640K of memory should be enough for anybody. Most people have heard about this quote (oddly enough, Bill Gates probably never even said it) because it's used as a testament to one thing: more memory is always better. But how much do you need on your Android phone in 2022?
You can buy a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra with up to 12GB of RAM, and the best Android phones can come with even more. That's almost as much as many gaming PCs and about 6 GB more than many other phones. This has a lot of folks scratching their heads and asking why in the world do you need 12GB of RAM, and does that mean my phone needs more?
Seeing 6 or more GB of RAM inside a phone, even a budget phone, is fairly common. Let's talk about what RAM is, how your phone uses RAM, and why a phone would have so much more of it than what's "necessary."
What is RAM
RAM (Random Access Memory) is short-term digital storage. Computers (and yes, your phone is a computer) use RAM mostly to hold data that active applications — along with the CPU and operating system's kernel — are using because RAM is very fast when it comes to reading and writing. Even the fastest hard drive or flash storage is slow when you need to read or write something "right now," and while the CPU inside your phone has its own cache to hold data that's being used for calculations, there's not a lot of it. Even the latest Snapdragon processor's cache is only enough to hold what's being used right now, so you need somewhere to hold what's being used next.
The OS kernel acts as a traffic cop for everything that goes on when it comes to using your phone's hardware. When a game or any app wants to draw a new screen, the data created to use for it goes into the RAM where the OS can parse it, let the CPU and GPU do any processing needed, then send it off to the display, so the right color dots can be drawn in the right places.
It all sounds complicated, and it is, but all you need to understand are three basic things: RAM is a place to hold data for a short period, data placed there can be read or written very fast, and data in RAM is erased when you shut your phone down. Additionally, a portion of the RAM in your phone is used as soon as you turn it back on, and no apps or even the OS can use that portion. This goes for just about any computer; they (almost) all have RAM, and they use it the same way.
How your phone uses its RAM
RAM in your phone is mostly used as a place for running apps to store their data. In the simplest terms, that means more RAM can let more apps run in the background without slowing your phone down. But like most things, it's not really that simple. The RAM in your phone is in use before Android is even up and running.
We're not going to talk about fancy low-level management or things like compcache or swap partitions here, but this is basically how your phone uses the RAM inside of it. If you want to discuss using storage as RAM, you probably already know this stuff anyway.
- The kernel-space: Your Android phone runs on top of the Linux kernel. The kernel is stored in a special type of compressed file extracted directly into RAM during the device power-on sequence. This reserved memory holds the kernel, drivers, and kernel modules that control the hardware and room to cache data in and out of the kernel.
- A RAMdisk for virtual files: Some folders and files in the system tree aren't "real." They are pseudo files written at boot and hold things like battery levels and CPU speed data. With Android, the whole /proc directory is one of these pseudo file systems. RAM is reserved, so they have a place to live.
- Network radios: Data about your IMEI and radio settings are stored in NVRAM (Non-Volatile memory that's not erased when you power off your phone), but get transferred to RAM along with the software needed to support the modem when you first turn on your phone. Space is reserved to keep this all in memory.
- The GPU: The graphics adapter in your phone needs memory to operate. That's called VRAM, and our phones use integrated GPUs that have no stand-alone VRAM. System RAM is reserved for this.
Once that's done, and your phone is up and running, what's left is the available RAM your phone needs to operate and run apps. A portion of this is also reserved for things that need to happen quickly (low-level operating system functions and housekeeping), but it's reserved a different way. These are software-based settings the people who wrote the OS and built the kernel for your phone set, and it keeps a set minimum amount of RAM free so these low-level functions can be done as needed without having to wait for an app to free any memory.
All this is why the available RAM listing in settings isn't the same as the total amount of RAM installed inside your phone. The full amount really is inside, but a portion of it (usually about 1GB or so) is reserved. Your apps get to fight over the rest.
Unused RAM is wasted RAM
You might have heard this saying about Android and memory management. It's a Linux thing, and Android is a Linux kernel-based OS just like Ubuntu. It means that Android was built to stuff the RAM full of apps and their associated data as fast as possible and keep it full, leaving only the minimum free amount we talked about above open for housekeeping duties.
