Can we put the 16GB “Pro” myth to rest?

Zdziarski’s Blog of Things:

I fired up a bunch of apps and projects (more than I’d ever work on at one time) in every app I could possibly think of on my MacBook Pro. These included apps you’d find professional photographers, designers, software engineers, penetration testers, reverse engineers, and other types running – and I ran them all at once, and switched between them, making “professionally-type-stuff” happen as I go.

The result? I ran out of things to do before I ever ran out of RAM. I only ever made it to 14.5GB before the system decided to start paging out, so I didn’t even have the change to burn up all that delicious RAM.

Obviously, this won’t put anything to rest as everyone’s mileage will vary but it’s an interesting article regardless.

  • marv08

    Great thinking. If it does not affect me, it does not affect anyone. And the definition of “pro” is: people doing what I do. The guy wrote some good stuff, but this one is just plain idiotic.

    When editing 4k in FCP there is a notable performance increase going from 16 to 24 GB RAM. Logic eats RAM if you just use enough tracks and plug-ins – I even managed to get our Mac Pro with 64 GB to start paging more than once… And that is just Apple’s own software. Scientific programs, event simulators, OLAP, or just plain virtualization of complex networks in education… the possibilities of just not being able to get anything done with only 16 GB are endless. 32 GB laptops are available from others – the XPS 15 weighs about the same as the MBP, uses exactly the same CPU, has a comparable UHD display and achieves approx. 90% of its battery life.

    Apple made the decision to stay with LPDDR3 iso going to plain DDR4 (a <10% impact on the battery). For many people that was the wrong decision, especially since Apple’s Books can’t be upgraded later – you’re stuck with only 16 GB (the limit since 2012!) for the lifetime of the machine, which for many will be, say, 2021. I have the new 15″ MBP on order since a lot about it is great. I absolutely hate the fact that I have to schlep around the XPS 15 in addition to give my lectures since no pro Apple portable at any price point gives me the option.

    • freediverx

      “Logic eats RAM”

      Don’t worry. Apple is likely to abandon Logic just as they abandoned Aperture.

    • eilfurz

      same here – final cut doesn’t often need my 32gb (when editing hd-footage, haven’t looked with 4k files yet) but most of the time sits comfy above 16. that’s not to say that it doesn’t work well with 16gb, but it works better with 32gb or more. same with after effects, and i’d be surprised if davinci and premiere wouldn’t like a little more ram either.

    • if you need 64gb then you need a real workstation, not a notebook. MBP is a laptop, not a workstation.

      as a software dev i don’t want to give up my all day battery and awesome weight so you can avoid using a real workstation.

      • rj

        It doesn’t have to be an either/or. In addition to the new MacBook sorta-Pros, Apple could make a portable workstation Mac with different design decisions (e.g. bigger screen and battery, better CPU/GPU, more built-in ports), they just choose not to. These machines exist in Windows land, and there appear to be a decent number of Mac users would like such a thing.

        This is where the “Apple is abandoning Pro” users thing comes from. Not only do they not make a truly high-end laptop, the pro desktop option is a joke, and the year-old kinda-pro iMac 5K isn’t exactly a compelling buy either.

  • GaranceD

    FWIW, I’ve had my Mac Pro (which has 16-gig of memory) run out of memory and crash, without using VM’s or movie-making apps. (I do run VM’s some of the time, but I have run out of memory even when I was not running any virtual machine).

    • GaranceD

      And in fact, right now my Mac Pro is using 12.6 gig of memory, and I’m doing “nothing much” that you would expect to strain the machine. Lots of ssh sessions going (in separate Terminal windows), two browsers running, Xcode editing a few files, Mail, and a music program playing music.

      I really don’t care what someone else sees on their machine, I care about what I’m doing on my machine. And as long as I’m the person who spends the money for my machines, my opinion is going to matter a lot more than anyone else’s bogus benchmarks.

      • Mo

        Do you not care about benchmarks as well? Someone else saw them on their machine once.

        • GaranceD

          You lost me…

          I’m saying how much memory is required by my workload on my Mac Pro. In that context, my experience with my workload seems more useful to me than someone else doing a different workload in their environment.

          • Mo

            Sounds like solipsism to me. Hope that works out for you.

          • GaranceD

            The original link (to Zdziarski’s Blog of Things) was solipsism. He made one single test on his mac, doing things that he apparently does not usually do, and he claims that test applies to all “Pro” users.

