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Issue #62: How much RAM does my iPad really need?

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One thing that keeps confusing iPad buyers is the device’s amount of internal memory, RAM. Internal storage, the flash drives where you store data, is one thing, it’s what usually differentiate iPad models from each other, but RAM, that’s something Apple rarely talks about when it comes to the iPad. Except now, with the M1 iPad Pros, where they clearly state that models under 1 TB storage have 8 GB RAM, whereas 1 TB and 2 TB models have 16 GB RAM. We’re in traditional computer territory here, in fact, it’s the same options you get if you buy an M1 MacBook (Air and Pro), or the current M1 Mac mini and iMac models. 

But here’s the thing: RAM on an iPad doesn’t work the same as RAM on a Mac. And besides, how much RAM do you really need?

RAM in current iPad models

Not all iPads are created equal when it comes to the amount of RAM they have. The current line-up looks like this:

  • iPad (8th generation) has 3 GB RAM.
  • iPad mini (5th generation) has 3 GB RAM.
  • iPad Air (4th generation) has 4 GB RAM.
  • iPad Pro (5th generation, i.e., M1) has 8 GB RAM for 128/256/512 GB models, and 16 GB for 1/2 TB models.

Not all RAM is created equal, though, with the iPad mini using the older LPDDR3, the iPad’s got LPDDR4, and Air/Pro models got LPDDR4X. This is less important than the amount of RAM, but matters some for speed.

So, that’s where we are now. Both the iPad and iPad mini are overdue for a refresh, although they could very well stay at 3 GB RAM when that happens. They’ll surely get the new LPDDR4X variety, though.

Which brings us to the big question: How much RAM do you need?

iPadOS limitations

I’d wager that a lot of the Switch to iPad readership was thrilled learning that the new iPad Pros got 8, even 16, GB RAM accompanying the M1 processors. I’m typing this on the 12.9” M1 iPad Pro with 2 TB storage, and it’s really snappy. But so was the 2020 model, and the 2018 model before that.

Here’s the thing: iPadOS limits RAM usage on a per-app basis. Currently, and this includes the iPadOS 15 beta as I’m writing this, the limitation for apps are 5 GB. That means that no one app can use all the RAM in either M1 iPad Pro model (nor the 2020 models, which got 6 GB RAM, same as the 2018 12.9” 1 TB model, as it were). So, what’s all that RAM good for, then?

Short term, it’s for keeping apps in the internal memory for longer periods of time, and that works marvellously. I can jump between games, writing, streaming, without apps relaunching themselves. To be fair, I could do that on the 2020 model too, but the M1, with a whopping 16 GB RAM as opposed to 6 GB, keeps apps alive longer, no doubt about it. The same goes for Safari tabs, although I’m not one of those crazy people with hundreds of them open, so I can’t rightly say if the experience is that much better.

Does this matter? I mean, it’s nice, but apps generally launch fast enough, and it’s not like they’re always actual “cold” launches just because iPadOS decides to push them out of the internal memory. Chances are that if you bounce between a few apps, they’ll stay alive anyway because there’s RAM to spare.

It all boils down to what you do on your iPad, then. There’s no need for 16 GB RAM if you browse the web, write some emails, type newsletters in a writing app, retouch a photo or two, and other types of light usage. And even if you’re doing heavier stuff, it’s not like it won’t work with less RAM, it’ll just mean that iPadOS is closing some apps in the background. What I’m saying is, if the app you’re running gets the amount of RAM it needs (remember, 5 GB tops, but often way less), there’s not much use of having more of it, is there?

There are obviously other things in play here, for apps to run as good as possible. The processor is one of those, so an iPad Pro with the M1 processor will outperform the older, 2020 A14Z models, even though they both can give an app its maximum amount of RAM.

What about long-term implications? Surely, Apple wouldn’t put a lot of RAM in the iPad Pros if iPadOS wasn’t about to be able to utilise it? That’s the big question, isn’t it? In iPadOS 15, there’s a recently added feature that lets apps ask for more RAM, more than the 5 GB limit, but it’s somewhat unclear which apps will be allowed to do this, and under what circumstances. That’s likely not the same as an app getting access to the full 16 GB RAM, though, so the worth of this function isn’t clear just yet.

Even longer term, however, could mean that the RAM limit for apps might get raised. There are apps that would benefit from this, so-called pro apps in particular. But, again, it’s not like the pro apps are sluggish today. Video editing in LumaFusion, drawing in Procreate, it’s all pretty darn great, isn’t it? I’m sure it can get better, there’s just no rush, at least not if we’re talking RAM. More layers are great and all, and I bet the Procreate team would love to make the most of more RAM, but the app still does its job today, with less.

Buying advice

I wouldn’t pick an iPad based on RAM, today. There are more important things to consider. That said, some things always ring true when buying technology, and this is no difference.

When buying an iPad, I recommend the following priorities:

  1. Buy as much storage as you can.
  2. Buy as much processing power as you can.
  3. Buys as much internal memory as you can.

The M1 iPad Pros are the best iPads. Then the iPad Air, the iPad (due to the mini model being two years old), and then the iPad mini. Things get a little muddy when you’re on a budget, having to decide between too little storage in a more powerful model, or weigh in accessories. The iPad Air, more RAM than the iPad and iPad mini, is the compromise. 

I still think that RAM is the least interesting part to consider when buying a new iPad. These magical slabs of glass gets the job done anyway.

I’m curious to see where Apple will take iPadOS, and how they’ll utilise the power of the M1 iPad Pros. They are ridiculously overpowered for almost everything we, as iPad users, use them for. You’ll need to turn to batch-processing of RAW photos, 4K video encoding, music creation with lots of tracks, and the like, to even begin to tax an M1 processor accompanied by plenty of RAM. All those pro things can be done on an M1 Mac with 8 or 16 GB RAM, so the only limitation on the iPad is that RAM limit. 

But that’s not where we are, and looking at the upcoming iPadOS 15, it’s not where we’re going either, at least not yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’ll ensure that the lower-end iPads will continue to perform great.

And, you know, 5 GB RAM for an app is almost always plenty, so maybe that new asking for more RAM if available feature is the best of both worlds? We’ll see.

Thanks for reading.

— Thord D. Hedengren ⚡