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News & Insight

Is 16 GB of RAM in the new Macbook Pro Enough?

By Justin Heyes on November 10th 2016

Some of Apple’s recent design decisions have gotten heat from the creative and non-creative communities alike. The first strike was the removal of the headphone jack from the latest iPhone, a decision that was labeled as “bold.” In my opinion, the only thing bold about that are the bold marks in the ledger where they will see the sales of wireless Beats headphones (which they own).

[REWIND: Apple Announced New Macbook Pro With Dynamic Touch Bar But Missing A Key Ability ]

Before the wounds were even healed from that debacle, Apple dropped their new MacBook Pro; a decision that was not highly welcomed. The Macbook also followed suit with the “bold” decision to not to include any legacy USB-A ports and the inclusion of a function Bar that was a ‘Touch’ too much.

macbook-pro-touchbar-color
One argument in particular that stands out is the decision to limit the maximum RAM to 16GB, and has been the subject of huge controversy. In response to the outcry, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, briefly stated:

To put more than 16GB of fast RAM into a notebook design at this time would require a memory system that consumes much more power and wouldn’t be efficient enough for a notebook.

The new MacBook Pros get around 10-hours of battery life (for the most part). Offering a machine with a 32GB RAM option might compromise the all-important portability aspect of laptop. Other laptops that offer 32GB do so by using desktop RAM (non LP), but this is achieved either by a thicker-form chassis to support the additional battery volume, or, like in the case of other lightweight notebooks, such as Dell’s XPS 15 line, a reduced battery-life. If Apple followed suit, your new Macbook would turn into a small, underpowered iMac with an integrated UPC.

macossierra-autounlock-apple-watchjpgArguments can be made that the type of power users who need 32GB RAM mostly use their Macbooks while plugged, so reduced battery life would be an acceptable trade-off, although imagine the backlash against Apple for announcing a new MacBook Pro had a battery life reduced from 10 hours to 4 hours with a 64 GB RAM option. This is because there is no “sleep mode” for underutilized RAM, it is always on, always using power.

Now I love to Apple-bash as much as the next person, but reduced battery life might not be the only reason for the 16GB limit, it may be the user base. Only a small percentage of users actually need 16GB RAM today, with 32 GB being overkill for most.

Ram-disk-computer-memory

Is 16 GB of RAM enough?

For the average user, yes. Running multiple virtual machines, no. Editing photos in Lightroom or editing video in Premiere? Depends. If you are working on either Premiere or Final Cut Pro, 8 to 16 GB of RAM is enough (with 8GB being the recommended amount specified by Adobe), but if you are going to work in Avid Media Composer you need a minimum of 8GB of RAM and at least 24GB if working with UHD.

Memory is a fascinating concept. It provides no performance improvement if you are not memory limited but can provide huge performance improvements if you are, to a point. Most people think that either photo or video editing is a “more” application; the more you throw at it the better it goes: More RAM. More cores. More space. More screen size. What they do not realize is that there is a law of diminishing return. The user will see little to no performance increase between 16GB and 32GB of RAM, and with a difference at most it of 7%. Check out the video From Linus Tech Tips explaining why 16 GB is enough.

Misguided Arguments

For the daily readers of SLR Lounge, you may have read my last piece on MacBook Pro alternatives. Each laptop on the list was carefully chosen to include not only Thunderbolt 3 but a complete lack of stock 32 GB option. All of those converts lusting over the Surface book will be shocked to find that Microsoft doesn’t offer a 32 GB option either.

[RELATED: Microsoft’s New Touchscreen Desktop All-in-One: The Surface Studio | iMac Beater? ]

‘More RAM is better’ is the argument for the uninformed user, as that is a number they can get behind. If you do a quick search of the top-selling laptops on Amazon, Newegg, and B&H, you will only find around 20 options (with variations on the same models) on each that can be bought with 32 GB and 64 GB as a stock option; less than a handful will have the MacBook Pro’s form factor.

[RELATED: Top Windows Alternatives To The New Macbook Pro ]

razer-blade-stealthThe argument for 32 GB of RAM in the new MacBook Pro is a bit misguided for most. The magic limit of 32 GB of RAM will not help your Creative Suite run faster any more than if you had 16. What will help the Creative Suite run faster is a dedicated GPU.

Mercury Graphics Engine

What is more important, CPU or RAM? CPU. If you have enough RAM to run the program, the CPU will tackle the rendering. Example: Mac Pro Quad 3.7 GHz with 64GB RAM vs. 6 Core 3.5 GHz with 4GB RAM. The 6 core will hysterically outperform the quad core.

[RELATED: Brief Explanation of How Graphics Cards Increase Productivity For Photographers ]

What is more important, CPU or GPU? Both. System RAM does not do the same job as video RAM. While system RAM is used by the processor to temporarily store data that the application knows that it will be using later, video RAM is used as a high-throughput buffer for the GPU on the video card. Like on many low-end computers with an integrated GPU, the system RAM is “shared” as video RAM. All but the 15-inch MacBook Pro have integrated GPUs. From Apple: “Apple computers using Intel Iris Graphics as the primary GPU dynamically allocate up to 1.5 GB of system memory.” MacOS Sierra needs a minimum of 2GB to run,  leaving 12.5 GB for other applications

nvidia-evga-gforc-gtx-1080Editing apps like the Adobe Suite and Final Cut Pro utilize the processing power of a dedicated GPU. As far as using integrated graphics for such applications, you won’t get the same performance from your processor’s core that is dedicated to graphics. The integrated GPU in most cases is just an extra core on your processor that is set aside for processing graphics.

