iMac: The Missing Memory

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Memory matters -- so isn't Apple forgetting something?

I really like the new iMac. For the same price as the previous generation (or less, for the two higher-end models) you get much more power, thanks to a G5 processor and an updated system architecture, and more features, such as optical audio output and support for SATA drives. Style-wise, it's not as radical a design as the previous version, but in many ways it's more practical. (It's certainly easier to upgrade, thanks to a removable rear panel that exposes most components for easy access -- including, it appears, the hard drive, which required significant computer surgery to replace in the previous two iMac lines.) In fact, the slim, all-in-one profile and the ability to mount the iMac on a wall or VESA-compliant arm may actually open up a few new markets for Macs. (I think you'll be seeing a lot of these on reception desks, on lab benches, and in "exhibit"-type locations.)

    UPDATE: Apple has posted a Knowledge Base article documenting the components that can be replaced by the end user, and the list is impressive: AirPort Extreme card, RAM, hard drive, optical drive, power supply, LCD display, modem card, and the "mid-plane assembly" (basically the logic board/processor/fans). Not only is this the most upgradeable and serviceable iMac ever, it's also one of the most easily serviceable Macs ever. ( Another new article describes the iMac logic board's "diagnostic LEDs," which can help the end user troubleshoot problems.)

But as much as I like the new iMac line, I do have a couple beefs: the abscence of built-in Bluetooth support (minor beef) and the dearth of installed memory (major beef). I'll save discussion of the former for another day; today I want to focus on the latter: the paltry 256 MB of RAM -- frustratingly inadequate -- that Apple ships with the new iMac.

Before I get to the meat of this article, I should tell you that unlike some users, I'm a firm believer in keeping the cost of a product -- especially a "consumer-level" item -- down by not including features/hardware that the average consumer won't need. So, for example, I agree with Apple's decision not to include FireWire 800 ports in the new iMac, as most consumers don't have (or need) FireWire 800 peripherals. (See my recent Mac Gems Weblog entry for a related discussion.) Similarly, including an AirPort Extreme card with the new iMacs would jack up the price by another $50-$75 -- a significant amount of money for a feature that many people would never need in a stationary computer.

That being said, when it comes to memory, I think Apple has gone too far for the sake of hitting a price point.

The Apple website tells you all the things you can do with the new iMac: work with photos, surf the Web, rip CDs, create music, and even create movies. The new G5 chip, according to the site, "speeds up Mac OS X and all the other included software, such as iLife '04, Quicken 2004 and World Book." But has anyone in Apple's marketing department actually used an iMac with 256MB of memory to do any of those tasks or use any of these applications? (Perhaps not -- whenever I've peeked under the hood of a demonstration Mac at an Apple Store or at the Apple booth at a Macworld Expo, it's had additional RAM installed.) Even the new high-end model, with a powerful 1.8GHz G5 processor and a 20-inch LCD display, is bogged down by insufficient RAM.

    UPDATE: Online Editor Jim Dalrymple, on assignment at the Paris Expo, emailed me to let me know that the new iMacs on the show floor have 1GB of RAM installed.

(To be fair, this behavior isn't limited to Apple. Many Windows PC vendors take the same approach, providing only 256MB of RAM for computers running Windows XP, which requires at least 512MB, in my opinion, to function well. But since I write for a Mac publication, and since I think Apple needs to distinguish its computers from commodity Windows PC, I'm talking about the iMac.)

I'm especially sensitive to this issue right now because of a recent experience of my own. A few weeks ago one of the RAM chips in my PowerBook G4 (1.5GHz Aluminum 15") went bad and had to be replaced. For a week, I had to use the PowerBook with only 256MB of memory.

It was a painful week.

Safari would take 15-20 seconds to open, and some pages wouldn't even display. Trying to run Mail, Safari, and a word processor -- three applications that even the most beginning users are likely to use -- at the same time was nearly impossible. I actually had to slow my typing down to avoid "dropped" characters. And opening iPhoto with a library of less than 1000 photos, without any other applications running, was little more than an example of spinning beachball performance art.

Granted, the PowerBook isn't a G5 machine, but it's currently the fastest PowerBook in the world and I thought it was nearly unusable with 256MB of RAM. When you consider that installing the replacement RAM chip (512MB, which brought the total to 768MB) "fixed" everything -- the same applications I was using before opened immediately and performed well -- it's clear that the lack of RAM was the bottleneck, not the 1.5GHz G4 processor.

I'm not alone in this criticsm, and it's not a new issue; Apple has been taken to task for years for providing insufficient RAM in its computers. In fact, longtime Mac users generally include money for extra RAM in their computer buying budget. But is that the way it should be? And what about new users? What about "switchers"? What do you tell people who take their brand new G5 iMac out of the box and wonder why its performance seems to be lacking? Few will likely suspect that it's a lack of memory -- not the processor or the OS -- that's keeping their new computer from performing.

Adding 256MB of RAM to an iMac G5 -- resulting in a total of 512MB -- would cost you or me $40-$50 at today's retail prices, which means Apple would most likely pay $30-$40 (or less?) for the same upgrade. That's a small investment that would result in significant gains for the consumer. Even if Apple couldn't afford to reduce their per-unit profit by $30 and had to raise the price of the iMac $30, I think such a move would be worth it. How many iMac buyers would balk at an extra $30? And any competent reviewer would praise Apple for not taking the low-RAM route. A few price-obsessed "analysts" might object, but I think most would see the value in such a move.

(Still to be determined is whether or not the new iMac requires that RAM chips be installed in pairs, like the Power Mac G5 line. Since the new iMac has only two RAM slots, if it requires pairs, upgrading the RAM would require that you dispose of the included memory and then install larger RAM chips -- thus significantly increasing the cost to upgrade your memory post-purchase, whereas the cost to Apple to install 512MB from the start would remain low.)

    UPDATE: After doing a bit more homework, I realized that the new iMac can be upgraded one RAM slot at a time; in fact, it ships with one RAM slot open. And you don't need to "match" RAM chips of the same size when upgrading. So pay no attention to the previous paragraph.

In the long run, insufficient stock RAM only hurts Apple. People whose first, or only, exposure to the Mac platform is using a Mac with too little RAM end up with perceptions that Macs are "slow" or that OS X is "unstable" -- both common traits of computers with too little RAM. Selling a computer with a G5 chip and Mac OS X but only 256MB of RAM is like building a Ferrari with a two-gallon gas tank. No one would think of doing that, and, likewise, Apple shouldn't skimp on the RAM. Given today's memory intensive applications and operating systems, an iMac based on "leading-edge" technology (as Apple calls it) should ship with a minimum of 512MB of RAM.

(For those of you unfortunate souls out there who have been using Mac OS X with only 256MB of RAM, please -- please -- do yourself and your Mac a favor and buy some more RAM. You'll be amazed what OS X can do -- in terms of both performance and stability -- when properly fed.)

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