Why does a smartphone need a lot of RAM?

This approach wastes hardware resources, primarily the CPU. In addition, not all data is well compressed. If the data of one program can be compressed three times, then the other can be compressed only one and a half. Therefore, swapping, although it gives an effect, is unlikely to save from a direct lack of physical RAM. The implementation of swap on a specific device is at the mercy of the manufacturer: somewhere swap volumes reach several gigabytes, and on some smartphones it is not used at all.

What is “memory expansion”
Since 2021, Android device manufacturers have begun to actively practice the “Memory expansion” option. What’s this? And this is the same paging file familiar from Windows, only with a different name. It works thanks to the free space on the drive and does not take up RAM with compressed data. With this feature, you can expand the device’s RAM by several gigabytes. Of course, additional memory will not work as real RAM, but this option is much more efficient than Android’s own paging file principle and does not take as much resources from the CPU.

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However, its efficiency depends on the speed of the internal drive. And on budget devices, the speed of switching to applications pushed into extended memory will still be slower than on top-end ones. However, the speeds of RAM in devices of different price ranges also differ, so in practice, a large difference in performance between such devices will be caused by the SoC of the device rather than the speed of extended memory.

RAM usage on Android
Current smartphone models have up to 18 GB of RAM. With the expansion, this figure can increase by a few more GB. For an inexperienced user, it is not entirely clear: why does a small device need so much RAM, when sometimes there is less on the same computers and laptops? But the work carried out by programs on PCs and smartphones is not comparable in scale. What takes up so much memory?

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Part of the memory is reserved and cannot be used by the system for its intended purpose. The reserved area also contains memory dedicated to the integrated GPU in the SoC. Depending on the amount of RAM, the reserved area can range from a couple to several hundred MB. That is why on a smartphone, for example, with 8 GB of RAM, in fact only about 7.5 GB is available.

Modern versions of Android 11 and 12 are extremely “heavyweight”. On a new device out of the box, even when the manufacturer’s firmware is disabled, the system takes up about 3 GB. Just think: you buy a new smartphone on Android 11 with 4 GB, and there is only 1 GB of RAM free. Naturally, it will not hold more than three or four applications in memory (without the expansion function).

This trend, unfortunately, worsens every year. Android 7, which was released five years ago, took only about 1 GB of RAM for its needs. And Android 4.x was content with half a gigabyte. Of course, the functionality of the system is growing every year. But if the user is not a technology geek, then he will not see a huge difference in all versions of the system that came out after Android 5.

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The increase in the “gluttony” of the system, among other things, affects the growth of RAM in modern models. If in 2017 a smartphone with 4 GB of RAM had about 3 GB free for programs, then in 2022 a smartphone with 6 GB has free for programs … Still 3 GB. That is why it makes no sense to compare the memory sizes of devices on different OS versions.

How Apple devices work with RAM
iOS devices use RAM more efficiently, so even current iPhones are equipped with only 6 GB of RAM. But if you think that this efficiency is due solely to better iOS, you are wrong.

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The basic principles of the operating system of Apple mobile devices with RAM are exactly the same as those of Android. However, it is capable of a little trick thanks to the fast CPUs in all iOS devices. The RAM space is divided into blocks of 16 KB in size, each of which can be marked as “dirty” or “clean” – that is, as carrying and not carrying the information needed at the moment, respectively. The “clean” blocks contain information that is not needed before opening the application from the background, such as game textures or internal elements of the application that the user has not yet interacted with. The “dirty” blocks contain information that cannot be simply unloaded, otherwise the entire application will be restarted.

When switching to the background, “clean” blocks are simply unloaded from memory, freeing up all the space they have occupied. “Dirty” blocks are compressed in the same way as it happens on Android, but the method is improved and occurs in two stages. In the first one, the buffer is compressed, while small files are compressed up to 8 MB. In the second, the stream is compressed, that is, the complete compression of all other files, including the second one – those very small ones that have already been compressed before. As a result, the minimized application takes up to 2-3 times less RAM than in Android. Since there is only one active application at a time, only it takes up an amount of RAM in RAM, similar to the volume of the same application on Android. All other applications take those same couple of times less.

Why couldn’t something like this be implemented on Android? The fact is that Apple devices without exception have one of the most powerful processors at the time of their release, and the two-stage compression procedure requires good processor power. Especially single-threaded, in which the iPhone is the leader. And with proprietary processors, Apple can apply good hardware optimizations to further improve compression speed and efficiency.

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The fleet of Android devices, alas, cannot boast of such. There are flagships on the market with incredibly fast Cortex X2 cores, as well as low-end models with slow Cortex A53 cores that simply cannot cope with such a real-time compression algorithm. That is why it is easier for Android devices to simply increase the amount of RAM or the notorious “extended” memory for more efficient multitasking.

RAM consumption by applications
Modern applications use between 100 and 500 MB of RAM on average. Social networks, instant messengers, multimedia applications are content with such a volume, rarely stepping over 0.5 GB of used memory. Naturally, the memory consumption of each application depends on the functions that you are currently using. Simply scrolling through your Instagram feed will take up less memory than going live on Instagram.

Light games consume 300 to 700 MB of RAM. Heavy 3D projects – more than 700, up to 1.5 GB in rare cases. Among the individual “memory eaters” it is worth highlighting browsers. Google Chrome and its alternatives with a large number of tabs are able to step over 2 GB of consumption, and this is not the limit.

Results
So how much memory is optimal for a modern smartphone? If you need real multitasking – that is, more than three simultaneously executing applications – at least 6 GB is needed. Then 3 GB will be available to you for applications, which is quite good.

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With 4 GB of RAM on a modern version of Android, you will have only 1 GB available, and even one resource-intensive game will be able to force all remaining applications out of memory. It’s not worth talking about smaller volumes on current versions of the system: only a few hundred MB will be available for 3 GB, and then due to the reduction of shell functions.

Devices with 2 GB are equipped with a special version of Android called Go. The system takes less RAM on them, but not all applications can be used at the same time, mainly special versions with reduced functionality.

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Smartphones with 8 GB seem to be the best choice today. For applications, they have about 5 GB available, and at a price such devices are not much more expensive than their peers with 6 GB of RAM.

Devices with 12, 16 and 18 GB are in the flagship category. The amount of memory available to the user on them just rolls over – about 9, 13 and 15 GB, respectively. Does the user need such a volume today? In very rare cases. But do not forget that each new version of the Android OS takes more and more memory for its needs. And it is possible that some Android 14 will already use 4 or 5 GB of RAM for its needs.

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That is why there is a saying “there is never too much RAM”. However, devices with such a volume are not cheap. But if you choose a flagship and doubt between two similar flagship devices with 8 and 12 GB, you should still prefer the latter. The overpayment will not be particularly large, but such a smartphone will be able to please you with good multitasking in a few years