In a dedicated video card, like a Nvidia Geforce GTX 1080, the card will have many cores set aside for processing data, as well as several gigabytes RAM on the card itself that are dedicated only to the processing of information. RAM on your video card can be used during the rendering of your videos in order to speed up and increase the accuracy of your renders. MacBooks without a dedicated GPU can struggle even when dealing with 1080p video; no matter what Apple’s marketing says.

macbook-pro-touchbar-lg-monitor

Conclusion

Using a laptop is always a series of trade-offs between performance, portability, price, and thermals. There is a reason why most studios have dedicated desktops for tackling a big project; a laptop is a poor choice for handling a hardcore workflow.  Most users and creatives using a laptop for media creation will be perfectly fine with 16 GB of RAM.

If workflow requires 32 GB or more of memory and you are constantly being bottlenecked by your current system. Consider moving to move to a dedicated desktop workstation. Closing a few Chrome tabs won’t hurt either.

About

Justin Heyes wants to live in a world where we have near misses and absolute hits; great love and small disasters. Starting his career as a gaffer, he has done work for QVC and The Rachel Ray Show, but quickly fell in love with photography. When he’s not building arcade machines, you can find him at local flea markets or attending car shows.

Explore his photographic endeavors here.

Website: Justin Heyes
Instagram: @jheyesphoto

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dave Needham

    Its now late 2017 and i just read this article and i guess nothing has changed in a year since this article was written. My 2012 macbook pro (upgraded to 16gb ram and internal and external ssd’s needs replacing and i’m probably going to ditch apple and move to windows.  Several points about your article, you really labour the point (as do some of the commenters here as well) that ‘most people don’t need more than 16gb ram’. I’m sure thats true, then  go buy a non-pro model. I run audio software and stream sample libraries which just fit on 500gb and 1tb ssds. 16gb ram is an absolute minimum for me.  Another thing i don’t get about almost every article i read about high performance computer users is that they never seem to mention musicians and audio software users, only photography and video professionals.  I have a feeling that pro audio users require as powerful computers if not more so, then any other users and i’m sure there’s quite a few of us.  i just do not buy your arguments for 16gb ram being enough in 2016, let alone 2017. And how will that stack up 5 years from now, which maybe the average lifespan of a laptop. Even now i see laptops available with 64gb ram and this is ddr4. i think apple is still using ddr3. 
    I am now considering the imac or imac pro as replacements but they are not really suitable for me. i travel and need portability.  So my only other option is to switch to windows and i’m seeing some great deals on the other side of the fence. Out-performing the macbook pro for way less cost. And to me its not helping with lots of other things Apple has been doing lately, like adding gimmicks and taking away useful features, making their laptops un-upgradeable, i think they are just getting too greedy. Good for them, i’m sure they’re selling more and more stuff every year but they don’t make anything i want anymore.

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  2. Dave Haynie

    The Intel “Skylake” processors Apple’s using in the new MacBook series only support 16GB of LP-DDR3 memory. That’s the reason for the limits, nothing Apple could really do about it. They’re not going to make a laptop with a more power hungry desktop processor.

    Of course, you mileage may vary, depending on what you do. My laptop — not a Mac PC — has the same issue, but it’s only a backup for my desktop. I found 64GB on the desktop to be what I really need for photography, largely because I do lots of photo composites up in the 80-100 shot range. That doesn’t fit in 32GB, much less 16GB, at least with the software I use.

    For basic Photoshop, video, etc. things worked pretty well in 16GB, at least back in 2013 when I built this current machine. It was just the photo compositing holding me back…

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  3. Kristian Hollund

    16GB RAM is enough for a laptop, because if you need more you probably don’t need a laptop anyway, you need a desktop PC.

    That said, I cant’ speak for OSX, but on a Windows PC, 16GB isn’t perfect, it’s just too little. I think 24GB is the sweet spot. The same as you notice a difference between an i7 and an i5 for the “little things”. All those little things you wait for that you suddenly realize you didn’t have to wait for. For some people like me that use a PC over 12 hours per day, that is worth the extra money.

    I have seen the difference of 16 and 32GB hands on for lengthy periods a few times/different setups. And especially for me that never turn my PC off (though sometimes restart for updates) you really notice the difference. But you simply don’t use laptops like that. Just restart or turn it off instead of hibernating it a few times and you are probably ok.

    There are plenty of other good things to roast Apple about. Dated design, touchbar (lol), dongle party, dated OS, dated iOS, etc.

    On that note my work laptop is the new Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Yoga. 14″ touchscreen IPS, i7 6600U, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD. Looks anonymous, is thin and light, doesn’t make much noise or heat. It’s a pretty perfect laptop, I think many people buy a too cheap PC laptop and miss out on the real gems. Once you get used to a touchscreen it really is a must.

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  4. Hagos Rush

    As a lead support technician that supports a large company this is the best article that I have read about RAM. Too many times have I attempted to steer people away from “maxing” out RAM especially when their systems or programs will not utilize it. Its a waste of money and battery life especially when not being used.

    Again, thank you.

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  5. Justin Lin

    Great article Justin! I’ve narrowed my next laptop purchase down to the Razer Blade (14) or MBP 15. It’s tough to pull the trigger though knowing that Kaby Lake is just around the corner!

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