Do You Remember RAM Upgrades?

July 19th, 2013

Over the years, Apple has had a habit of releasing Macs that made memory upgrades user hostile or impossible. It all began with the very first Mac, released in 1984, which was the quintessential closed box. That doesn’t mean there were no power users who prided themselves on tearing it open and doing their thing. But the dream of Steve Jobs was to create a real computing appliance, although that dream probably wasn’t quite realized until the iPad arrived in 2010.

In any case, over the years, upgrading the memory on your Mac has been a hit or miss proposition. Even when it was possible, design decisions conspired to make it difficult. I remember, for example, opening the case of a Quadra 800 in the early 1990s. I had just moved to a new home, and didn’t want to be bothered with spending more than a few minutes performing the RAM upgrade, but it took a lot longer. I had to remove several wiring harnesses and the logic board to get at the RAM slots. Why did they do that to me?

Indeed, when I attended a press briefing to debut a new Mac a few years later (the Power Mac 9500 I think), the product person who hosted the session demonstrated how easy it was to open the case and get direct access to the RAM and peripheral card slots. There was a round of applause. What happened to the engineers who designed the Quadra 800 and similarly user hostile boxes, such as the Power Mac 8100? Well, one Apple person told me “they no longer worked here,” but I didn’t inquire as to who they were and whether that statement had any truth behind it.

But Apple didn’t give up on making RAM upgrades difficult. In 1998, the original iMac again sported a nasty RAM upgrade process, involving taking the entire unit apart to get to the logic board and the twin RAM slots. It didn’t stop the iMac from becoming a runaway success and fueling Apple’s resurgence, but what were they thinking about?

Well, I suppose you’d think Apple had learned, and that the latest and greatest 2012 and 2013 models all make it very simple to upgrade RAM. Unfortunately, the reverse has occurred. The top-selling MacBook Air dominates the thin and light note-book market, but forget about upgrading RAM. Apple’s product designers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to solder the memory chips onto the logic board. I appreciate the space savings, but I’m also sure Apple’s engineers are smart enough to devise a scheme to allow you to easily open the case and replace RAM, yet not increase weight or physical size. Instead, the MacBook Air is meant to be a closed box for customers. The same is true for the MacBook Pro with Retina display. The only Mac note-book that allows for memory upgrades is the regular MacBook Pro, which is pretty much regarded as an endangered species.

On the regular Mac lineup, things are a little more user friendly, except for the 21.5-inch iMac, which has no convenient method to upgrade RAM. But why?

What this means is that, if you buy one of these closed boxes, prepare to spend as much as you can to buy one with the maximum amount of RAM you ever expect to need during the computer’s expected useful life. It’s not that you’ll be able to go back a year later and buy more memory. I suppose that could be one reason why OS X Mavericks, the next great Mac OS, is designed to make more efficient use of memory with such features as compressed RAM.

I haven’t mentioned the plight of the third party RAM supplier, who can often beat Apple’s prices on memory. As more and more Macs are shipped without the ability to upgrade RAM, or at least not being able to do so without major surgery, these companies lose lots of business. Sure, I suppose some will prosper after the 2013 Mac Pro arrives later this year. It will use some of the most expensive ECC memory chips in the industry, and surely some customers will want to try to beat Apple’s prices. But it won’t make up the volume of the sales lost because of the way most mass market Macs are designed.

Yes, I suppose I can see what Apple might have considered in making this questionable move. When customers can’t upgrade RAM, there is no chance for mistakes or possible damage to the machine. Apple has fewer tech support calls to manage. It’s also possible that the Mac-as-an-appliance can be built for less cost, and deliver greater reliability over the years. Possibly. Apple is also notorious for wanting customers to adapt to new ways of doing things, and not having the ability to upgrade RAM, and the need to buy an external device if you want an optical drive, is only part of that approach.

As an old timer, however, I prefer a Mac that is at least slightly extensible. I also think Mac users can complain a little more loudly about the situation, and maybe Apple will listen. They sometimes do.

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10 Responses to “Do You Remember RAM Upgrades?”

