The Conspiracy to Slow Down Your Computer

One of my pet-peeves about the semi-tech-literate is their insistence on what I like to call, "The Conspiracy". The Conspiracy usually gets brought up by someone when I start talking with someone about technology and how it relates to consumerism. It goes something like this:
My phone/computer/laptop worked fine when I bought it four years ago, but now it's slow, and I use it for the same stuff that I did four years ago. Obviously, this is a conspiracy by Apple/Microsoft/Dell/Whoever to slow down my device in order to force me to buy a new one.
How exactly said tech company slows down their device is a variable matter. Either the software updates are rigged to work extra badly on old hardware, or there's some sort of secret switch that slows down the CPU, or some combination of the two, or something else.

Conspiracy theory in general gets my hackles up, but when it involves my area of expertise, it whips me into a frothing frenzy which is not conducive to calmly explaining what's wrong with the theory in a concise and measured manner. So, let's go over why your computer isn't as fast as it used to be.

First off, when I ask people what things they use their computer for, before listing other programs/tasks they'll casually say, "Oh, just browsing the internet..." Like that ain't no thang. Let me be blunt: your internet browser has become one of the most resource-intensive tasks happening on your computer. I'm always shocked when I sit down at someone's machine and they have, like, a dozen different browser tabs open. We've come a long way from the internet of circa 2000 - web pages often contain lots of dynamic javascript code which make them apps in their own right. That means they use memory, and they use processing power, in significant capacities.

Facebook and Laughing Squid: together they're
 using up more than 1GB worth of my RAM!
Webkit-descended browsers like Safari and Chrome maintain each open page as a separate process (ie: a program thread on your computer). This is done for stability and security reasons. It also means you can open up the Task Manager on Windows or the Activity Monitor on OS X and see how much memory each site is eating up. I kept one eye on Activity Monitor while I was writing this article, and my Facebook tab ranged from between 350MB to 900MB. Why so much RAM? Because Facebook is a very complex web application that uses lots of resources. But GMail, Twitter, or anything else with lots of Javascript logic and graphics will use up its fair share as well.

Keep in mind that, while I don't have definitive data, the Facebook code almost certainly eats up way more resources than it did when you bought your computer in 2010. The same goes for the basic programs on your computer: Safari/Chrome, iTunes, Skype, and the operating system itself. The developers of these programs are constantly adding features, patching security issues, and optimizing the software to do more with newer hardware; rather than optimizing to be slim software than works on older hardware.

So you see, you're not really using your computer for "the same things" you were five years ago. The tasks may seem the same to you, Mr/MS Human, but to your device, they're much more work. Still, it shouldn't make quite this much of a difference, should it?
Factory-fresh CrapRAM™ - 2x 2GB

Well... yes and no.

There may be a bit of a conspiracy, but it's not what you think. For years, the maximum amount of RAM that machines shipped with was 4GB. The fact of the matter is, for a modern operating system, with lots of sites open in your browser, and a program or two open in the background, 4GB is not enough memory. Infuriatingly, manufacturers like Apple and Lenovo are still shipping entry-level machine configurations with 4GB RAM. Without enough RAM, when people start massively multitasking, their computer starts to use virtual memory. Simply put, your computer moves memory content from your RAM to your hard disk (and vice-versa) as needed, depending on what program is active. As you might imagine, it's incredibly inefficient, and slows down your system quite a bit.

Recently, my partner was getting frustrated with her mid-2011 model, Core i5 MacBook. "It's so slow!" she would complain, "What's wrong with this thing?" Finally, I had a look see. In the midst of researching and writing a paper, she had a dozen tabs open in Chrome, some PDFs in Preview, and a handful of docs open in Microsoft Word. DropBox hummed away in the background, trying not to bother anyone with its file-syncing.

"About this Mac" gave me the rest of the diagnosis: 4GB RAM. The diagnosis "You need more RAM" elicited a rather skeptical response as to whether more RAM could really make that big of a difference. The computer is, after all, four years old. Maybe something else is causing the problem? Nonetheless, I persisted, and eventually I was sent to Best Buy to pick up a pair of 8GB SO-DIMMs (for a total of 16GB) which I installed in her MacBook. After the upgrade, the difference was undeniable. She said it felt like a new computer, and was a little angry that she had suffered at least a year of computing frustration in vain.

As I said, my girlfriend's machine is four years old. Why are manufacturers still shipping machines with 4GB of RAM when that clearly isn't enough for most users' needs? Perhaps it is a conspiracy. Perhaps those manufacturers count on the fact that many people don't know the value of a good RAM upgrade. Perhaps they hope that you'll just buy a whole new computer, instead of upgrading your RAM and squeezing a few extra years of life out of your investment. Likewise, people on a budget tend to buy new computers with the minimum amount of preinstalled RAM available - this is a big mistake. There's no part of your computer where making a comparatively small investment has such a big impact on performance, especially in the long-term as memory requirements grow with new features added to the OS, programs, and websites.

It gets worse. Apple's most recent machines are moving towards being non-upgradable, in at least two critical respects. Solid-state storage is just a bank of chips, so Apple now puts those chips directly on the motherboard, rather than using an upgradable SSD. Same goes for RAM in the new MacBooks and Mac Minis: soldered to the motherboard. This means that when your computer ships from the factory, the amount of RAM and storage it has is with it for life; no upgrades. So, if you don't spring for the maximum amount of RAM configurable when you buy your new Mac, you may find yourself buying your next computer sooner than you anticipated.

Apple likely knows this. To be fair, putting RAM and storage right inside the motherboard allows for sleeker, slimmer designs, but it also makes upgrading your own hardware a thing of the past. You may feel smart passing over the extra memory options when you're on Apple's build-to-order web-store ("Ha Apple! You won't get another $200 outta me!"), but the truth is that by refusing that option, you're reducing the usable life of your computer by at least a couple of years, perhaps more.

So, if you really want to stick it to Apple and save money in the long run, take your existing Mac and give it a memory upgrade: look up your model on EveryMac and figure out how to max out the RAM. When you're buying a new Mac, shell out an extra ~$200 and max out the RAM. I guarantee that, in a few years, you'll be glad you did.


NOTE 1 - In researching this article, I discovered a LifeHacker article from 2009 which insists that 4GB is plenty of RAM and you don't need more. I would have called this a little dubious in 2009, but almost seven years later, it's an out of date assessment. The fact that the article still shows up at the top of search results is really disappointing, and I won't encourage that by linking it here. Hey LifeHacker, take it down!

NOTE 2 - Another reason for 4GB being such a persistent industry-standard number might be the legacy of Windows XP. XP dominated for years, massively slowing the adoption of both Vista and Windows 7. XP was also a 32-bit operating system which, put simply, couldn't use more than 4GB of RAM. You could install 8GB RAM in your XP machine, but only 4GB would show up in the OS. However, XP came out in 2001, and very-extended support from Microsoft ended in 2014, so that should put things in perspective.

NOTE 3 - One more thing! Chances are good that your Mac (and many PCs as well) uses some kind of Intel Integrated Graphics chipset. If that's the case, your Mac doesn't have dedicated VRAM (video RAM). Rather, it steals a certain amount of system memory to use as VRAM; meaning that, if you're driving a large external display (like an HDTV), your 4GB could actually be more like 3GB.


SO-DIMM illustration © Jesse Schooff/GeekMan.ca


Jesse Schooffmac, snark, technology