Apple insists 8GB unified memory equals 16GB regular RAM

in Current Mac Hardware edited November 2023

Facing renewed criticism that it provides too little RAM in its iMac and MacBooks, Apple has doubled down on how Apple Silicon uses memory so much more efficiently.

Bob Borchers in front of an iMac
Bob Borchers in front of an iMac

One of the design changes brought by the move from Intel to Apple Silicon in 2020 was to do with RAM. In Apple Silicon, memory is hard-wired into the processor using Unified Memory Architecture (UMA), and that removes traditional bottlenecks.

Memory in Apple Silicon is accessed faster than in previous designs because the RAM is on board the processor, it doesn't have to be reached via the traditional bus and separate chip method. There are potential issues, but overall Apple is right that this is a significant improvement.

However, a core claim of Apple's is that this improved design means Mac need less RAM than they did.

"Comparing our memory to other system's memory actually isn't equivalent," Apple vice president of worldwide product marketing Bob Borchers said in a new interview, "because of the fact that we have such an efficient use of memory, and we use memory compression, and we have a unified memory architecture."

"Actually, 8GB on an M3 MacBook Pro is probably analogous to 16GB on other systems," he continued. "We just happen to be able to use it much more efficiently."

Several years in to using Apple Silicon, however, there is also an increase in the use of AI's large language models. Along with that comes an increased perception that Apple is short-changing its Pro users by making RAM upgrades costly.

"[So] what I would say is I would have people come in and try what they want to do on their systems, and they will I think see incredible performance," continued Borchers. "If you look at the raw data and capabilities of these systems, it really is phenomenal."

"This is the place where I think people need to see beyond the specs, and actually go and look beyond the capabilities, and listen to trusted people like you who have actually used the systems," he said. "People need to look beyond the specifications and actually go and understand how that technology is being used. That's the true test."

Borchers' claim is fair for regular use, like surfing, light image editing and the like. However, there are several professional workflows that we highlighted in our Apple Silicon Mac Pro review from just after WWDC, and will again in our M3 Max MacBook Pro review, that demand the RAM. His comments likely won't hold much water with those users.

Apple is arguably again under pressure over RAM because the new 14-inch MacBook Pro comes by default with 8GB RAM, as does the new 15-inch MacBook Air. These and the new 24-inch iMac can be increased to 16GB RAM for $200, or 24GB RAM for $400.

Read on AppleInsider



  • Reply 1 of 73
    It is worth noting, that Adobe recommends 16gb ram for Lightroom on both windows and mac.

    Apparently there are some issues with Adobe's memory management with apple silicon. If this is resolved, then I guess Apple might be correct!
    edited November 2023 byronldavwilliamlondonForumPostkestralwatto_cobracurtis hannahCrampedAlmonds
  • Reply 2 of 73
    byronlbyronl Posts: 369member
    basically calling their customers idiots
    muthuk_vanalingamwilliamlondonxyzzy-xxxcanukstormkestralgrandact73zeus423curtis hannah
  • Reply 3 of 73
    byronl said:
    basically calling their customers idiots
    They are
    bob-tahomawilliamlondonxyzzy-xxxForumPostkestralmacguicurtis hannah
  • Reply 4 of 73
    XedXed Posts: 2,704member
    byronl said:
    basically calling their customers idiots
    How are you getting that? The average user only understands a quality for RAM and likely has had no need to understand how the OS and AS chip is designed for faster and more efficient use of RAM. They only know that more is better.
  • Reply 5 of 73
    Apple has many excellent engineers but their execs talk a lot of bullshit.
  • Reply 6 of 73
    XedXed Posts: 2,704member
    Apple has many excellent engineers but their execs talk a lot of bullshit.
    That's not BS. Try running a fresh install of macOS on MBA with 8 GiB RAM next to a brand new HP or Dell laptop with 8 GiB RAM (regardless of the CPU in the laptop).

    Now, is this exactly a 2:1 ratio? Of course not, but for layman's speak for a general use device macOS on AS is going to need less resources to run. Of course, if you'd like to find some example of an Adobe app loading a 40 GiB RAW image to prove that both will need x-amount of RAM to load the image, then you go right ahead, but we both know that's not what is being discussed here.
    edited November 2023 mike1Graeme000williamlondonStrangeDayskillroybaconstangAlex1Nwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 7 of 73
    So, after all the lovely thoughtful comments here …

    I’ll add that my personal experience bears this out. My M1 Max MBP 32Gb absolutely kept up with the Alienware R12 i7 64Gb. The only difference between the two was the graphics card (NVIDIA) performance and the ability to ramp up the processor cycles (and sound like a hair dryer).

