Why are Apple's base RAM and storage configs so low?

Excuse me, I’m a newbie and if I’m asking in the wrong place or in some other way doing the wrong thing, please just tell me and I’ll do my best not to be a nuisance again.

I just wonder if someone here can explain to me why Apple offer such small standard amounts of RAM, make it, on most models, impossible to upgrade unless you’re a tech whiz or prepared to pay a small fortune, and charge at exponentially greater rates than are available elsewhere for RAM upgrades?

As Adam mentions, I am someone who although having 16gb RAM on my old 21.5" iMac and my old MacBook Pro, am not infrequently met with full or almost full memory issues. I can’t imagine that I would be able to operate at all with only 8gb memory and nor can I understand why Apple would provide this new, high performance iMac with so little when, for them, purchasing it in high volume, the cost of a minimal 16gb would surely be relatively insignificant.

I also don’t understand how anyone manages with memory storage of just 128 gb given the tendency of modern applications to continually expand in size.

Adam has illuminated me to some degree in relation to hard disk storage, though I have never felt that internal storage has slowed my machines down and though I have external storage for backup I would hate to have to depend on it for general use. Knowing little, I’m probably wrong, too - but isnt’ it slower for the Mac to have to write to and read from an exernal drive than an internal one? I have a 128gb SSD and 1tb HDD on my Macbook Pro 17" (2012) and a 256gb SSD and 2 x 2tb internal HDD drives on my iMac 21.5" (2011) and these are usually about 2/3 full.

I’ve used Apple since my first Apple II+, way back and I still have an SE so I’m aware of the ‘closed’ system ethos of Apple and that it has many advantages to offset the disadvantages but it does seem to me that the modern configurations err on the ‘just too minimal’ side, particularly considering the extraordinarily high cost of upgrades, even when they are available.

I’d love to be enlightened and apologise if you feel I’m talking nonsense or unintelligible claptrap.

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Because they wish to make money on the RAM upgrades (to get more complicated, a lot of businesses require machines to be purchased fully loaded from the vendor – no third party upgrades allowed. Apple is extracting extra revenue from that requirement).

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@silbey is correct. Apple is walking a fine line between wanting to provide a base level configuration that’s usable—it doesn’t do the company any good to sell a Mac that buyers will hate because it’s too slow—and making very high margins on commodity level options like RAM and storage. From an economics standpoint, it also lets people buy more than they may need, which means more money for Apple.

For very basic uses, 8 GB of RAM is functional, though I’ve been recommending 16 GB as a minimum for years, and I personally will be taking my iMac to 40 GB. The same is true of 256 GB of storage—it’s a usable minimum for some people, but most people are probably going to upgrade at least to 512 GB or 1 TB.

With the iMac, RAM is easily upgraded by the user, so those high prices are mostly a tax on businesses or individuals for whom it’s not worth the effort to search out and install third-party RAM.

With most other Macs, where RAM is soldered onto the motherboard, and with storage in most Macs other than the Mac Pro, however, you have to guess at what you’re going to need in advance, and you have to pay Apple’s prices regardless. That’s frustrating, but is part of the price we pay (in laptops particularly) for thin, light designs.

And yes, external storage is usually slower than internal storage, though with Thunderbolt 3, that’s not likely to be much of an issue.

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I totally agree with this and would like to add that hardware manufacturers also consider how their base model products will be compared in the press with competing models. This is especially true for laptops, where more RAM would be a disadvantage to road warriors who need longer battery life. And more RAM won’t make a difference to basic office productivity users who just use email, word processing, basic spreadsheets, social media. It’s a big reason why Windows machines and Chromebooks sell more than Macs, and why they tend to fare well in the consumer press.

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Apple is shipping its ARM Developers Transition Kit Mac Mini with 16 Gigs of RAM. I wonder if this will be the standard base memory for the upcoming higher end ARM MacBooks, MacBook Pros, Minis and iMacs going forward? They’ll probably goose up the next Mac Pro even higher:

Apple could have an opportunity to change the rules in the ballpark.