            My comment was just a “FWIW” observation. For this one data point of my own workload, I definitely bump into the limit of 16 gig. And that was NOT using VM’s or Video apps (which clearly love all the memory they can eat up).

            I’m not claiming that anyone else has the same needs as I do. It’s just a “For What It’s Worth” datapoint.

          • Mo

            Nope, he wasn’t being solipsist, either.

            “I am sure there are some genuinely heavy users who will undoubtedly chew down more than 16GB of RAM, and this is by no means an attempt to minimize their concerns. “…I have no doubt that there will be some edge cases where a user legitimately uses up more than 16GB of RAM, and Apple really should consider refreshing their line of Mac Pros for such needs… “…With that said, I think many (not all) of the arguments about people using up all of their 16GB RAM are caused by factors that are within their control – whether it’s running crummy software, not adequately maintaining their startup items, not properly configuring their applications, or possibly even malware. Get those things out of the way first, and even if you’re still a high memory user, I bet your performance will be a lot more tolerable than it is now.”

    • David Stewart

      It’s worth noting that modern computers don’t crash when they run out of RAM. They use swap files on disk to create virtual memory and swap data in and out of memory as needed.

      • GaranceD

        This is a good point, although I’d quibble with the word “modern”. MacOS has it’s roots in NeXTSTEP, and that had it’s roots in Unix, and Unix started in the 1970’s. I think we can call that “old technology” now! 😊

        In any case, it’s definitely true that most people won’t suffer crashes when they run out of memory. In my case, at the same time I upgraded to Yosemite (last year), I replaced my boot-up disk. For performance reasons, I changed from a 1-TB hard disk to a 400-GB SSD, and moved many large directories from my startup disk to other disks in my Mac Pro.

        As a result of that, I can run out of paging space on the boot drive. It’s fair to say that that is mostly my fault for buying a smaller drive, but my goal was simply to get one more year out of this Mac Pro, and I didn’t want to spend enough to buy a 1-TB SSD drive.

        And when your machine runs out of space on your boot drive, it will crash. In the last 18 months I’ve had at least four crashes due to running out of memory. That isn’t a crisis, but it does happen.

        Due to the amount of memory I’m using, I have “MenuMeters” running all the time. It’s kind of scary when your system is getting sluggish, and you think “one of our servers must be seriously overloaded!”. And then you look up at the menu bar, and see that your 16-GB machine has 24-KB of free memory. And by then, of course, it’s too late. The machine is rebooting.

        Please remember that the point isn’t that Garance blames Apple for his own mistake in a buying a smaller boot disk. The point is that I definitely use more than 16-GB of memory. That’s all. One data point.

        • rj

          Out of curiosity, what are running that requires so much memory? And can’t you just upgrade the memory in your Mac Pro for a few hundred bucks? Even the oldest ones will support 32GB.

          • GaranceD

            I think what hurts me is many ssh sessions running. I usually have at least 20, and can get up to 40-50. And many of them might be active (with output) at the same time, so the system can’t just page them out and forget them.

            Each one of those sessions is running in a different terminal window. I recently changed how I start up a new ssh session. I replaced a rather elaborate bash-script with a custom-written program, and doing that reduced my memory usage by a gigabyte!

            I often have multiple browsers open. Chrome for Facebook (and anything else which needs Adobe Flash). Safari for most stuff. Opera for a few web sites. I rarely have more than a half-dozen tabs open in any browser (like some of my friends do!), but I will have multiple browsers running at the same time.

            So when my machine is running low on memory, sometimes the solution is to track down which web site is going wild and kill that tab. Or maybe I’ll have restart the whole browser.

            I’ll also have Xcode open, and have many different files open (sometimes very large log files). And I’ll run programs which crunch a lot of log files into some sort of summary report.

            I used to like to take advantage of fast-user-switching, and have multiple MacOS sessions going. I’m not going to explain why right now, but just trust me that there were advantages to doing that. However, I’ve had to stop doing that lately.

