It’s been a complaint about Chrome for years: “it hogs so much RAM!” And now that Firefox Quantum is here, the fire rages on—some users see less RAM usage than Chrome, while others see similar amounts. And it seems to have a big hand in what browser people are using.
But RAM usage is not inherently a bad thing.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve made this complaint before, and it always shocks me a little bit how much RAM is used by one single program on my computer. But this complaint is misguided. At best, it’s a result of us being used to the way things were before the modern web exploded. At worst, it’s based upon a misunderstanding of how RAM works.
Let’s talk about why it’s a good thing that your browsers uses lots of RAM—and what you can do if it’s using too much.
Why Chrome and Firefox Use So Much RAM
It’s true, Chrome and Firefox use an awful lot of RAM. Right now, on my system, Chrome is using a whopping 3.7GB, with 12 tabs open (including webapps like Gmail, Google Calendar, TweetDeck, and Slack), not to mention a few extensions installed. That’s a hefty amount of memory, but there’s a reason for it all.
Modern browsers make the web faster, easier, and more reliable. Both Chrome and (now) Firefox are multi-process, which means they split up different portions of the browser into their own processes—that way if a tab or plug-in crashes, your browser won’t crash along with it. This is a good thing. Chrome also has features like prerendering, which make web pages faster to load at the expense of resources like RAM.
Extensions add even more features to an already feature-rich browser. Using any extensions on top of that? They’ll eat up even more RAM. If you want the features they offer, you have to be willing to give up some of your precious resources for the features that make your life more convenient. This is how computers have always worked.
Your browser does more than it ever has before. Remember when the web was just a bunch of static HTML pages with terrible backgrounds and the occasional animated GIF? Those days are long gone. Now you use your browser for reading email, managing your calendar, watching videos, editing documents, and even playing games. And that doesn’t even include getting notifications from any number of services, or using extensions to do things like send text messages or auto-fill passwords.
We’re doing more in our browser than ever, and those web pages and webapps take up resources (just like desktop apps that perform the same tasks do). But the more you do in your browser, the less you do on your desktop. While it feels like Firefox and Chrome are taking up a ton of RAM, part of that is due to that stuff all being under one umbrella…rather than split up among a bunch of different desktop applications. Your browser has become, in a way, your operating system. Chrome even has its own task manager if you press Shift+Tab, so you can see how much RAM each individual tab and extension uses. Firefox has a slightly more technical one if you type
about:memory in your address bar.
Empty RAM Is Useless RAM
A lot of people see high RAM usage and think “Oh no! This is going to slow down my computer!” But that isn’t always true.
RAM exists to make your computer faster. Your computer uses RAM as a cache to store things it may need again soon—in the case of web browsers, that could be web pages or other resources used by plug-ins and extensions. That way, when you go back to that web page or use that extension again, it’ll load faster. This is a good thing. If your computer left that RAM empty, a lot of things would move more slowly. Chrome, and to a somewhat lesser extent Firefox, are designed to use more RAM to make your browsing experience faster and smoother.
Now, if your RAM is so full that it’s constantly swapping some of its contents to your hard disk, then that’s a bad thing, and it can definitely slow your computer down. Feels paradoxical, doesn’t it?
If Your Computer Is Slow, You Have Two Choices: Make Sacrifices or Upgrade It
Look, I’m not going to say that Chrome and Firefox are perfectly efficient. There are certainly improvements that can be made, and the developers are working on them all the time.
But we also need to adjust our expectations. Web browsers aren’t just one small program on your computer. It’s your window to the web, the program that handles a lot—or even most—of what you do. The modern web is more resource-hungry than ever, thanks to all the benefits it offers, and our computers need to keep up.
So if your computer doesn’t have enough RAM to comfortably run everything you want, then you either need to make sacrifices (close programs, uninstall extensions, and use fewer tabs at a time)…or you need to upgrade your computer.
I know, it’s no fun when you’re forced to spend lots of money. 8GB or 16GB may seem like an unnecessarily high amount of RAM, but that’s how it goes with technology—as time marches on, and you need to do more complex things on your computer, you need more resourfces. Do you still complain that Windows 7 requires 1GB of RAM compared to XP’s 64MB? Of course you don’t. Do you complain when a new game requires a better CPU or graphics card? You might gripe about spending the money, but you accept it as a normal part of gaming on a PC.
Web browsers are no different: the more mature they (and the web) become, the more resources they will require—especially as browsers become more and more of a one-stop shop for everything on your computer. I suppose you could just use an old browser, or one designed to be super lightweight…but then you miss out on all the new benefits and features. You might as well keep using Windows 98.
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