Firefox on Vista has been grinding to a crawl and I just checked the RAM usage on this machine and found 400MB of RAM in use by Firefox.
Is this because of plugins/addons?
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Not answering your actual question ("why?"), but suggesting a solution to high memory, the AFOM addon:
recovers Memory Leakage within a running instance of the Firefox browser application.
Works really well, reduced my average usage from 250MB to 80MB.
Have you tried running Firefox in "safe" mode with no plugins and addons enabled?
Check the memory then and see if it makes a difference. If it does then your answer is "yes".
Also check memory with 1 tab open against your usual number. If you have lots of tabs open then you're going to have lots of pages in memory. It all adds up.
Here's a list of "problematic" plugins/extensions; maybe it is one of them.
This doesn't answer "why" but I thought it was an interesting comparison of how much memory the browser uses: http://www.dotnetperls.com/chrome-memory
Have any of you tried the memory managing/saving plugins for firefox? Helps save memory from unused tabs: TooManyTabs Firefox Addon
I think there's a few more...