Apple exec defends 8GB $1,599 MacBook Pro, claims it's like 16GB in a PC

8,388,608KB ought to be enough for anybody, huh?

Eight gigabytes has been the standard RAM load out on new MacBook Pros for the better part of a decade, and in 2023, Apple execs still believe it's enough for customers.

With the launch of Apple's M3 MacBook Pros last month, a base 14-inch $1,599 model with an M3 chip still only gets you 8GB of unified DRAM that's shared between the CPU, GPU, and neural network accelerator.

We said at the time "it's almost 2024, and Apple is still shipping PCs with 8GB of RAM," which got us some stick from readers who felt that capacity was more than enough. That's all well and good, but we and others expected more for the price tag and for a supposedly Pro machine. Paying Apple more gets you more capacity, of course.

In a show of Apple's typical modesty this week, the tech giant's veep of worldwide product marketing Bob Borchers has argued, in an interview with machine-learning engineer Lin YilYi, that the Arm-compatible, Apple-designed M-series silicon and software stack is so memory efficient that 8GB on a Mac may equal 16GB on a PC – so we therefore ought to be happy with it. The discussion comes up around 6.5-minute mark into the conversation.

"Comparing our memory to other system's memory actually isn't equivalent 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," Borchers boasted.

The reference to unified memory refers to the fact that Apple Silicon Macs' memory is placed next to and is directly connected to the system-on-chip die within the processor package rather than being soldered to the motherboard or connected using SODIMM modules. When you get an 8GB M3 or 36GB M3 Max, say, that DRAM is built into the processor chip.

We just happen to be able to use it much more efficiently

According to Borchers, this all means Apple's computers can get away with less memory. "Actually 8GB on an M3 MacBook Pro is probably analogous to 16GB on other systems. We just happen to be able to use it much more efficiently," he opined.

The comments remind us of the infamous "640K ought to be enough for anybody" quote regularly attributed to Bill Gates in the 1980s, though he's denied ever uttering the words.

While co-packing memory alongside the processor does have advantages when it comes to things like access latency and bandwidth — something that higher end M-series silicon has gobs of — this doesn't change the fact that you can fit less into 8GB of memory than 16GB.

With that said, macOS does make use of several tricks to optimize memory utilization, including caching as much data as it can in free RAM to avoid running to and from slower storage for stuff (there's no point in having unused physical RAM in a machine) and compressing information in memory, all of which other operating systems, including Windows and Linux, do too in their own ways.

All of this is broken out in Apple’s Activity Monitor, it explains here. Because of the way this information is presented to users, memory utilization has become a perennial question among confused buyers trying to figure out just how much RAM they actually need.

Regardless of how the operating system handles memory, fire up enough Chrome tabs, and the result is going to be the same: eventually the system is going to start slowing down as it eats into swap space in storage.

Given a fast enough SSD, the degradation in performance associated with running low on RAM can be hidden to a degree, though it does come at the expense of additional wear on the NAND flash modules. Unfortunately, in recent generations, Apple has effectively nerfed the performance of the SSDs found in many of its entry-level machines. This was the case on the M2 MacBook Air, but we'll have to wait and see whether it's also true of Apple's 8GB M3 MacBook Pro.

So how much memory do you actually need? Borchers suggests customers test the machines out for themselves, presumably at the Apple Store, and see how they run. "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."

We'd hate to say that Apple has designed its computers so that they perform stunningly in the shop for a few minutes, and work differently after a few months at home or in the office. His comment is also somewhat ironic in that much of the focus of YilYi's interview with Borchers centered around the use of Apple Silicon in machine-learning development, which you don't do in a store.

Many of these models require a considerable amount of memory to run. Llama2 7B, a commonly cited large language model for AI PCs, needs around 7GB of memory to run at 8-bit precision. And so, while an 8GB M-series MacBook has the horsepower to run it, it wouldn't have the memory, comfortably if at all.

We'll note that Apple is hardly the only PC vendor selling systems with 8GB of memory as standard. The difference is most PC slingers aren't charging anywhere near what Apple is to upgrade machines beyond the base spec. Upgrading the base model M3 MacBook Pro to 16GB will cost you another $200, while 24GB will run you an extra $400. (There's a reason why we used to refer to Apple as the Cupertino idiot-tax operation.)

And since the memory is integrated into the SoC package, that means there's no upgrading it down the line, and no amount of memory compression or caching is going to change that. ®

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