8GB vs 16GB M1 MacBook – Does It Even Matter?



**CHECK OUT MY GUIDE FOR THE M1 PRO vs THE M1 MAX CHIPS HERE**

The price difference between 8GB and 16GB on the new M1 MacBooks is £200. It’s a choice you need to get right first time, too, because there’s no user upgradability.

What a head-scratcher, right? Imagine if you bought the 8GB version only to find out later that you should have spent that extra £200…

If your finger is hovering over the ‘buy it now’ button for a new M1 Mac but you’re totally confused about which RAM option to opt for, I’ve got some real-world experiences that’ll help you with your decision.

What the experts say

If you’ve read or watched me before, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of benchmarks or spec deep-dives.

This is partly because I’m not smart enough to understand what all of those numbers mean, but mainly because I’m far more interested in how devices feel during everyday tasks.

I genuinely don’t care how high a computer’s Geek Bench score is if it helps me become more profitable as a creator.

The RAM debate for M1 Macs is interesting, though. And it has drawn a raft of opinion from people who really know their onions when it comes to specs, benchmarks and really putting these machines through their paces.

For instance, YouTuber, Max Tech, recently conducted a 20-minute deep-dive into the difference in performance between 8GB and 16GB of RAM on an M1 MacBook Pro:

His experiments focused on Xcode, video exporting and Lightroom. In all three tests, the 8GB version lagged behind its 16GB big brother, but it was only the 8K export to 4K in which it was comprehensively crushed.

In that scenario (which is, incidentally, pretty niche), the 8GB M1 took eight minutes longer to complete the task than the 16GB model. Clearly, if you’re into heavy video editing work, 8GB is going to cause you issues. But, then, would you really opt for anything less than 16GB if that kind of video work is your bread and butter?

Over on 9to5Mac, Stephen Hall pushed the 8GB M1 MacBook Air to “the absolute limits of my normal workload”. He was “actively reckless” during the test, leaving multiple apps open and opening as many Safari tabs as he fancied.

The result was not a “single sign of sluggishness”, and he was only able to slow the Air down after opening 12 apps, 24 Safari tabs and six Safari windows (all of which were playing 2160p YouTube videos).

Once again, that’s probably not an everyday use case, but it does demonstrate how far you can push this new configuration of 8GB of RAM. It is mightily, mightily impressive for most people.

My day-to-day experiences with 8GB on the M1 MacBook Air

My first week with the 8GB base-spec M1 MacBook Air revealed the following:

Since then, I’ve used the laptop extensively and pretty much as my only device. It has all but replaced my 12.9” iPad Pro (more on that in a future article), and is the first thing I use while sitting on the couch during my early morning routine.

Hands up, I’m still using the 16” MacBook Pro for video editing, but that’s mainly because of the screen size. But the M1 Air does everything else, including Lightroom and Photoshop work. It basically runs my entire business.

It never ever misses a beat. I’ve never experienced any form of sluggishness and it hasn’t crashed, misfired or beach-balled me once.

I’ve reached the stage where I don’t think about memory at all. A case in point: I’ve not bothered installing iStat Menus simply because I don’t need to know what the computer’s doing; it just works.

For me, 8GB doesn’t feel like a constraint – it feels like just another number attributed to the system-on-a-chip that is the M1. I don’t really know what’s going on beneath the hood to make RAM such a non-issue, but Apple really has done a fantastic job at abstracting it away from my particular workflow.

‘RAM’ just isn’t’ a thing for me anymore with this MacBook Air. That’s game-changing.

The Final Cut Pro test

A massive part of what I do involves video editing. For the last year, my trusty 16” MacBook Pro has been a video production workhorse. Despite all of the heat and fan noise during intense rendering and exporting, it’s an absolute monster, performance-wise.

That’s why I was so interested to see how the 8GB M1 MacBook Air would stack up against it. So, I ran a little Final Cut Pro test.