Bingo! My MacBook Air (a 2011-era 11" model) has its base configuration of 4 GB RAM and a 128 GB SSD. For what I do with it (Microsoft Office, Web surfing and streaming video), it works just fine.

Would I want to use this computer for high powered work like video/audio editing or Photoshop? No way. But for what I actually do with that computer, that cheap base configuration is not a problem.

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Base RAM size is not Apple-specific issue. For decades computer makers have been installing base RAM that allows diagnostic programs and most included utility programs to run properly while ignoring user program requirements. This allows quoting a lower base system price with nice markups for addons. It also makes possible lots of finger pointing regarding system diagnostics and repairs.

Regardless of VAX/VMS or Mac IIc or 2018 Mac mini, doubling the base RAM size is almost mandatory for modest users. See also Dick Hustvedt’s rules for tuning Virtual Memory operating systems. Optimum tool sizing must be determined by the job requirements balanced against financials.

For me, Adobe Premiere is memory bound at 16GB. My only question is go for 32GB this year and wait till 2024 for 64GB or just ‘bite the bullet’ and go for 64GB now.

In computers where it is easy for the user to install memory, it makes no sense to pay the computer manufacturer’s extreme markup for more than the minimum memory available. 3rd party memory is available at substantial discounts. In fact, if the computer is back-ordered, the 3rd party memory will probably arrive before the computer. In my case for the 27-inch iMac I just purchased, I anticipate never running the machine with Apple memory in it (note that OWC does offer a small rebate for sending them the original memory).

This.

In Apple Land on many systems by now you have no choice and need to decide at purchase time how much RAM (and to some extent also SSD) you’ll need for the entire lifetime of that Mac and then pay Apple through the nose for it. Make a mistake in that estimate and you’ll have to see that you sell off your otherwise working Mac and buy a new one. Sometimes that can be sort of OK because there’s plenty of other great stuff you’ll get (and you’re rolling in money anyway), other times it’s a real pain (eg. you’re forced to migrate to Catalina).

Apple’s markup for RAM is ridiculous (and believe it or not, it used to be even worse), but on their portable systems there’s really no way around it. The only thing you can do is attempt to ‘recuperate’ the Apple tax by not buying any of their ‘services’. If I don’t buy Apple TV+ for 2 years I’ve essentially made up the Apple tax for my last RAM upgrade. And better yet I didn’t waste a lot of time watching mediocre TV.

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The Developers Transition Kit probably has 16GB RAM because it’s used to compile software, a task that benefits from more memory. I wouldn’t read anything in to it.

The Mac Pro and iMac Pro have 32GB minimum, the 16-inch MacBook Pro and 2GHz 4 USB port 13-inch MacBook Pro have 16GB minimum, everything else has 8GB minimum. I don’t expect native Apple Silicon applications to require more RAM, x86 applications running under Rosetta 2 might but I doubt that reason alone would compel them to increase the RAM minimum in Macs.

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You are asking the philosopher’s question—“why”. Some forums don’t want you to ask that question. Many people do not. I’m learning to ask it less, particularly of Apple.

Like you, I have used Apple computers since the Apple II. My current imac is a mid 2011 with an Intel i7 at 2.8 Ghz with the RAM maxed at 32GB—and in Sierra the Finder is sluggish. For the first time since the 1990s I have to wait for programs to…start.

I think you already know the answer to your question. I’ll give you some brief ideas, the first ones that pop into my head, since that’s how the internet works, by impulsivity. Bad programming is the first thing that occurs to me. You may seen the news yesterday which announced that Tim Cook, CEO, became a billionaire. I suggest reading some books about the industry, such as Fire in the Valley, which I’m reading now. Maybe watch the 1980s movie Revenge of the Nerds. Trivia note: The son of novelist J.D. Salinger appears in it as a frat boy.

Money may not have been the sole motivator of Steve Jobs—power appealed to him quite a lot—but it is of the people who “run” Apple today. People who are unhappy with Apple’s products need to stop buying them. That’s the only thing that might cause a change.

I’ve been looking at Windows laptops during the past year.

