The ever-growing demands of computing means 8 GB RAM can be too limiting for most PCs, leaving 16 GB as the baseline for a quality Windows experience. However, Mac computers are a different story.
The rise of modern web browsers, web-based desktop applications (like Slack or Discord), and other sandboxed software means nearly everything on your PC demands large amounts of RAM. That’s why 16 GB RAM has been the go-to recommendation for Windows PCs for a few years now, and even 32 GB RAM makes sense for some types of work or gaming.
If you’re shopping for a Mac, you might think you need a model with 16 GB RAM or more, just because that’s what makes sense with Windows computers. On the flip side, you might be tempted to write off Apple entirely for selling laptops with only 8 GB RAM at well over $1,000. Most people don’t need more than 8 GB on a Mac, though.
A Primer in Memory Management
Let’s start with how computer memory generally works. Random access memory, or RAM for short, is the fast memory in computers that is used to store applications while they are running. If you have more running tasks than the operating system can fit into RAM, some data is moved to virtual memory on much slower storage (like the computer’s SSD or hard drive) until it’s needed again. The slowdown you get on computers with many applications open is usually due to data constantly swapping between the RAM and slower storage.
Each desktop operating system handles that process differently. Windows uses a “page file” on your main drive for virtual memory, and starting with Windows 10, it can also use memory compression to reduce swap usage. Desktop Linux varies widely, with several different options for virtual memory and memory compression, but most Linux distributions work similarly to Windows. It used to be common to dedicate an entire drive partition on Linux for virtual memory, called swap partitions, but now the Windows-style swap file on the main file system is more common.
Memory management on macOS covers most of those same basics. Apple’s old documentation explains that macOS uses a paging system for virtual memory, with data stored on the main boot partition, like Windows. However, the way memory usage is displayed to you is different. If you open the Activity Monitor, the main graph is for “Memory pressure,” not just available physical RAM.
Apple describes memory pressure as a feature that “graphically represents how efficiently your memory is serving your processing needs” — sort of like a general health bar for your computer. It takes into account the available physical RAM, how much virtual (swapped) memory is being used, and other factors. As you use more of your Mac’s available resources, the bar goes up and changes color. A green color indicates you have plenty of memory left, amber/orange means you’re pushing it, and red means the Mac is using a lot of swap memory.
Even though the combined bar graph is the main indicator, you can still get a detailed breakdown of each category to the right. “Wired Memory” in Activity Manager is memory that cannot be moved out of physical RAM, like the kernel and other core system processes. “App Memory” is memory used by your currently running apps, and “Compressed” is inactive data that hasn’t been pushed to swap yet.
So What’s Different?
If macOS handles memory more or less like other desktop operating systems, why don’t you need as much RAM for the same tasks? The answer is Apple Silicon.
Apple started switching its Mac lineup away from Intel CPUs in 2020, moving them towards custom-made Apple Silicon chips like the M1 and M2. Apple Silicon is a System-on-a-Chip (SoC) design, with nearly all the computer’s components in a single chip — including the CPU, GPU, storage, and RAM. It works more like the chips in most modern smartphones than the CPUs in most other PCs.
Apple Silicon uses a Unified Memory Architecture, or UMA for short, where physical memory is shared across the CPU, GPU, Neural Engine, and other components. On most computers, the GPU uses its own RAM (or “video memory”), and data is constantly copied between the CPU’s memory and the GPU’s memory. Apple’s approach dramatically improves system performance and is part of the reason Macs with M1 and M2 chips are so fast while consuming so little power.
So, what does that mean for RAM usage? First, swap memory is much better on modern Macs than on most PCs. Between the shared memory and faster swap storage, plus all the other benefits of Apple Silicon, a Mac with 8 GB RAM and a Windows PC with 8 GB aren’t directly comparable.
The Base Model Is (Probably) Okay
I bought an M1 MacBook Air with 8 GB of RAM back in 2021 — my only upgrade was swapping the base 256 GB SSD with a 512 GB option. I’ve been surprised at how well it runs, especially considering I’m used to 16 GB RAM on my desktop PC. I spend most of my workday running Slack, 5-20 tabs in Google Chrome, Discord, Trello, Apple Mail, and sometimes a few images open in Adobe Photoshop. Most of those applications are well known for eating up RAM, and yet I rarely see the MacBook’s “memory pressure” go into orange.
You can find the same experience echoed by other people online, especially over the past year or so, as most popular applications have been updated to run natively on Apple Silicon (instead of running in the Rosetta 2 translation layer). macOS does seem to be more efficient with RAM usage than Windows in general, but most of the magic comes from the faster swap and unified memory with Apple Silicon.
That doesn’t mean buying a Mac with more RAM is a waste of money — far from it, in fact. The unified memory feature means the GPU can use any free RAM, which can dramatically speed up photo editing, video rendering, gaming (yes, macOS has a few games), 3D rendering, and other tasks that rely on GPU power. More RAM also makes sense for all the same use cases as Windows PCs, like giving you room for dozens (or hundreds) more Chrome tabs without using the browser’s Memory Saver. The computer will also last longer with more RAM, as swap memory creates more read/write cycles for the storage, decreasing its maximum lifespan.
Long story short, 8 GB RAM is still completely fine for a Mac, even if it doesn’t make sense for most Windows PCs anymore. More RAM will always be better, but if you don’t already have an idea of how much memory you need in a computer, save some money and skip the more expensive memory options.
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