The 16” MacBook Pro destroyed the Air when it came to the export test, but that was the only potential hint that 8GB of RAM is a bit dicey if you’re running concurrent, heavy-duty tasks.

It’s for this reason (and that screen size) that I have reverted back to the Intel MacBook Pro for video editing, but the fact the M1 Air beat it during the render test gets me incredibly excited about my future Mac lineup.

I need computing speed to be as productive as possible. I don’t want to wait around for renders or exports. The fast they happen, the faster I can get paid – it’s that simple.

However, if my 32GB, top-of-the-line-graphics-card 16” MacBook Pro bit the dust, I wouldn’t feel particularly hamstrung by turning to the 8GB M1 MacBook Air to get some heavy tasks done. And doesn’t that say an awful lot about this new platform?

Can you really get away with 8GB?

Yes. In fact, “get away with it” is a bit misleading, because, for me, 8GB never feels like a constraint – until it’s really pushed under sustained load.

Unless you’re doing seriously heavy lifting in terms of video, audio or coding work, 8GB will do you proud, and I have a feeling it’ll be future-proof, too.

So, if you want to save yourself £200/$200 on that new laptop and fall into the ‘normal’ user category, I wouldn’t think twice about going for the 8GB option.

Oh, and if you’re going for the MacBook Air, you don’t need that 8th graphics core, either.

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About the Author: Mark Ellis

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27 Comments

  1. Great article, Mark. This really helped me with my buying decision. Seems crazy that I’m buying a device with less memory than my last three or four Macs. Heres goes!!

      • Appreciate the article also Mark.
        I have a 32GB system for performing video editing and larger operations/projects for my DAW (Cubase 11 Pro).
        I’m looking to buy the Macbook Air 2020 to use as light DAW activities, kind of a musical idea sketchbook (not layers upon layers of VSTs), also want to run Virtual DJ Pro with perhaps one instance of a VST for live synth performance.
        I don’t believe in spending excess on hardware if it really isn’t required. I understand storage, RAM and the integration of the CPU with data management to a point, I was really interested to see if you have any thoughts/recommendations on this?

      • Totally agree! The way that you write makes it easier for us non-nerds to understand and also gives us confidence that you have credibility for the average guy on the street. Great job! Keep up the good work!

  2. A client of mine purchased 4GB Air four or five years ago. It was running just five years ago but years after year his computer became more and more sluggish and I tracked it down to RAM deficiency. So he ditched the 4GB Air and went with a second hand 16GB Pro. Seeing how the apps, especially browsers, hog RAM more and more each year, I would suggest to go for the 16GB today, so that you wouldn’t regret it down the road. In the future, the 16GB version has a better aftermarket value as well.

    Or your plan may be also to get the 8GB version and sell it later and get something newer down the road.

    Either way it’s a win for Apple who makes sure that you spend more than you had to in the old times when the RAM was user upgradable. Good job, Apple!

    • “Seeing how the apps, especially browsers, hog RAM more and more each year,” – I think this is an important point we don’t talk about too often. The reality is it is the nature of app developers to squeeze out every ounce of performance from upgrade machines and who could blame them when they want to provide the best experience possible for their apps? A major consideration is “now vs later” when you will feel compelled to upgrade given the future demand. In other words, are you upgrading for what you’ll have now or what you think will be needed for the foreseeable future? When you think HD is the best, 4K is already becoming fast obsolete and who knows…

  3. I’m writing this comment on my aluminium late 2008 macbook “pro”. I upped the specs from 2gb ram to 8. 256gb of SSD card. Of course, the moment I turn on youtube and do some photoshop, it would almost seem as if a helicopter is hovering around me. And yes it is a bit sluggish. And yes I am looking into buying either the macbook air with 16gb or macbook pro (with the 16gb). In a way, I like the idea of futureproofing, but I’m not entirely convinced, especially since we have no idea how the 8gb is going to be like performance wise in the following months ahead.