Now what’s happening is you don’t just ask how much RAM it has, you ask how much it can have, I.e. install at a maximum, because companies are lowering that ceiling. If your laptop maxes out at 8 or 16GB, how long is that going to last you when operating systems and programs always demand more RAM? Existing RAM is soldered so you can’t upgrade it. Then the max is lowered. That puts you in a bind. Companies “compel you” (I won’t say “force you”) to buy laptops more often, keep your laptop a shorter number of years, stuffing the landfills with more junk. They are coming v. close to forbidding you from fixing it yourself.

We’re talking mainly about five companies: Dell (Texas), HP (California), Acer (Taiwan), Asus (Taiwan), and Lenovo (China).

It’s difficult to find a quality laptop for less than 1000 dollars that will last for years. The industry has really prevented that from happening. You need to spend more like $2000-3000 depending on your needs. All sub-1000 laptops are compromised in some way. You can find web sites that analyze this. They look at one part at a time. Below $1000 laptops are mostly plastic. Maybe the wireless card is sub-standard, or the monitor is a little dim, or the keyboard is inferior, and so on. And none of them have CD/DVD drives. They all throttle down due to excessive heat, so often you aren’t getting the speed you thought you were purchasing. Poor cooling systems mean you have to put up with more fan noise. I use third party fan monitoring programs on both my Mac and my old Dell laptop. They are putting faster processors in thinner computers without properly cooling them.

It’s almost as though products are booby-trapped to fail. Like they have an expiration date.

It certainly does make a difference. Think of something simple. Like opening several tabs in Firefox, which I do every day. Think about how often new versions of Firefox come out and how it always demands more resources. Yes, RAM does affect that.

When buying a computer, I was told many years ago, think first about the processor. Buy the fastest processor you can afford. No matter what you are doing (though I exlude gamers, because that’s a whole other world). But RAM is a close second. When you buy the computer, expect to max out the RAM.

And the reason for that advice was, well for one you can never have enough speed, but mainly because the processor (especially on Macs, most Macs actually) was often the one item you could not upgrade/replace later on.

Well nowadays the same is becoming true of RAM and SSD. The latest MBs and iMacs (minus RAM on the 27") require you to configure all this at time of purchase for the entire life cycle duration of that Mac. Good look with that long-term estimate.

Unless people become willing to put up their used Macs after ~3 years on eBay (which would then lead to stronger depreciation across the board), they are now being required to basically configure as generously and aggressively as possible (configure the max you can afford and then add some) at purchase if they intend to keep their Macs for extended periods of time (on this board not few report on using 5-7 year old Macs for actual work). Ka-ching for Apple.

If people really opposed this development they’d have to a) be very vocal and let Tim et. al hear about it and b) buy a Dell or HP or Lenovo instead. Chances are neither of those will happen. And since Apple likely knows that they’ll continue to milk it for all they can up to the point where they get too much negative press. No shareholder would fault them for it. As to ethics? Ha! This is the same company that at the behest of China’s dictators removed apps that Hong Kong protestors used to organize. I think they can sleep just fine with overcharging for RAM. :laughing:

I think buying the fastest processor you can afford is no longer a sensible piece of advice for everyone. There’s going to be a large benchmark difference between 6-core i5 and a 10-core i9 (in the current iMac), for instance, but unless the real-world software you use and the tasks you perform take significant advantage of the extra cores in the i9, you may not see that much improvement. Like so many other things these days, “faster” is not a simple calculation anymore.

I’m not sure how to evaluate the economics surrounding higher-end built-to-order configurations. If, as you suggest and as I generally do, you build a high-end config because you anticipate keeping the Mac for 5-7 years (as I do), then Apple doesn’t make any more money from you for that time.

I’d guess, although I don’t have any way to run the numbers to check this, that Apple would make more money if you turned your Macs over every 3 years like most businesses do. (That’s the recommended time frame because after 3 years, problems start to increase and the 3-year-old Macs retain a decent resale value.)