    I pushed the limits of both machines in video encoding and streaming. 

    Your mileage may vary.
  • Reply 8 of 73
    chelinchelin Posts: 111member
    This is like saying to an employee that the $1000 salary is the same as $2000 elsewhere. A lie and a damn bad lie at that.
  • Reply 9 of 73
    dewmedewme Posts: 5,548member
    This is a bit of a spin and wordplay because they are focusing primarily on performance and efficiency and glossing over the reality that the size of running applications working sets cannot be ignored. Yes, having very fast backing store improves memory virtualization, i.e., swapping, but it’s still not as fast as having more real memory available.

    They can certainly say that they are getting superior performance and efficiency with 8 GB compared to other competing platforms or architectures running with only 8 GB. But if you’re doing an Apple Silicon-to-Apple Silicon comparison and you would benefit by having 16 GB available due to the combined working set of your running applications, the benefits of having more memory available are real and there is no equivalence  between 8 GB and 16 GB.

    Apple Silicon effectively rebases my expectations. I already know it’s better on so many levels (but not all) than other platforms. I don’t want to compare it to lesser platforms. Upping the base level Unified Memory to 16 GB would make the Apple Silicon argument even more pronounced, no song and dance required. We’re paying a premium for choosing Apple, so why not make the perceived value and useful lifetime of the products stand out from the crowd even further? Software is not getting smaller.
  • Reply 10 of 73
    Well, it may or may not be true that their use of memory is far more efficient (I’m inclined to believe there’s something to it), and that, because memory can be allocated more fluidly instead of having hard limits for each purpose / component, the amount of memory available for a certain task may in fact be more at any given moment than on a traditional architecture (which is what they’re saying just too simply) - there is no getting around the fact that, if you’re doing something, like, working locally with an in-memory data set, no amount of fancy allocation is going to get around the fact that at some point you’re gonna have ten gallons of sh*t and a five gallon bucket. Yes, yes, compression, fast swapping what’s in memory for something else stored on disk, etc can help, but there is a limit. 

    To me the bigger issue is - how much do you need to do locally versus in a cloud environment? Training an LLM? May wanna use cloud compute / GPU’s / storage anyway. Working with 8k video files? Well that’s more about storage and compute, I guess…. 

    But still, it seems disingenuous of apple esp given the premium it’s charging for more memory, esp in a world where memory has gotten relatively cheap and modern apps have become memory hogs because there wasn’t much incentive not to be…. Hopefully this is changing but I digress. 

    All that to say - it’s a more nuanced conversation but I couldn’t stomach getting a machine with only 8 c16, or even 24gb these days especially since every mbp I’ve ever had has been spec’s out and lasted 5-7 years. I ordered one with 96gb accordingly. 
  • Reply 11 of 73
    I can see the argument and it has merit, but I don’t know Apple Silicon has been around long enough for me to definitively agree.  I have a M1Max MacBook Pro with 64GB RAM.  Doing video projects with large RAW video files it rarely uses 32GB, which is definitely less than before, but that’s just one niche area of video work, there’s others. The only time it maxed it out was when the software had an error and ate up all the RAM.  Also Apple’s RAM is being used to replace VRAM so it’s doing double duty and it’s doing it well.  
    I’ve never bought a computer without upgradable RAM prior to this, and I still don’t like it, but at least it provides benefit now, and I maxed out the RAM available to me. I never know how long I’ll need to hang onto a computer and more RAM means that’s less likely to be the bottleneck down the road, extending its useful life.  That said it logically follows you could buy a lower spec machine and have it be useful for longer and be more capable than before for seemingly a lot of things, so it’s not as bad of a decision as it was before Apple Silicon.  I wouldn’t do that but probably a lot of people will.  
    I don’t view the 64GB RAM I got as excessive or wasteful, it probably comes up rarely that it’s accessed, but that’s still insurance for the future. 
    edited November 2023 Alex1Nwatto_cobradave haynie
  • Reply 12 of 73
    It doesn't matter how much more efficient Apple's architecture is.  Like a gas, applications' memory usage will expand to fill available space, so while 8g might have been sufficient where 16g sufficed before, applications will take advantage of that efficiency until they hit the wall again.  It seems likely that many already have.
    OfergatorguywilliamlondonbyronlOctoMonkeyAlex1Nzeus423dave haynie
  • Reply 13 of 73
    stompystompy Posts: 409member
    chelin said:
    This is like saying to an employee that the $1000 salary is the same as $2000 elsewhere. A lie and a damn bad lie at that.
    I guess the all the tech employees who fled CA during the pandemic wasted a lot of time/energy/money for nothing. So has every website with a cost of living calculator.
  • Reply 14 of 73
    sbdudesbdude Posts: 277member
    Xed said:
    byronl said:
    basically calling their customers idiots
    How are you getting that? The average user only understands a quality for RAM and likely has had no need to understand how the OS and AS chip is designed for faster and more efficient use of RAM. They only know that more is better.
    This may come as a surprise, but many people use apps outside the Apple ecosystem. Just because the OS is optimized for unified memory doesn't mean every app is. Apple's been trotting out the "more efficient" per clock cycle tropes since PowerPC, right up until you start using a program Apple hasn't optimized to the hilt.
    OferwilliamlondonAlex1Ndave haynie
  • Reply 15 of 73
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 3,213member
    This doesn't explain why an additional 8GB costs $200.
  • Reply 16 of 73
    tipootipoo Posts: 1,149member
    Prove it then. Not vs an Intel mac with a chip designed a decade ago, take a latest gen Intel or AMD comparable system with 16GB, and put it through rigorous paces vs an 8GB M3, and see. It says something that Apple is sending reviewers 16 and even 24GB versions despite that comment. 

