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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. 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.