            I do sometimes use Parallels to run virtual machines, but not often. And when I do (which I hope to do later today!), I know enough to check my Mac’s memory situation before I start. So I’ve never actually had severe problems when running a virtual machine. But if I had more memory, then I’d be more likely to run multiple virtual machines. {and yes, I could buy more memory for my current Mac Pro, since it is NOT limited to 16-GB]

            This is a “work” machine, so my experiences aren’t what would be seen by most Mac users. But then the whole discussion of “Pro” users is that they’re pushing their machines much harder than the average computer user.

          • rj

            Thanks for the detailed response!

            I never would have guessed that ssh could be a problem. Old-timey text stuff that hasn’t really changed since RAM was measured in MBs… I’ve never looked at it in detail, but I would have thought you could run hundreds of those in 1 GB.

            Safari and especially Chrome? Absolutely. Easiest way to reduce memory usage for me is to start closing tabs.

            I used fast user-switching years ago when I was writing a Mac application, and have a vague memory of running into issues (this was pre-SSD, with maybe 4GB).

          • GaranceD

            Oh, and I also have a very large music collection (over 80,000 songs), and at the same time I’m moving away from iTunes because Apple is annoying me there.

            As a result of that, I usually have a music app called Swinsian running, but then I’ll also open up iTunes to check something there. Maybe to check some videos, for instance. When I start iTunes, it can chew up 4 to 6-GB of memory. Now that’s easy to solve by simply quitting it, but it’s also easy for me to forget that I have it running until something else causes me to run out of memory.

    • GaranceD

      David Stewart’s reply reminded me of another detail. I do run MenuMeters all the time, because I’m aware that on some occasions my system will be running low on memory.

      One of the things that MenuMeters has is a drop-down menu that will show you how many swap files are in use. I rebooted my Mac Pro recently, so right now I actually have zero swapfiles in use. So for this past week, 16-GB has been plenty of memory for me.

      However, at other times I’ve seen that list as many as 21 swapfiles in use. My system didn’t crash (because if it does crash, then I can’t click on that drop-down menu to see how many swap files are in use!). But just the idea that the system is using 21 swap files is a pretty good indication that there are times when I’m using a lot of memory.

  • Mo

    Sure beats reading all those whiners who haven’t bothered to actually test a damned thing.

    • GS

      I suspect if you just duct taped an extra 16 GB of ram to the case, you get some people claiming a noticeable improvement. And if these same people actually need such capabilities, why are they using a laptop?

      • Mo

        One does wonder.

      • John

        “And if these same people actually need such capabilities, why are they using a laptop?”

        Because an iMac doesn’t quite fit into my Everyday Messenger bag. Or is a pain to set on my tray in coach?

        • SockRolid

          You didn’t answer the question.

          Why do such heavy lifting on a portable Mac?

          • John

            Honestly, I can’t believe people need an iPhone when a perfectly good desktop, land line, stereo, and camera can do the same thing.

          • collider

            Not sure if you want a serious answer here, but I’ll give you one anyway.

            I travel a few times a year to various jobs where I need to make fixes on large video files. Best of all worlds for me is to bring a beefy laptop and remote into my trashcans at the office if needed. A lot of the fixes can be done on my laptop, but as file sizes get more and more immense (last job was 17k x 1080), the laptop option becomes less viable and I’m forced to travel with the trashcans (which is far better than the cheese graters I used to have to haul around). I tend to hold on to my laptops for around 4 years, 16 gigs is not only too little now, I can’t even imagine what it will feel like in 4 years…

            I also use my laptop as my home computer. I do the same thing, remote in when I have any really heavy lifting. But it’s no where near as fast or convenient as working locally. A laptop with a better video card, ram and cpu be more future proof and be able to run AE, C4D, FCP, Logic, Nuke etc… to name a few. When I bought my current laptop in 2012, 16 gig was just enough to get stuff done. 4 years later, not so much and I’m expecting a computer that at least has 32 as a bare minimum. I really could care less about the weight. If I needed a light, low powered computer, Apple already makes those.

            At least with TB3 I’ll be able to use external video cards, but the ram and processors are serious problems here.

            I think there’s a huge outcry because there are tons of folks who use their laptops in a similar way, and want technology that keeps up with reality. And the reality is that content keeps pushing the boundaries of the technology, and Apple’s efforts to make everything smaller and lighter are in direct confrontation with that.

          • eilfurz

            i’m in a similar situation. i usually do my work on my desktop, but when on the road, i need the best machine i can get. usually, when i need to edit on the go, it even needs to have a faster turnaround time than when working at home. 16gb was acceptable 5 years ago, because you have to make compromises when buying a laptop. but it’s pretty sad that you still can’t get a macbook with more today.