This is different from how Windows works, though it's very close if you're using a Mac. Windows keeps RAM open and free for an app that needs it. Linux keeps an app in memory until the memory is needed elsewhere. That's also decided by those minimum free settings the company that built your phone set. Apps and their processes are given a priority based on what they do, how they do it, and when the last time they were on the screen. When you want to open a new app, the apps with lower priorities get closed, so the new app has the RAM it needs.
As you use your phone, you'll use many of the same apps more than others. These apps will tend to stay resident in RAM and be running, so they are available instantly. Having that RAM free instead of having the app(s) already resident in the RAM means the app would need to restart the processes that allow you to interact with them, and that's slower and uses more battery power than keeping them resident in RAM.
It's a true saying for your Android (or iOS) phone, but not your Windows computer. It's kind of true for your Chromebook (also a Linux-kernel-based OS ). Each operating system manages things differently and manages the RAM it has available differently, too. When it comes to your Android phone though, you are better off with almost all the RAM filled with application data instead of free. Either way, it's available.
What does having more RAM inside my phone do for me?
You already know the short answer because it's above — it allows for more apps to run in the background. But the long answer is really interesting.
10GB or 12GB (or 16) of RAM is complete overkill for Android. Older phones or budget phones can get away with just a GB or two of available RAM because the minimum free settings are set with this in mind. A cool factoid: the Samsung interface is more resource-intensive, and Samsung did a very smart thing here, starting with the Galaxy S6. It forced the launcher to stay alive in memory at all times and killed home screen lag. Nice work, Samsung!
Using what that tells us, we can see that a phone that's doing more behind the scenes needs more RAM installed. Since almost every phone comes with 6GB of RAM now, there is no real difference here, and a Pixel phone just has a little more memory to have another app or two up and running because its interface isn't using as much. It's also why Samsung and others have included ways to kill running processes for the times it needs a little boost in performance. If you kill all the apps you can, apps not already in memory will start a little faster. But apps that were in memory still take longer to load. It's a balancing act.
If you take things a step further and do things like Samsung's DeX desktop setup, having more RAM can be a big benefit. DeX, for example, could use more RAM set aside before the phone is running for the graphics adapter but still needs a nice chunk to use itself so other apps or processes can run without being interrupted. And you can get even more creative if you're developing software for a phone with "extra" RAM.
Ideally, a phone with extra physical RAM could even use a device driver that enables DMA (Direct Memory Access) for the user interface. This sets aside RAM at boot just for the home screen, touch input, and anything else that makes your phone uber-responsive regardless of anything else running or going on outside of the RAM set aside for DMA. Are you ready for instant touch response or scrolling? Because that is how you get it.
Now extend this idea into "game mode" or a desktop solution or any other special way an Android phone can be used. There would still be more than enough RAM for the system to do its thing while that extra RAM is there for playing a software-heavy 3D game without killing all the apps in the background, or putting your phone in a stand or laptop shell to use in desktop mode has the memory it needs set aside only for it to work.
RAM is cheap and having more RAM looks great on a spec sheet
Companies charge a lot for a model with more RAM, but most of that is because it means they have another model to manufacture and another parts list to maintain. The actual chips that go inside the phone only cost pennies when bought at volume. But being able to say your phone has 12 or even 16GB of RAM when it's announced can go a long way when it comes to the spec sheet.
It's impressive, especially to tech enthusiasts and early adopters. I'll admit, it gets me interested. I like seeing optimized software that can run well on minimal hardware because it's an art form; writing code can be beautiful. But I'm also intrigued by what having extra RAM can mean when the two have meshed together in the same device. Seeing 12GB or more of RAM in the specs instantly gets me interested, the same way a high-resolution display does.
Companies that build phones know this. They also know that putting more RAM in a phone means they can get away with less software optimization (a costly and time-intensive thing) or try and do more with their version of Android. Either way, some of us will be buying only because of the specs. That makes the added costs worth it because people talking about your product is priceless.
So how much RAM do you really need? As much as you really need is the right answer. The best answer is as much as you can get.
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