It is perhaps one of the most Apple things to develop a new M3 MacBook Pro, powered by the revolutionary 3nm M3 chip, and still release it with a measly 8GB unified memory.

That means people are paying over $1500 for a laptop and still only getting the same amount of unified memory as MacBooks released in 2016. Apple claims that 8GB of unified memory is equivalent to 16GB on other systems, and that may be broadly true, but even so, for the money we pay, we deserve more unified memory.

Still, most people will purchase the base-level M3 MacBook Pro that comes with 8GB of unified memory. So, is that enough? Or should you upgrade to 16GB unified memory?

What is unified memory?

To understand how much unified memory you should buy, you need to understand what unified memory is and what it does.

Unified memory is a memory architecture that allows different components of a system, such as the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine, to access and share the same memory pool. Essentially, memory is all stored in one easily accessible place. 

Laptops with Random Access Memory (RAM) are different because they store memory in different places meaning components of the system take longer to find and access the data needed in order to perform tasks.

As such, unified memory offers improved performance and efficiency. This results in a generally faster laptop. This means that even with a lower capacity of memory, the M3 MacBook Pro can still deliver equal-if-not-better performance compared to non-Apple laptops.

It is why the M3 iMac 8GB can outperform an Intel iMac with 16GB memory.

Apple’s 8GB Memory Problem

Let’s get this straight. 8GB unified memory in an M3 MacBook is enough for the majority of users. By that I mean most people who buy MacBooks use it for low-intensity, low-stress workloads like word processing, emailing or spreadsheets. 

8GB unified memory will be absolutely fine if that is you.

However, a lot of people use MacBooks for much more than that, like video editing, graphics rendering or music production. And it is here that the controversy over a base-level of 8GB unified memory has arisen.

If you are placing a high strain on your MacBook by multitasking with demanding workloads then you will certainly want more than 8GB unified memory, meaning the cheapest M3 MacBook is immediately off-limits.

That means you will need to spend $200 (£200) on upgrading to 16GB unified memory, something which Apple has been criticised for. Why force professionals and power users into spending more money when you could easily make the base-level M3 MacBook Pro start at 16GB?

It is especially a problem when real-world tests and benchmarks have now shown that the 8GB configuration of the M3 MacBook Pro can suffer performance drops, particularly in memory-intensive tasks and multitasking scenarios. 

For example, the 8GB model experienced double-digit performance losses in Cinebench benchmarks and longer processing times in applications like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro compared to the 16GB version. 

Additionally, the limited memory capacity of the 8GB model can lead to reliance on the SSD swap file, resulting in decreased overall responsiveness. Furthermore, options like ray tracing acceleration in Blender, a graphics enhancement feature, were only available on the 16GB model, indicating that the reduced memory pool can restrict the utilisation of certain features.

So, as expected the 16GB M3 MacBook outperforms the 8GB. But this isn’t the point. The point is that the 8GB unified memory could be restricting the full potential of the M3 chip, essentially pushing those who need the full performance to pay more.

Do I Really Need 16GB of Unified Memory?

The answer to this question depends on your specific usage and workload. If you primarily engage in light tasks such as web browsing, email, and document editing, the 8GB configuration will suffice. You should rarely, if ever, experience any noticeable slowdowns or drop-offs.

However, if you work with resource-intensive applications, multitask frequently, or plan to future-proof your machine, opting for 16GB or even higher if you can afford it is a no-brainer.

Multiple benchmarkers have found evidence that the 8GB configuration is unequally restrictive of the M3 chip. As fast and impressive as the M3 chip may be, if it doesn’t have enough unified memory it won’t be able to perform to its full efficiency.

It’s also important to consider that memory requirements can vary depending on the software you use and the complexity of your tasks. For example, 3D rendering, and virtualisation often benefit from higher memory capacities. Additionally, if you plan to keep your M3 MacBook Pro for several years, software and applications do tend to become more memory-hungry over time.

How Much Unified Memory Should You Buy?

If you only intend to use your M3 MacBook Pro for simple tasks like word processing, creating spreadsheets or using the internet, don’t panic. Just get the base-level 8GB unified memory.

If you do a lot of video or image editing, and perhaps even some light graphics rendering, you should buy 16GB unified memory. But this is really only suitable as a baseline.

If you are multitasking all the time, with complex applications that demand a lot of your laptop, such as 3D graphic design, then go for as much unified memory as you can afford. In fact, if this is you, then consider buying an M3 Pro or, ideally, and M3 Max MacBook Pro. Your work will probably justify the expenditure.

As a general rule, you will never regret buying more unified memory, so if you can afford to go for 16GB, 24GB for an extra $400 (£400) or more then go for it.

There are also two other things you need to consider when choosing memory. First off, you cannot upgrade a MacBook’s memory once you have bought it. What you buy is what you get forever.

Second is future-proofing. As technology advances and software becomes more demanding, having additional memory can help ensure a smoother and more reliable experience. If you plan to keep your M3 MacBook Pro for several years (which you definitely should be!), investing in more than 16GB of memory is ideal.

Conclusion

While Apple’s claim that 8GB of unified memory on the M3 MacBook Pro is equivalent to 16GB on other systems may hold some truth, there are clear performance differences between the 8GB and 16GB configurations.

So much so that it seems like the 8GB M3 MacBook Pro withholds some of the M3’s full power and efficiency. This is not only uninspiring for people buying that laptop, but also just plain annoying from Apple.

Why not mark the dawn of the new 3nm age with a base-level MacBook that has 16GB unified memory? If you want the M3 MacBook to sell big, this would have been a logical step.

Instead, it all feels a bit money-grabby from Apple. For those who need the extra power afforded by higher memory, Apple says you’ve still gotta pay up.

Review: M3 Max MacBook Pro Review – Is It Worth It?

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