What Is It with Apple’s Grudge Against RAM in Their Mobile Devices?

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As always, Apple threw around a mind-boggling number of superlatives at their iPad / Mac event today. The world’s thinnest tablet, the biggest iPhone launch ever, amazing this and incredible that.

Two words that did not get a single mention though, in amongst all the big impressive words and numbers: memory and RAM.

The iPad Air 2 is clearly (very clearly!) the new flagship of the iPad line. It’s got Touch ID, a brand new 64-bit chip specially designed for it, dramatically improved cameras at front and back, significantly faster WiFi and superior LTE capabilites, and so on.

But .. does it have more memory than the measly 1GB that has so far been the most seen in any iPad model? It sure doesn’t look like it – as there was absolutely no word on that at all. And of course Apple has never listed RAM specs for their iPhone or iPad models, and the same holds true for today’s new models. So we won’t know for sure until iFixIt or a similar crew get hold of and dissect one of the new iPad models.

My money is on no change, or at the height of optimistic thoughts maybe 2GB for the iPad Air 2.

The thing is, even 2GB for the iPad Air 2 would actually be a pretty disappointing number. The iPad is and has long been the benchmark, the clear leader in the tablet arena. In terms of hardware, design, build quality, beautiful integration of hardware and software to create a superb user experience, it has been nearly unrivaled.

Apple certainly isn’t shy in talking up the overall improvements to the iPad Air 2:

Not only is iPad Air 2 thinner, it’s also a lot more powerful. We designed a new chip, the A8X, that delivers substantially better CPU and graphics performance than its predecessor. In fact, with its 64-bit desktop-class architecture, iPad Air 2 is as powerful as many personal computers. It’s power efficient, too, with a 10-hour battery life that lets you work, play, surf, and shop all day long.

“As powerful as many personal computers”. Well, that is true in some ways – but certainly not true when it comes to memory. And last I looked memory is a critical performance element on just about any computer – from laptops all the way up to powerful network servers.

It’s almost embarrassing by now to see how little attention Apple pays to RAM on their iPhone and iPad lineups. Even if the iPad Air 2 gets bumped up to 2GB, 2 of the last 3 phones I’ve owned had 33% more – 3GB.

The theory that many will put forward is that somehow the iPhone and iPad just don’t need more memory or memory specs that come close to their Android rivals. I don’t buy that either. I’ve just had too much first-hand experience with Safari tabs that have to reload from scratch each time I switch away and return to the app. Too many times where an app will fail to load or perform miserably until a number of background apps are closed down.

The iPad is a mobile computer, and Apple themselves compare its capabilities to those of a PC. It’s way past time for them to start giving it an amount of memory that is in line with the quality of its other specs.

Patrick Jordan

Founder and Editor in Chief of iPad Insight. Husband, father to a lovely daughter, Commander of the Armies of the North, dog lover (especially Labs), Austinite, former Londoner, IT consultant, huge sports nut, iPad and mobile tech blogger, mobile apps junkie.

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6 thoughts on “What Is It with Apple’s Grudge Against RAM in Their Mobile Devices?”

  1. Ther are two sites that claim to have seen the interior of the iPad Air 2 and both claim that there is at least 2GB of system RAM. One even speculates that it might be 4GB. I think Apple has consistently refused to discuss or even list RAM specifications because they don’t want to encourage widespread speculation that some performance issues are due to stingy RAM installations. In my case, I have convincing proof on my iPad 3 that RAM limits are causing me problems. I plan to buy an iPad Air 2, but only if the rumors of 2GB+ turn out to be true. Otherwise I will just wait hopefully for the next model.

  2. Interesting thoughts. Being the leader in tablets for quite some time now, because of all the other specs mentioned, perhaps their priorities are different to what other tablet manufacturers. But seeing Apple has allowed themselves to make their phones bigger and become more lenient with what developers can do with iOS, perhaps they will now come to the party in an area once thought a secondary issue.

  3. Let me say that I love iPad Insight! On this issue, however, there are some subtle technical considerations that are easy to overlook.

    I’m a professional software developer and book author on iOS development. I’m also an experienced Java developer. This gives me a perspective into system architecture that lets me make the following observations.

    Apple has always been very (very!) careful not to jeopardize the performance of their mobile devices by introducing hardware or software features that would cause excessive battery drain. For years, iOS developers were prohibited from starting background or long-running processes because Apple was (rightly) concerned that developers would start background polling tasks that would needlessly drain the battery. Apple eventually developed technologies, like push notifications, that allows app developers to provide real-time services *without* sacrificing battery life.

    RAM uses power. And it uses power all the time. Adding more RAM to an iOS device just reduces its battery life, while only sometimes improving performance.

    True to it’s no-compromising nature, Apple has chosen to concentrate on RAM efficiency rather than just throwing more RAM at the problem.

    All modern app development uses some form of automatic memory management. Apple uses a technology called Automatic Reference Counting (ARC). The Android world runs on Java which uses a form of reachable-object garbage collection.

    From a purely programmer’s perspective, the Java solution is better. ARC has a couple of flaws and it’s possible to write programs that have memory leaks. So Apple developers have to take some additional steps to avoid these kinds of mistakes. In Java, it’s almost impossible to create those kinds of memory leaks.

    From a systems perspective, however, ARC is the clear winner. It’s faster, more efficient, predictable, and is much more conservative with memory. In general, a Java program needs from 50% to 100% more RAM to run as efficiently as the same application using ARC. That means an app using 1GB of RAM on iOS would need between 1.5GB to 2GB of RAM to run on an Android device at the same performance level.

    ARC, therefore, reduces power consumption in two ways. It reduces the amount of RAM apps need and it reduces the CPU load needed to manage that RAM.

    Apple chooses to improve the efficiency of its RAM use, rather than just throwing more RAM at the problem. The differences in languages and operating systems also means you can’t directly equate the RAM needs of iOS and Android applications.

    1. Hi James

      Thanks so much for the comment and for sharing all that knowledge and perspective on this subject. And of course I’m glad to hear you enjoy the site.

      I can’t argue with any of your points; I can only say that I have had great experiences with Android devices that offer 2 and 3GB of RAM. Very fast and smooth performance and absolutely stellar battery life. Maybe I’ve just been fortunate with the particular devices and set of apps I’ve been using.

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