Apple’s RAM Problem

By Evan Miller

November 20, 2013

I admire Apple's products because they successfully hide most of the details of a computer from the average user. Well, except for one thing: RAM. When your computer (or phone) runs out of RAM, it responds to commands with all the celerity of a sleeping teenager on a Saturday morning.

Macs are constantly running out of RAM, for a few reasons. One reason is that web browsers, in an attempt to win various pitched pissing contests in the Second Browser Wars, are retaining more and more browser state in memory. It's not atypical to see a Chrome or Safari instance consuming two or more gigabytes of RAM with just a few tabs open. It's worth noting that the first web browser ran on a machine with no more than 16 megabytes of RAM.

The other reason Macs are running out of RAM is that most Mac users don't know how to properly quit applications. They mistakenly believe that pressing the red X in the corner of the program window will close the entire program. No one taught them Command-Q. So the typical Mac user has 6 or 8 programs open that they thought were closed, but are just sitting around taking up memory — often hundreds of megabytes of leaked memory.

iPhone has the same set of problems. Programs use a lot of RAM and they remain open when users think they are closed.

Apple has a RAM problem. They don't tell their users what RAM is, or when they're low on it. All the user knows is that their computer is slower — much slower — than it used to be. It's hurting Apple's quality perception in the same way malware damaged the reputation of Windows.

Apple is addressing the problem in part with compressed memory, a new feature in OS X Mavericks. It's akin to giving everyone a free RAM upgrade. It's nice, and will fix a lot of people's slow machines. But it's only a stopgap. As my father likes to say, “the hardware giveth, the software taketh away.” Give web browsers a few years. They'll eat through all the compressed memory, and they'll be asking for more.

A proper solution is not very hard. At the very least there should be a dialog: “Your computer is running low on RAM. Try closing or restarting open programs. Or buy some more RAM.” A better solution would be to ship Macs with much more RAM than the average user needs. Right now you can buy a MacBook with 4 GB of RAM. This is not enough. RAM is not very expensive. In fact it is quite cheap compared to the cost of users who think your computers are maddeningly slow.


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