8GB of RAM Just Isn't Enough
When a company with the resources and reach of Apple still sells a base configuration MacBook with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of disk space in 2023, something has gone wrong.
This isn’t to say other laptop makers aren’t guilty of the same: Lenovo, Dell, and HP, the Big Three names in Windows-based laptops, all offer laptop computers configured with 8GB of non-upgradable RAM. This practice is demonstrably harmful to prospective customers who aren’t technically savvy; in 2023, an instance of Google Chrome with 15 or 20 tabs open, plus the demands of Windows itself, and any other apps you might be running at the same time, can easily swallow up 8GB of memory.
Even if you’re a light user and never have very many browser tabs open at once, consider the implications of soldered, non-upgradable RAM: you’re stuck with this configuration for the life of the computer. If your needs ever change, or your workload requires more memory, you’ll suddenly find yourself in the market for a new laptop.
Apple is perhaps the most flagrant offender of all: a brand new M2-based 13” MacBook Air starts at $1099, and configuring this laptop with 16GB of RAM (which you should consider the bare minimum if you intend to keep the laptop for several years) increases the price to an astonishing $1299–that’s a $200 upcharge for another 8GB of RAM (market price for an 8GB DDR5 memory module, meanwhile, is approximately $23).
Yes, Apple has to make a profit margin. Yes, Apple’s memory architecture is different from that of traditional x86-based laptops. Yes, Apple’s memory is “Unified Memory” and is super fast, but so what? Fast memory won’t let you run more programs, work with more resource-hungry software, or allow you to open more tabs in Chrome or Safari. Worse yet, if you want more storage space on your MacBook Air, it’s another $200. Suddenly, you’re considering a $1500 laptop, and you’ve spent $400 to ‘upgrade’ to a RAM and storage specification that has been standard among Windows laptops for several years, at lower prices.
But if you want macOS, there are no alternatives: Apple makes the hardware, Apple makes the software, and Apple sets the prices. And there is truth in the idea that Apple users are loyal to Apple, that they expect a premium experience and so are willing to pay a premium price. Apple’s ecosystem and integration among its own products is second to none. All of these ease of use features and other Apple niceties have an intangible value; maybe $1500 for what many would now consider a ‘base’ spec laptop isn’t a bad deal, after all.
This may all be true, but Apple’s dogged adherence to offering 8GB of RAM as standard in any laptop is absurd. I’m left to wonder how many college students, perhaps pursuing their degrees in computer science or engineering, unpacked their brand new MacBook Airs and were faced with dreaded Memory Pressure warnings from macOS upon loading up all of their applications. Even for office workers who deal mainly in cloud apps, 8GB of RAM can show its limitations quickly. Although Apple’s new memory and storage systems are both super fast, constantly writing to disk when out of RAM can shorten that disk’s lifespan considerably. These are fundamental concepts of computer science that Apple must surely be aware of.
After all, Apple is selling a premium product at a premium price. Why offer an entry-level hardware configuration that reads like the spec sheet of a 2013 Windows PC? Not to mention the fact that maintaining two different product lines for the 8GB and 16GB system boards that go into new MacBook Airs must be an additional expense for Apple that they could otherwise eliminate. For a company as focused on the user experience rather than getting hung up on technical specs, Apple sure seems to be going out of its way to ignore the technical specs altogether.
To this, Apple might say, “if you need more than 8GB of RAM, you’re a pro user and should buy the MacBook Pro, which is configurable with up to 96GB of RAM”. Certainly, you can buy a MacBook Pro with 96GB of RAM for a cool $4300. But let’s zoom out: just because someone needs 16GB of memory, does that make them a ‘pro’ user? Apple offers its M2 MacBook Airs with up to 24GB of RAM. This seems rather intentional to gently guide users into the loving embrace of pricey MacBook Pro 14s and 16s with pricey 32GB RAM configurations. Needing 16GB of memory doesn’t immediately imply that you’re a professional video or photo editor, or that you’re working in complex financial or scientific software with massive datasets and huge RAM requirements. Maybe you’re just a modern user with modern hardware needs. Is Apple this bad at reading the market?
Even if memory in MacBooks could still be user-upgraded, most users wouldn’t attempt the upgrade. Most people aren’t extremely technical; in technical circles, like those I travel in, it’s easy to start to imagine that anyone could or would want to take apart their computer and upgrade RAM or install a higher capacity SSD. In reality, the average person can’t be bothered. And who can blame them? Apple is losing touch with its core audience if it fails to evolve its MacBook configurations with the times. Seemingly gone are the days of Apple’s bold hardware adventures, extremely competitive hardware specifications, and focus on power users. This is the attitude that earned Apple much of the success they enjoy today. Now, Apple seems like a company coasting on mostly past, and the occasional current, innovation.
Despite Apple’s deft concealment of its devices’ technical underpinnings from its users, those technical underpinnings still exist and still matter. The average user probably has no idea how much memory or storage capacity they need. They rely on Apple (or Apple’s Geniuses) to tell them what’s best. In spite of ubiquitous cloud storage options, local storage demands are still growing, as are memory requirements; surely, a company with the technical and engineering prowess of Apple can understand the importance of these things.
To put it simply: 8GB of RAM in a premium product with a premium price tag is a contradiction. It’s akin to buying a Rolls-Royce Phantom with a 4-cylinder engine and a 5 gallon gas tank. Even though Apple customers and Rolls-Royce customers probably don’t spend much time gawking at spec sheets, the specs still matter.
Sadly, across the board, upgradable memory in laptops is a phenomenon on the decline. Laptop makers’ claims that people just want thinner and thinner machines, at the expense of all else (a claim those companies are loath to prove), have led to the adoption of soldered RAM in an effort to slim down devices. But, in reality, such claims are likely nothing more than marketing ephemera–a gambit to upsell people into higher specced laptops at premium prices. In our opinion, this is more than just a sales tactic used by a stagnating industry to increase revenues–it’s another salvo in the war on Right to Repair and the very notion of actually owning what you buy.