    • People have to understand this : the architecture of the new M1 chip is such, that the RAM acts in an entirely new way. It is fixed to the chip itself. This has the downside that you can’t upgrade it, but the upside that the M1 needs *far less* RAM than any Intel chip does for the same performance. An 8gb M1 is basically equivalent to a 16 gig Intel, and the 16 gigs to 32 gigs.
      If you’re currently using a 2008 Macbook Pro…. you’re not ready. I’m using a 2012. The M1 is so far ahead of any laptops I’ve tried in my life, it’s something else. It’s much faster than even iMacs I have used professionally! The difference will be so huge that you won’t see a thing. For you, going 8gb or 16gb will make *no difference at all*. I bet you can run at least 6 instances of PS before the M1 memory starts to slow down!

  4. Nice article, but I would like to point something out that is hidden behind 8GB performance – heavy swap.
    Because all M1 devices are equipped with really fast SSDs, swap performance is significantly higher and with some optimizations, you will not even notice it, unless you really push it hard and process needs to rely heavily on swap.
    However, your SSD lifespan will going to notice it, because swap is A LOT of writes to SSD wearing it down more quickly than a 16Gb version would, and since none of the M1 parts are exchangeable – that is something I would most certainly take into account.
    That alone is reason enough to buy 16Gb version if you have any workload which is relying on swap with 8Gb version (and any heavier work will).
    You can also easily check it – start your daily workflow and in the middle check Activity Monitor, Memory tab and then look at the bottom of the screen “Swap Used”.
    If you have there more than 0 bytes, you should have took 16Gb version 🙂

    • Yes… and no. First of all, the RAM architecture on the M1 chip is vastly different than other CPUs because it’s buit-in and thus incredibly efficient. 8gb of RAM on the M1 is equivalent, give or take, to 16 gig on Intel… Now… How many instances of SSD failures in modern laptops to we have? I mean, modern SSDs can run hundreds of therabytes of writing cycles before failure. Is the drive aging faster? Well, yes… because there is more swapping. But, between you and I, have you ever seen a laptop Nvme drive fail *from age*?! That would take at least 8-10 years, even during heavy use!
      I doubt the swapping have actual real-life impact on performance, I really do.

      • Not very well substantiated, since M1 is a new chip and years haven’t yet passed.

  5. 8Gb is just isn’t enough. The tests mean nothing unless you are gonna call Doc and Marty to travel 3-4 years into the future…. But I bet you will have found out that “the damn thing doesn’t work (at all)”

    • Haha! Although I disagree, I’m afraid – 8GB is perfect for a large number of people (me included when it comes to the MacBook Air).

  6. Great article!
    It seems that no one reviews use-cases similar to mine, though. If any of you could shed any light on my use case, that’d be great.
    I multitask a lot, mostly with things that aren’t very heavy, but when I hear reviewers talk of 20 tabs open as if that’s a big number, I’m left puzzled. I’d say on a normal day, I’d have about 30 tabs open. One of them might be streaming video, then at least one gmail tab, one (or more) facebook, one twitter, and quite a few others. On top of that I’d often have some word or excel files open (often more than one).
    And then I also edit video (using DaVinci Resolve), but my videos aren’t very heavy. usually 1080p timelines, that are no longer than 30 minutes, with some basic effects and color corrections, but no major animations or anything like that.
    And then, some reviews make it seem as though I HAVE TO get 16GB, while others make it seem completely pointless. Considering that money definitely is a big deal for me (but at the same time, that if I am spending this much on a new computer, I want to be really happy with it) – I really don’t know which way to go.
    Would really appreciate your thoughts.
    Tal

    • Hey, Tal. Given your use case, I’d spend a little more and get the 16gb, mainly for peace of mind, but to also give you some headroom for all those tabs!