  1. Articles you should read (July 19) …. says:

    […] “Do You Remember RAM Upgrades?: Over the years, Apple has had a habit of releasing Macs that made memory upgrades user hostile or impossible. It all began with the very first Mac, released in 1984, which was the quintessential closed box.” — “The Tech Night Owl” ( […]

  2. DaveD says:

    Yes, I do agree that RAM should be easily user upgradeable.

    I have a MacBook running Snow Leopard that was upgraded to 4 GB. I forgot what was the original configuration, but the current RAM size is a good fit.

    On the other hand, the MacBook Air running Mountain Lion has 4 GB of soldered RAM. Opening the Activity Monitor, I see process ID 0, kernel_task, takes up a bit over 1 GB of real memory. In the Snow Leopard MacBook, this process takes up over 200 MB. I’m guessing that it is due to the built-in Intel graphics processor use of system memory and Apple adding more resources.

    The MacBook Air memory usage is very active and currently has less than 500 MB of free memory. In addition, using 3 GB of swap space on the tiny 64-GB SSD. I have seen it go as high as 6 GB. When the swap space hit my 4-GB limit, I do a reboot.

  3. Brian M says:

    unlike some other models, at least with the Air, the Flash storage helps with Virtual Memory speed.
    with most models (PC or Mac) not enough ram until recently was one of the biggest speed bottlenecks that most users just didn’t realize.

    Of course, if I were to buy an Air, I would custom-order with the additional ram to start, but I have been surprised at how well the 2/4 GB models hold out for most users.

    Last note, as a mac tech for many years, I’ve been surprised at how few cases of damage from a ram install there have been, of course at least 75% of people tend to bring it in to a shop to upgrade, or don’t realize that lack of ram is what is slowing down their system while I’m doing other work so recommend the ugprade.

  4. David says:

    How many of us can accurately predict what we’re going to be doing with our computers 2, 3 or 4 years from now? Anyone? Bueller?

    Obviously Apple wants us to try to imagine the future and plan for it at time of purchase, but that means paying Apple prices for a generic commodity you probably don’t need today that will cost 50-80% less by the time you do need it.

    I’ve added RAM to virtually every Mac and Mac clone since the Iici. I agree that the Quadra 800 was a pain, but I think the 2006-2009 mini was worse. I’ve yet to tackle the new iMac that’s glued together.

  5. melgross says:

    All computers have a maximum amount of RAM that they can be upgraded to. So, to a certain extent, we are limited no matter what we do. With Apple doing what they are, they have also lowered the prices they have charged for RAM. It still isn’t as cheap as third party RAM, but it’s come much closer.

    I don’t have too much of a problem with this. So we have a choice of 4 or 8Gb, and the option to double that. Overall, I would imagine that most people would choose to do that right away anyway. The extra money goes to a guarantee that if you should have a problem with the machine, you don’t have to fumble about removing the third party RAM, and finding the original RAM to put back before giving the computer to Apple for repair.

    I think that for the 99% of people who would never want to replace RAM themselves, this is a much better option. It doesn’t seem to e hurting sales either. Professionals shouldn’t be so concerned about the extra cost, as it adds to reliability, and that’s the most important thing.

    When it comes to a Mac Pro, with the extra slots, it’s a different story, and so Apple treats it differently as well.

  6. Joe S says:

    I bet it was the 9600 not the 9500. You had to disassemble the 9500 to get to the RAM. The 9600 sported a srop down side and easy access to the RAM.

  7. Joe S says:

    I bought the first 9500 in Dallas that was not preallocated and used it a loooong time.

  8. dfs says:

    Gene starts with “Over the years…” Yes, but time was when Macs were sold with such measly amounts of RAM that they were virtually unusable. When you bought a Mac you did so with the understanding that a memory upgrade was pretty much mandatory. In recent years, though, Apple has wised up and started vending Macs with a pretty decent amount of minimum memory (even the entry-level Mac Mini comes with 4 gb.) So I would imagine that the number of purchasers who ever get around to upgrading memory has tailed off dramatically. And Apple would keep that in mind in engineering their products.

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