8GB vs 16GB for M1 Mac — The TRUTH About RAM!

I have never seen more questions, more comments, more tweets, more live chats, more… anything that I can remember than this:

Should you get 8GB or 16GB of RAM on the new M1 Macs?

And I am, by no means alone.

It stands out mostly because no one asked this question anywhere nearly as much when the exact same version of these machines existed on Intel. Maybe because the people interested in them didn’t care so much about RAM and the people who did gravitated towards the higher end machines anyway, but we don’t have those higher end machines on Apple Silicon yet so all eyes are on these ultra-low power, ultra-low end versions.

And now, maybe, just maybe, some of us nerds are hoping to use the as bridge machines until we can have those higher-end versions, and are wondering if we can maybe save a few bucks in the interim.

Others of you are, absolutely, legitimately, looking to get a new Mac or first Mac, and can’t spend more than you absolutely have to, so really do need to know how much RAM you really do have to get.

Well, here’s my best answer. There are a ton of benchmarks out there, including memory tests. And they’re fine. But they measure very specific things to varying degrees of accuracy and relevancy, require knowledge and interpretation far beyond just downloading them and hitting the run button, and need to be presented with a ton of context if they’re going to be at all helpful to anyone.

There is also a huge difference between running single tests one at a time and running multiple memory-hungry real-world apps and bloated social media sites in endless Chrome tabs, especially ugly cross compiled apps and games, and the intensely greedy Electron apps we’re increasingly being festooned with of late, all the same time, for long periods of time.

Between single app single task speed and multi-app multitask headroom. Between the OS and apps you’re running today and what you may want or need to run next year or a few years from now.

So, those benchmarks and tests can maybe help you figure out what you need, but maybe also hurt you into thinking you can just squeak by under the line.

My recommendation is this — get the 16GB if you can possibly afford it. Macs last a long time, for years, and even if you don’t need 16GB now, you may need it eventually, and you cannot add more RAM to these Macs later. It’s literally part of the chipset. What you buy is what you’re stuck with.

I get that 16GB costs an extra $200 up front in the U.S., or around $17 more a month on installments, and that can be more money than you have handy. Over the course of 3 years, 5 years, more, though, it will more than pay for itself in both the potential of the Mac and the reduction of your personal stress and anxiety level.

If you think M1 Macs having unified memory will magically make them behave as though they have double the RAM. It won’t. Unified memory just means the CPU, GPU, Neural Engine — all the compute — has access to that same pool of memory. It has a huge amount of performance and efficiency advantages that can’t be overstated. But that pool of memory is still limited to exactly what it says on the tin.

Now, Apple does a lot with memory compression to fit as much into RAM as possible, with machine learning for intelligent memory management based on anticipated work patterns, and with fast SSD to make swap invisible to the point that most people won’t even know it’s happening if you don’t know precisely what to look for. But Apple did that with the Intel Macs these new M1 Macs replaced as well.

Again, no magic, no pixie dust, you will get as much out of whatever configuration you buy as technologically possible, but that’s all you’re going to get.

And if you’re someone who’s just super into technology and really wants to see all the tests to measure all the memory pressure, I’ll humbly submit to you that if you know what memory pressure is, you just pretty much self-selected into the get 16GB of RAM group by default.

If you have any concern or doubt or questions at all, again if you can possibly afford it, get 16GB of RAM.

And I’ll add this in as well as an extra bonus rec — unless you plan on streaming pretty much everything, get more than the baseline 256GB of storage as well.

The basic rule of thumb is to get double what you currently have or think you’ll need, but storage creep isn’t just real, it’s coming for you. So, again again, if you can possibly afford it, use 512GB as your starting point.

Which is, I know, another $200 up front or $17 a month.

Now, unlike RAM, you can add external storage later, but unless you have it already, you’ll still have to buy it, and unless it’s blazing fast, you will notice the difference.

Also, while it may be fine for you on a Mac mini, but on a MacBook, it can be super annoying, really an inconvenience, to just have all those drives dangling all the time. It just kills your that whole ultra portable vibe.

Especially if you mean to travel a lot, around the house, around town, around the country or world. You know, when the world stops ending.

Now, I don’t mean to be a downer, I’m not trying to spend money you don’t have. I’m not even assuming you’re keeping a on of photos, music, or videos on your Mac, you know like how every YouTuber projects everyone else does.

I’m just trying really sincerely to make this point — if you’re buying a new Mac, you’re probably fortunate enough to be able to earn more money. But you will never be able to add more memory. Not to these Macs. Not ever.

So don’t spend a dollar more than you have to, but make sure you get something that will truly be comfortable and useful to you, not just today, but tomorrow, and most likely for years to come.

It really is called future proofing for a reason.

So, unlike a lot of things, where I will absolutely tell you that if you need the higher end machine, if you need Pro-level specs, you’ll know it. In this specific case, I’m doing the exact opposite — if can really get away with the baseline models, you’ll know it.

You’ll know it because you’ll know your very specific needs, like using it as a thin client to access web apps, including all the Google services, or as a home theater box just for streaming video services, with no local libraries. As part of a production pipeline, just handling a few specific tasks in between the big boxes.