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16GB of RAM and 75 open apps…what could go wrong?

I ordered my 13" M1 MacBook Pro with 16GB of RAM, as I felt buying the most offered was the best bet for future proofing this "entry level" M1 chipped Mac. Later today I'll be posting a detailed writeup of my time so far with the new machine, but for now, here's a little over-the-top demo.

I selected everything in the Applications folder—excluding Time Machine, Siri, Launchpad and a few other similar non-apps—and opened them all at once. I did this with a timer running, while recording the screen, and here's the result…

As you can see at the end of the video, it took one minute and seventeen seconds to open all 75 apps—do the math, and you'll see that's about 1.5 seconds per app (it was notably quicker than that at first, and slower than that at the end). For 75 apps. On a machine with nowhere near enough RAM to fit them all in active memory. I was amazed at how rapidly it was able to complete this task.

These weren't even all native apps, it was a mix of Intel, Apple, and Electron (both native and non-native) apps.

I tried a similar test on my MacBook Air, but as it's an 8GB RAM machine, I limited it to opening 37 apps, which took it well over three minutes (about 5.5 seconds per app). I didn't bother to try on my iMac—it has 40GB of RAM, but it's also got a slower SSD, so I don't know that it would've matched the MacBook Pro's performance.

With everything open, the screen was a bit of a mess…

The Activity Monitor's Memory Pressure chart in the above screenshot shows that the system isn't even under all that much memory pressure, which just astounded me.

But how about usability? The first issue I ran into is that a Dock with 75 apps in it is essentially unusable for app switching unless you set magnification to the maximum. The Command-Tab App Switcher is similarly useless—I found it easiest to switch apps using Spotlight. Speaking of switching apps, how was it actually working when 75 apps were open?

Basically, it was just like working with five open apps—it seemed no different to me. I spent about 20 minutes using the machine like this—sending emails, chatting in Signal, editing a photo in Acorn, etc., and it was fine.

Even when I switched to an app that I hadn't opened since the mega-launch, there was either no delay or a very short delay. Once in the app, everything was fine—even playing a 4K HDR video in Chrome didn't show any dropped frames or lag.

I think things would be different, of course, if I tried to load a 10GB image file, or do something else that required a lot of physical RAM. But this is a supposed entry-level M1 Mac, so in theory, I wouldn't be using it to do something so intensive. For basic stuff, it had no problem acting completely normal despite being seriously overloaded with open apps.

Impressive.

4 Comments

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  1. Clicking on the video brought me the first full-screen "you have a virus" scam page I've seen in years, thanks to usually sufficient ad-blocking. Has your website been hijacked or are you using a 3rd party to provide the video embed?

  2. I don't mean to be a downer, but wouldn't pretty much any Intel Mac with an SSD drive and the same RAM and OS perform about the same as this? I do think Big Sur seems a lot more performant even than Catalina on my Intel Mac.

    1. In my writeup, I noted that my Big Sur MacBook Air was much slower—about 5.5 seconds per app versus 1.5 seconds per app. (I only opened 37 apps, as it has half the RAM.) It's SSD is somewhat slower than the MBPs, but it's not 3x slower.

      -rob.

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