          • franksspam

            Most businesses would prefer to only have to buy one computer for each employee, and if you need to use it away from the office even sporadically, that one computer is going to have to be portable.

  • JohnDoey

    This is a great example of why tech blogging is obsolete these days. Nobody can speak in an expert way on all computing anymore because it is too large and diverse, and therefore, you can’t speak to the audience as one, either Here this guy is talking down to pro computer users as though they are first-time iPhone-buying consumers.

    The definition of a pro is they know their job better than you. A pro audio engineer knows her own computing needs better than a tech blogger or even a computer designer at Apple. But oh wow do tech bloggers and computer designers at Apple still like to nerdsplain to us all anyway.

    Many of the people who need more than 16GB of RAM in their $4000 notebook purchased in 2017 and used until 2020 at least only want that RAM for one (1) app! In some cases it is an app they wrote themselves. Sometimes they have terabyte or bigger data sets they have to keep paging out in less-than-16GB chunks.

    Sometimes the Mac is the heart of a music studio and a music session has to stop growing because even though there is more CPU and storage, there is not enough RAM to add another track.

    In audio and video editing, ideally your clips are all in RAM. But we can only keep some in RAM and we have to manage that because there is not enough RAM.

    Some people have to run 3 versions of Mac OS, 3 versions of Windows, and a version of Linux on one notebook. Now you are down to 2GB of RAM each on a 16GB notebook.

    Here is the heart of this debate: if smaller, lower-power 32GB RAM is not yet ready, the MacBook Pro should not have gotten thinner this revision.

    RAM is so cheap now, for the first time ever really in computing history. It would cost Apple $50 to put in 64GB of RAM instead of 16GB. They could light a fire under all the pro users work for the next 3–4 years. It would benefit the whole platform.

    • Mo

      Thank you for your trademarked umbrage, but there are many levels of “pro.” I know graphic design better than most of my clients, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always remember to check all my running processes and launch daemons during an unexplained slowdown, for example.

      Speaking of “nerdsplaining,” you’ve made it enormously clear that this article wasn’t intended for you. But some of us appreciate a helpful reminder now and then.

    • SockRolid

      The real reason why “tech blogging is obsolete these days” is because web traffic is everything. It doesn’t matter how accurate the writing is. It only matters how many clicks the writing generates.

    • normm

      The new MacBook Pro has SSD read speeds of 3.1 gigabytes/sec, with writing almost as fast. That should help.

  • John

    Starting up my usual work environment gets me 12+ GB. Builds, deploys, database usage, etc all takes me into paging territory. Browsers, social media apps, etc don’t have a huge impact unless I have a gazillion tabs open and/or using developer tools in my browser.

    Freeing memory (takes ~20 seconds) stops the swapping for 1/2 hour or so. Everybody’s mileage varies. My daughter is a data scientist so she hoses her memory limits on any computer regularly, Mac or not. We both use AWS to offload workloads so there are always tactics to avoid memory limits.

    Honestly I’m an outlier and crack into 16 GB limits currently. Last year I mostly doing golang services work so I did just fine with a Macbook with 8 GB. Memory usage really varies and is only one factor in performance. Anyone who watches Xcode blow chunks when it indexes a project or an iPhone knows that memory isn’t the limiting factor.

    In a nutshell, some people need 16+ GBs. Right now I do, but I’m a very small percentage of users. Lots of things affect performance like CPU, GPU, amount of data, or the software you’re using. There are lots of cheap CPU options to offload work into the cloud. Clearing unused memory is not a big deal (sudo purge for quick hits or CleanMyMac for a more thorough cleaning).

    It would be handy to have more memory but I generally find there are ways to work around it.

  • franksspam

    This article and the people in here who are on the same side are incredibly dismissive of the experience of other people.

    I do have one question for them though. If 16GB is truly enough for all pros, why does Apple make iMacs and Mac Pros that can have more than 16GB installed?

    • Mo

      Zdziarski wasn’t being dismissive, and he didn’t claim 16GB should be enough for all pros.

      • GaranceD

        The dismissiveness is in the title. The need for 16-GB is a “myth”, and it must be put to rest. That title is pretty dismissive.