      • you pretty much nailed it on the 8 vs 16. It is so interesting to me that people keep saying “this is there first shot at putting a chip in a mac”. They have been practicing for years with the phone and tablet. I am really i terested to see how the imac works as eventhough it has the same processor I wonder if the wattage is higher, therefore more power. I have a mba as you do and it can do everything. What I also noticed as I recently went to Affinity photo, designer and publisher along with FCP is that because basically everything on my mac now is native for M1 not only is is smoother but its not fetting stuck at all when doing many tasks. That is why to me the future proof argument almost goes in reverse.

  7. Hello! I was wondering what would you choose between MBP 8GB and MBA 16GB (7 cores) if you’ll be playing The Sims 4 a bit (not necessarily all day but 3-4 hours every few days)?

    • I would absolutely go for a 32gb config with 2tb of ssd for Sims4.

  8. […] guide won’t delve into the merits of 8GB versus 16GB of RAM, how much storage you need or whether you need to worry about the 7-core GPU option. I’ve been […]

  9. […] when you start to think about where the additional improvements are going to come. For instance, RAM is becoming a more divisive topic than it ever has been, therefore I question the merit of simply giving us increased gigabytes to add to our […]

  10. Do you think Macbook Air 16gb or Macbook Pro 8gb is better?

  11. Dear Mark,
    I follow you on YT and I am a big fan of your very realistic outlook. I was wondering if you could maybe help me – I will be perhaps buying the Macbook Air M1 after WWDC (following your advice: to see if there is anything truly revolutionary worth waiting for, but I am pretty sure there will be nothing for the price of the current Macbook Air). My use case looks like this:
    – on most days I just use the office stuff: because I can’t stand the “mess” of more than a few tabs on browsers I don’t usually have more than 10 open
    – I use MS Teams in the background for studies
    – every week or so I use Lightroom to edit and export up to 5000 photos, usually RAWs 20-30 MB to small JPGs. It is usually one long session when I import the photos, pick the good ones, apply some of my own filters and let it all export in one or two batches
    – on most days I edit some photos in Lightroom, but not really big batches, maybe up to 50 daily
    – every week or so I edit a video for my YT channel – usually a film no longer than 15 minutes either 1080p from a Canon Camera or 4k60fps from a phone.

    My current laptop is from 2017 with Intel’s then i7 (ASUS 430ua) and 8GB RAM and it barely handles the aforementioned task of exporting such large quantities of photos and the export of such a huge set of files usually means I have to leave it at night to process as you can’t do anything at the same time. I also edit films on it, but it got quite slow and irritating, yet possible. Thus I wonder if I should rather get the 8/512 GB model (as I use quite a lot of storage and don’t like dongles) or 16GB/256 for future proofing – that’s my budget for today, not much of a chance for 16/512.

  12. Addenda. I actually misspoke. I never do 5000 full RAWs to JGPs, that would be ridiculous (esp. that it’s not art photography in this case). It’s rather regular, 5-10 MB JPGs to compressed small JPGs for social media, but indeed in high quantities up to some 5000 pictures. Every week or two or three during the weekend. My current laptop (4 years old ASUS i7) takes up to 10-12 hours processing all this. I can only guess M1 even total base model would be much much better.

    As for RAWs I only edit and export 24MB ones and no more than a handful dozen per day, every few days.

    All things considered I am quite decided for 8/512GB model – especially that this is my first Mac so it’s still testing waters. In any case from what I read one can easily sell it for not a bad price if it happens that with time I need to go more pro (I don’t really know yet).

  13. Hey there, I really enjoyed of reading this attitude. I am going to buy a mac book air m1 2020, but I am still confused about what to choose! I am UI/UX Designer and absolutely need photoshop and illustrator,.. some times programming what do you suggest? 8GB or 16GB

  14. […] 8K video or require a NASA-like setup of multiple displays. And when it comes to unified memory, 16GB will still suit the vast majority of users; I’d only go for more if you work with very large files in video or audio production, […]

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