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Is 8GB of memory enough? A guide to Mac memory upgrades

By Kenny Yeo - 2 Apr 2024

Is 8GB of memory enough? A guide to Mac memory upgrades

Base Macs all come with 8GB of memory. Should you upgrade?

The memory conundrum

Anyone who has ever purchased a Mac will ask if they should upgrade its memory. Most base Macs only come with 8GB of memory. This is true for the 13 and 15-inch MacBook Airs, the Mac mini, the iMac, and even the 14-inch MacBook Pro. 8GB sounds inadequate – especially when you consider that most PC notebooks these days come with 16GB as standard. This uncertainty is amplified by the fact that whatever decision you make is irreversible – there’s no way to upgrade a Mac’s memory.

As I contemplated this quandary, I’m reminded of a saying: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I’ll elaborate.

Before I begin, let me preface whatever you are about to read with some details of my testing. The unit I used is the base model that comes with 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD. It also comes with the base M3 chip that has 8 CPU cores and 8 GPU cores. It's the same unit I tested in the recent MacBook Air review.

The starting prices look attractive, but they all only come with 8GB of memory.

The M3 MacBook Air is perfectly usable with just 8GB of memory, as long as you are mindful of the number of apps and browser tabs you have running. If you are the type of user who typically only leaves two or three apps running and only a handful of browser tabs open, you’d be fine. Because of the unique way Macs and macOS handle and use memory, I think most people who use their Macs in this manner won’t even notice it has just 8GB of memory. 

On the left, freshly booted up with a handful of menu bar apps running, only 3GB of memory was free. After running for a while with my usual apps running and around 25 browser tabs opened, I had committed just under 1.5GB to swap memory. See how high memory pressure has risen too. At this point, the unit was still usable but noticeably less responsive.

But not everyone uses their Macs this way. 8GB will not be sufficient if you are like me and rely on many menu bar apps, leave a dozen or so apps running, and have around 40 to 50 Safari tabs open. Macs and macOS are efficient with memory, but they can’t invent more. When you run out of memory, it starts using its SSD to augment its main memory (in what is known as swap memory), which invariably slows things down because the SSD is many times slower than the main memory.

When a lot of swap memory is used, you’ll notice that apps won’t switch as smoothly, webpages look as if they need to be reloaded, and everything just generally takes longer to complete. In worst-case scenarios, you might even see the dreaded spinning rainbow wheel and experience your Mac stalling. If that happens, the only fix is to close your apps.

There's no question Apple charges a lot for memory upgrades.

In other words, unless you are absolutely sure you will only be using a handful of apps at a time and won’t browse the web with dozens of tabs open, I don’t recommend ordering your Mac with just 8GB of memory. 16GB should be the target minimum. You could go more, but even with my above-average levels of use, I have never felt that 16GB was insufficient. 

Admittedly, having to fork out S$300 for extra memory is a bummer, particularly since one could argue that 16GB should come as standard since it’s required for your Mac to perform to its fullest potential. But it is what it is, and the best way to think about this and to minimise grief is to consider that this upgrade will ensure your Mac has the memory resources to let it run smoothly for years to come. Consider it an investment for future-proofing, then.

If budget tight and you really want a MacBook Air, consider the older M2 model. You don't lose much, if any at all, in terms of performance and features, but it's S$200 cheaper.

If your budget is tight, then consider the older M2 MacBook Air. Most people won't be able to tell the difference in performance and the only features it lacks is the ability to drive two external displays and Wi-Fi 6E connectivity. It starts at S$1,399 (S$200 less than the latest M3 model) and you should definitely use that savings to upgrade its memory.

So yes, in case if it's somehow still unclear to you, my advice is this: Macs can work with just 8GB of memory, but I really don’t recommend it.  

Note: If you are shopping for a new Mac, be sure to check our Mac Buying Guide.

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