Is 4GB Enough Memory for a New MacBook Air?

One of the most important questions when it comes to choosing a new MacBook Air is this:

Is 4GB of memory enough?

The answer, of course, depends on who you are and what you want to do with your new MacBook Air. So what is memory in a Mac? Think of memory (which some people still call RAM) as a temporary storage space for holding information that your programs need to run quickly. If program information — some sort of data — is held in “memory,” then your MacBook Air’s processor can use it easily.

Here’s an example in human terms: If you, as a human, don’t have enough memory in your brain to remember your shopping list, you can write it down on a piece of paper and put it in your pocket. When you go to the store, you can pull your list out of your pocket (which is like storage) and look at it in front of your face (which is like putting the information in your memory for easy access). As long as you remember your list, you can get your shopping done quickly and easily.

Basically, 4GB can hold one heckuva large shopping list.

Enter Multitasking and the 4GB Limit

What if, while you’re in the middle of shopping, you need to stop shopping and respond to a phone call on your iPhone? Well, you have to put your shopping list back in your pocket so you can mess around with your iPhone and take your phone call. Once your call is finished, you have to get your list out again because you forgot what was on your list.

This is like moving between different applications on your Mac.

If you follow what I’m saying, memory is what lets you load application data so your computer can use it quickly. When you run out of memory, your Mac puts the information back into storage (your hard drive, which would be like your pocket). The metaphor isn’t perfect, but I bet you get the basic idea.

And consequently, you can see where more memory is better because it’s like having a bigger brain.

Not So Fast: Not Everyone Needs More Memory

If you only use your newer MacBook Air to run one, two, or three basic programs at once — like email, a web browser, and iTunes — 4GB is plenty of memory. Your Mac will be able to juggle your app needs just fine. If you get into something like video editing to make your own home movies, 4GB might not be enough — you’ll end up waiting as your Mac accesses a bunch of data from within your memory as well as to and from storage (your hard drive or SSD flash-based storage). Fortunately, the real-world wait time isn’t long — it can just become annoying once you personally get better at editing video. (The real-world time most people might possibly lose with a “slow” Mac is just a few minutes over the course of an entire day.) If you have an older (non-Retina Display) Mac with removable and easily upgradable memory, you’ll likely benefit from a simple and cost-effective memory upgrade.

Still, there are complicating factors. The speed of your Mac’s processor — like a 1.4 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor found in a MacBook Air — can make the movement of data from storage into memory and back into storage seem very fast. Think of a guy who can take a shopping list out of his pocket, look at it, and put it back into his pocket very quickly. Faster processors mean faster movement inside of your Mac.

Similarly, a MacBook Air, which has a fast built-in SSD drive, is generally going to be more efficient at running multiple, complicated programs than say, a Mac mini which has an older-style spinning-disk hard drive, which is slower than an SSD. Except . . . the processor in a Mac mini is faster — 2.5 GHz instead of 1.4 GHz in the MacBook Air. So the real-world performance can get hard to predict for regular Mac users.

In addition, Apple has made big improvements in how it manages memory in Mac OS X, making Macs very efficient at holding, using, and releasing memory. So the memory needs on a Mac don’t necessarily compare to your buddy’s PC memory needs.

Just Answer the Question! Is 4GB Enough Memory for Me?

If you have basic computing needs where you use email, web browsers, iTunes, iPhoto, iBooks, Word Processing, and Microsoft Office, then 4GB will work for you just fine — especially if your storage is solid-state flash storage like that found in the MacBook Air.

Once you start having a dozen applications open at one time and you rapidly need to switch back and forth between them, either upgrade to 8GB through a custom purchase direct from Apple (not usually a cost-effective deal) or buy a MacBook Pro with Retina Display that comes standard with 8GB of memory.

Because the memory modules are soldered into MacBooks, they aren’t upgradable by users. You get what you get and you’re stuck with it.

If you think you’re going to start using your new Mac to do things like edit video or edit massive photos, splurge to get 8GB and choose the MacBook Pro over the MacBook Air. Similarly, the new entry-level iMac is locked-in with 8GB of soldered memory (fine for most people), but the faster models have upgradeable memory, and the previous generations of Mac mini can be upgraded to 16GB. So choose according to how much you expect to use your Mac in the future.

As for MacBooks right now, if your budget will dictate that you’ll use your new MacBook for around four years, bumping up your processor, storage, and memory by choosing a medium-grade Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display — to get to at least 256GB of storage and 8GB of memory — is a smart plan. See also, “Is 128GB Enough Storage on a New MacBook?

What about the new MacBook with 12-inch Retina display? This ultraportable wonder comes with 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage — both of which are nice — but its ultraportable processor isn’t as powerful as those in newer MacBook Airs. Consequently, the extra memory should not be your key decision factor. My recommendation? Choose the new MacBook only if you crave the latest ultraportable design that also comes with a super-sharp Retina display. [Still interested? Read my full MacBook review.]

If you’re on a tight budget, stop worrying and go with a 4GB MacBook Air model. Losing a couple of minutes each day to a “slower” MacBook is always preferable over using a Windows-based PC anyway. Seriously. Just saying.

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About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.