It is too bad that Apple overcharges for RAM and storage expansion, especially soldered-on RAM, since you can always add less-expensive external storage. But there might be unanticipated consequences if Apple hewed to our desires and dropped those prices. To maintain its margins, I could see Apple either raising the base prices or spending less on quality components, neither of which would benefit users. And if we’re asking Apple to forgo its margins, without raising prices, quality would undoubtedly suffer, and Macs could end up like those sub-$1000 PC laptops that last just a year or three before dying. Again, not a good thing.

At least, by overcharging for options, Apple keeps the base prices lower than they would be otherwise, making it easier for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a Mac at all.

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I’m also curious whether the fact of customization itself plays some role in Apple’s high prices for options. That is, part of what you’re paying for is the extra handling/tracking that’s involved in sending you something other than the default configuration of the computer.

Sitting here on a 10-year-old iMac, my sense is that some things have really stabilized and the need for upgrades is much lower than it used to be. The three primary machines I had before this lasted around six years each, and each one received multiple hard drive upgrades and ended up with many times the internal storage it started with. In contrast, this machine started with a 2TB drive, which provided plenty of space–enough that I was fine shifting to a 1TB SSD a couple of years ago. When I replace this one, I’ll probably go with an SSD of 2TB or more, but I no longer feel like owning a machine for several years involves a commitment to ongoing storage upgrades.

Well, if you buy one of the stock iMac configurations, you can get it in two days. If you change any option, it takes a few weeks to send it from China. I have to assume that Apple has optimized that delivery channel to the extent possible, but there’s no question that something special has to happen.

I live in Australia. The lack of RAM/disk upgrades also has a side effect of making me shift my purchases to “direct from apple”. Previously, I would buy a stock MacBook from a local outlet e.g. JB-HiFi, during a 10%-off sale. Then, as needed, upgrade RAM and HD from a 3rd party later.

Presently, to get the RAM and HD upfront, I’m more likely to order a Built-to-Order direct from Apple Online (refurbished store, in my case). So, the local shop, the RAM/HD makers and sellers are cut out of the sale (forever).

It would be one thing if the removed “ability to later upgrade” feature meant lower prices. But it didn’t as far as I can tell.

Having said that, consumers have accepted “lack of later upgrades” on the majority of Apple’s products: from iPods to iOS devices.

Another “thing” is how I use terabytes of space now. In the past, it was inconceivable how I would fill a big internal drive. It would usually be .dmg or .iso, or video files that I could shuffle off into a external drive.

But now, 33% of my internal 1TB drive is my ever-enlarging Photos Library (synced via iCloud Photos). There really should be an automatic Apple-sanctioned way to keep an optimised archive on the internal drive, with a complete archive on external drives (NAS or attached).

I suspect (no proof) that Apple selects customers that way: you accept using a machine as is for its life. If you buy a stock machine from a local shop, then maybe you have to upgrade sooner. Otherwise, buy a custom-specced machine directly from Apple. Or rely on paid-iCloud storage to seamlessly store your photos.

I’m semi-complaining about Apple’s behaviour. I quite enjoy the lack of weight on recent MacBooks/Pros. The photos viewing and syncing is quite marvellous. I am also upgrading much less than I used to. But I’m aware that one day, I may not be able to afford this, and should be able to shift to other solutions (i.e. other platforms).

Many of my grievances I could accept, if only there were non-crazy-priced decently-specced Apple laptops which I could buy. Maybe the differentiation from the rest of the industry through their processor-shift would help, and that remains to be seen.

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Depends on the options you select, parts availability and other factors (not the least of which being customs and shipping restrictions). My experience has been about a week.

I almost always select BTO options (usually RAM and storage upgrades). When I place the order, I usually see a tracking number the next business day. Then about 2 days to get from the Chinese shipping depot to a DHL distribution center in Alaska. Then 2-3 days to get to me (or my local Apple store - I usually choose in-store pickup so I don’t have to be home to sign for it.)

It even went this quickly when I bought my iPod Touch with my name laser-etched on the case.

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Sometimes a BTO option is popular enough to be in stock. When I bought my MacBookPro, I upped the RAM and storage from the base but was able to pick it up immediately from a local store.

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