• Apple and Memory: Tossing Conventional Wisdom on its Ear

    January 22nd, 2005

    For years, I have been complaining that Apple shortchanges Mac users on RAM. Starting with System 7.0 in the early 1990s, I regularly attacked Apple for selling computers memory starved computers. Now it seems I may have to backtrack on some of those statements.

    But don’t get me wrong: I would like to see all Macs ship with 512MB, minimum, and only the two top-of-the-line Power Macs give you that amount as standard equipment. This issue becomes more important as the Mac mini begins to ship, because it is not designed for easy upgrades. Like the iPod, if you want to change anything inside, you need to tread carefully or risk damaging the case. Apple will void the warranty if you crack open that case yourself, so you are best advised to listen to what they say and let your dealer do it for you. If they break it, they have to fix it at their expense.

    This situation would seem to argue against Apple’s hope that you’ll look at the cute little thing, and the equally cute shipping box, take one home, plug in your input devices and display and get to work. How can you do that if there isn’t enough stock memory to make it run with good efficiency. After all, Mac OS X is a huge memory hog.

    To be sure, the early reviews of the product say the very same thing. This should keep Apple’s service people or the build-to-order division working overtime to get those minis up to stuff, right? Well, perhaps, but maybe such statements should be tested a little more carefully.

    Now when technology reviewers examine a new computer, be it Mac or PC, they will load it up with the most powerful applications and see how it fares. If something in the computer becomes a bottleneck to the best possible performance, such as insufficient memory or a slow hard drive, it will be downgraded. All those reviews of the hot-selling iMac G5 said the very same thing, but at least RAM upgrades on that model are simple and swift for even the mechanically challenged.

    I have to congratulate Bill Fox, of Macs Only, for putting the theory to the test in a clever way. Now it’s true that very few Mac minis are out there, and those were sent to a selected few journalists, such as Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal. Fox doesn’t have one, at least not yet. So he took a Cube, which some regard as a direct ancestor to the mini, and tested it with a base configuration of 256MB of RAM and then with 512MB and 1GB. The computer, by the way, was running Mac OS X 10.3.7. The Mac mini will ship with a slightly later build, but with no other apparent changes.

    Fox tested these configurations with no applications open except the Xbench, the shareware benchmarking software, and then with a basic suite of commonly used applications, consisting of Safari, Apple Mail, iTunes, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. As most of you know, these are applications commonly used by both home or small business users. In addition to Xbench, Fox ran Activity Monitor, the latter required to see how much CPU horsepower and memory was being consumed. They all fit within the 256MB memory allotment, with 6MB to spare. As Fox points out, it’s not likely all these applications would be opened at once. To be fair, I should also point out that printing will consume additional memory, perhaps enough to force the computer to use virtual memory, but that’s just a temporary situation, unless you’re outputting pages all the time. In addition, the frontmost application, the one in use, will consume much more memory while doing its thing. But the active Xbench application surely fulfilled that function.

    To my surprise, the Xbench scores revealed little performance difference among the three configurations. If this theory holds up when a Mac mini is available for testing, you shouldn’t compelled to buy more memory. It all depends on what you’re using it for.

    Bear in mind that, in terms of its configuration, the Mac mini is a close cousin to the iBook, not the eMac as some think. Like Apple’s consumer laptop, the mini has a tiny hard drive spinning at 4200 rpm. You have to respect its limitations, and you certainly aren’t going to buy one for heavy duty graphics, or 3D rendering and gaming. But the average home user will probably survive quite nicely with the bundled software. And even Microsoft Office won’t starve a standard mini of RAM. Of course, all this assumes that the new Mac will handle things in much the same fashion as that Cube, and there’s no reason to think it won’t.

    Oh, and by the way, the minis on display at the Macworld Expo, or at least the ones I checked, all had 1GB of RAM installed. But this only gave folks the chance to try lots and lots of applications on one of these babies and see how well it ran. That doesn’t represent a typical user situation. In the real world, I can see the Mac mini, in one of its two stock configurations, working quite comfortably in typical home, business and educational environments. Power users need not apply.

    Fox says he plans to test a Mac mini under similar circumstances as soon as he gets his hands on one. I look forward to the results, regardless of how it all turns out, and I thank him for demonstrating that we shouldn’t make assumptions so readily. I only wish some other technology writers would grasp this concept.

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    One Response to “Apple and Memory: Tossing Conventional Wisdom on its Ear”

    1. […] Apple and memory: Tossing conventional wisdom on its ear, Gene Steinberg, Mac Night Owl, 2005.01.21. For those who aren’t power users, 256 MB may be plenty of memory. […]

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