        J Zdziarski himself is a pretty interesting guy. If anyone’s interested in security issues, you should check out his new “Little Flocker” application for macOS. It’s like “Little Snitch” for your hard drive.

        I also can also identify with his comments on open source, as I’ve been working on various open source projects for 30 years now. His recent experiences do match some of my own (which is why I haven’t done much in the last five years). His comments on that are long, but worth reading:

        • David Stewart

          The reference is to people saying any pro needs more than 16GB. The implication being that anyone who doesn’t need more than 16GB isn’t a pro. These are in a similar vein to people calling Apple products toys.

      • franksspam

        Forget the author of the article, you have been one of the most dismissive people commenting here. You have been dismissive, condescending, and downright rude in your various responses.

        • Mo

          Mostly to people who make sweeping generalizations based solely on their personal experiences.

          But there are a good handful of Loop commenters who fit your adjectives. Why limit yourself to just one?

  • StruckPaper

    This guy seriously does not understand memory use.

    • GaranceD

      Some of the points he raises are good.

      When you start running out of memory, it’s smarter to figure out why instead of rushing out to buy more memory. For instance, I am running the official Twitter app for macOS, and if I leave that running for weeks at a time, it will chew up multiple gigabytes of memory. When you have 16-GB of memory, it’s silly to lose 6-7 GB of it to twitter! (and I have seen that happen). So it is a good idea to investigate what is using up your memory if you run out of it. In my case, I solved the Twitter problem by simply restarting it every few days.

      It used to be true that I could leave twitter running for a month straight, and it wouldn’t cause any a problem. So you have to keep checking.

      It’s just the title of his blog entry which annoys me.

    • Reality Check

      Or he doesn’t do real work with his machine.

  • John

    Outside of the general needs for memory, I think it’s good to be aware of what software is thrashing your system on resources. CPU and thread availability are also important and some software, like Dropbox, has a serious impact on your system. It’s a balancing act on the performance side.

    Alongside of that we also need ergonomics which means screen size and scale (I can’t literally live without retina now), keyboard, trackpad, and weight. It’s a big balancing act that Apple usually leads on, although Lenovo and (God help us) Microsoft can now claim credibility.

    Generally I’m pretty happy with what Apple provides and I think the new MacBook Pros are a nice bump, but I wish they would keep the CPU updated year on year like they do with iMacs. I understand that the Mac portion of their business is now a hobby compared to almost everything else, but it cuts the base out of their ecosystem when they fall behind. Apps are core to iOS, Apple TV, Apple Watch, services, and media – these will only be created on one platform that is beneficial to Apple.

    Away from Pro users (whatever the heck that actually means), I think they will need to reduce the entry level pricing over the next year on the MacBook and low end 13″ Pros if they hope to convert users away from the Air line.

  • drx1

    oye, bad, bad, bad test… and IF RAM were user upgradeable – say in 3 or 5 years a user could upgrade from 16 to 32. I would wager it is will be much easier for this RAM to be used. Apple is the dumbs?

    The port issue does not even bother me, much. My 2010 MacPro has 32GB of RAM. Hell, in 3 years FaceBook/Safari/Youtube could take up much of that RAM.

  • but but but how will we continue to hate on apple? oh who am i kidding, we’ll come up with new ways.

  • franksspam

    I have to say, the more I think about this, the more flawed this test looks to me. Of course when you first launch apps they don’t use a lot of memory. However, the typical user does not restart their computer or quit all of their apps and relaunch them every time they use their computer. They typically keep certain apps running for extended periods of time and use them in a variety of ways with a number of documents. On my iMac, I have the following apps running:

    • Safari • Activity Monitor • Finder • Preview • Keynote • Mail • BusyCal • PowerPoint • Excel • OmniOutliner

    This is modest compared to what I do on most days, but it is very much a typical work session. My iMac is currently using 16.09GB of memory. I have 32GB installed.

    The group of apps listed above is nothing that I would consider pro use by any stretch of the imagination, and yet I have no problem passing that 16GB ceiling that is being discussed by so many as being sufficient.

  • Craig Reidel

    Right now without Photoshop even open I’m at 14GB… 16 limit is just not ok for a pro machine.

    • franksspam

      Right. I’m not saying my machine is sluggish yet, but I feel like these tests were faked. I don’t understand how he could open that many apps and actively use them and not hit the 16GB limit.