the case of a memory leak, however, that doesn’t happen. Instead, as you open more and more tabs, more and more memory is allocated away. If it isn’t reallocated, your system starts to run out of memory. That’s the leak. The end result is the sluggish system, which the leak is the original cause of.

How Do You Fix a Memory Leak?

Before you can fix a memory leak, you need to identify it. If your suspect you’re experiencing one, you can look at Task Manager (if you’re running Windows) or third-party system monitoring tool for further evidence.

If you look at your system’s RAM usage over time, it should go up and down as you open and close applications. However, if you’re experiencing a memory leak, usage should gradually increase instead. You can also look at the amount of memory each application is using, then compare that with typical usage numbers found using an online search.

If you feel like you’ve identified a memory leak, there are a few steps you can take to address the problem:

  • Reboot your system: It’s cliché for a reason, but it works. Resetting your system or device will force applications to give up any memory they’ve been hoarding, returning it to the shared pool.
  • Update the problematic app or your operating system: Chances are, if you’re having problems, others are too; hopefully they’ve let the developers of the app know. If not, you can tell them yourself, but if they’re responsible developers, they’ll likely release an update soon to fix the issue.
  • Use an alternative app: If they don’t update it, or you can’t live with the memory leak in the meantime, your best bet is to use an alternative app. There are almost always several options for any type of software, so look around and see what might make a viable replacement until the problem is solved. Or it isn’t. In which case the developers don’t deserve your business anyway.

Reallocation Doesn’t Solve Everything

Although reallocating memory is often the way developers fix memory leaks or even just running low on available memory, it doesn’t always solve the problem. Check out the story of Stardock’s Elemental: War of Magic, where memory reallocation ran wild and caused its game to never run as it should.