Thanks for the Memory

The updated PowerBook line introduced by Apple this week sports a lot of additions and features worth getting excited about—everything from faster processor speeds and hard drives to 8X SuperDrives in the high-end models. In particular, I’m looking forward to trying out the new scrolling Trackpad feature, which lets you use two fingers to quickly scroll through long documents or pan within the window.

But there’s another addition to the PowerBook line that may get lost among all the other modifications made by Apple. And that would be a shame, since this particular change could have a far-reaching effect on Mac users.

Apple finally made 512MB of RAM the standard for installed memory for every PowerBook model. Previously, only the high-end PowerBooks—the fastest 15-inch model and the 17-inch laptop—shipped with that much memory. The other three configurations had to make do with 256MB of installed RAM (unless, of course, you ordered more as part of a built-to-order option).

“Make do” is not an understatement—256MB of RAM really delivers a noticeable performance hit, especially if you’re used to working with more memory. As Macworld has noted on multiple occassions—the most recent times being our Mac mini review and our coverage of the iMac G5’s debut, 512MB of RAM are necessary for users to enjoy the smooth, peppy performance of OS X.

Monday’s news of more installed memory seems to indicate that Apple recognizes that fact, at least when it comes to computers aimed at pro users. In addition to the PowerBook line, Power Mac desktops also ship with 512MB of RAM. The consumer products—the iMac, iBook, eMac, and Mac mini—ship with the paltry 256MB. Again, users of those products can add more memory, either through Apple or by installing an upgrade themselves. But Apple’s memory prices are noticeably higher than what other RAM merchants charge. And since a sizeable chunk of the target audience for consumer machines is not the kind that leaps at the chance to install upgrades themselves aren’t you making things unnecessarily difficult on people you’re trying to attract with appeals about ease of use? (That’s particularly true of a do-it-yourself memory upgrade for the Mac mini, which, as we’ve reported, is not an easy task at all.)

So I have this dream where, at some Apple event in the not-too-distant future, Steve Jobs takes the stage. And just as Jobs has used past speeches to declare the end of CRT monitors or pronounce OS 9 dead and buried, I’d like to see the Apple CEO announce the end to the era of shipping Macs with insufficient installed memory. In this dream, consumer-level Macs now come with 512MB of RAM standard. And, if Apple still feels the need to differentiate between its pro and consumer products, Power Macs and PowerBooks come with 1GB of installed memory.

Such a move wouldn’t come without a cost, either in the form of a smaller profit margin for Apple or a slightly higher price tag for consumers. But whatever cost boosting installed RAM incurs would be outweighed by the amount of goodwill that Apple would generate.

In the past few years, Apple has delivered a superb operating system and world-class applications. Now it needs to make available machines with the installed memory to take full advantage of both that OS and those applications right out of the box.

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