    If I'm performing an operation on hundreds of thousands of rows of data, they have to be somewhere physically fast, they don't exist in aether. Anything that swaps to SSD has access times in ms, not RAM's ns, one millisecond is 1000000 nanoseconds if anyone needs the reminder so I'm not exaggerating when I say several orders of magnitude slower. Despite techtubers also only looking at peak sequential read speeds you almost never hit real world except in single big file transfer.

    If you need RAM, you need RAM, there's no way around it. Unified is just faster when you share data from CPU to GPU or the other way because of no pool swapping, but otherwise the physicality of RAM remains.

    dewmeOfermuthuk_vanalingamkestralAlex1Ndave haynie
  • Reply 17 of 73
    Seems like a lot of disingenuous arguments happening in the comments. I see people arguing that 8gb of ram isn’t enough for LLMs, UHD video editing, or professionals using Photoshop. Well guess what? You’re right 8gb isn’t enough. And the M3 isn’t enough. 

    That’s why for those application you’d need the M3 Pro and that bumps the RAM up to 18gb. As Steve might say, “Are you getting it?!”

    The M3/8gb is the replacement for the 13” MBP. It’s a starter level machine for those that need something more powerful than the Air (with a better display, speakers, etc)

    So I hope that clears things up for all the internet. 


    An Apple Sheep :P
    edited November 2023 Graeme000williamlondonlotonesStrangeDayssidricthevikingchasmkillroybaconstangwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 18 of 73
    This sounds like a benchmarking opportunity. I'd love to see someone come up with some "Pro" workflows and run it on the various M1/M2/M3 cpu and memory configurations.
    kestralkillroywatto_cobracurtis hannah
  • Reply 19 of 73
    rezwitsrezwits Posts: 891member
    I think you guys are missing something.

    For 10 years-ish prior to the M series Apple Silicon, Apple was making do with the A series Arm Chips in iPhones AND iPads,  using only 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 GBs of RAM, for nam 10 years!

    Then they broke out the M1 with 8GB, and some have 16GBs sure, but they HAVE experience under 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 GBs of RAM workloads.  I bought an M1 8GB MacMini, that thing is a beast STILL...

  • Reply 20 of 73
    netroxnetrox Posts: 1,464member
    That's the problem with consumer perception when it comes to RAM.

    We are NOT doubling RAM like we used to anymore because we no longer need it thanks to SSDs capable of transferring huge data instantly. 

    RAM was literally created as a gap solution for slow disk access and transfer rate. It was also necessary for windowing systems which takes a lot of memory and needed to be accessed quickly.

    Now we have SDDs capable of transferring at least 2GB per second with instant access seek which makes virtual memory management a breeze for many tasks. The lifespan of SSDs also improved as well. By the time, SDDs wear off badly, the machine would be outdated and need to be replaced by a new machine that's certainly at least 10X faster.

    Also, MacOS uses RAM compression on the fly so having 8GB is like 16GB. And the unified RAM makes it a lot more efficient with memory usage.

    If you use HDD as a boot disk, you'd definitely notice a significant performance hit which is where adding more RAM makes sense but virtually no modern computers use HDDs for boot. SSDs are what makes the OS run fast with less RAM. 

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