A smartphone was just announced with more RAM than a standard laptop — here’s why RAM matters on a smartphone

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Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider

  • RAM is a super-fast type of memory that stores the apps you’ve opened since you turned on your phone.
  • That memory lets you return to an app you’ve previously used and pick up right where you left off, without delay.
  • Without RAM, apps would close themselves when you switch to another app, causing delays when you revisit one you’ve previously used.
  • The more RAM your phone has, the more apps it can store for quick access, which results in an overall feeling of your phone working faster.

A phone called the OnePlus 6T McLaren Edition was recently announced and it has 10GB of RAM, a number that, for many, is just another confusing number.

But once and for all, we’re going to explain what RAM is and why it matters in a smartphone. This post is a great place to start.

First, the name. You don’t really need to know that “RAM” stands for “random access memory.” But what you do need to know is that RAM is a super-fast type of storage – faster than your phone’s main storage where your apps, photos, videos, and music live – and it helps your smartphone work and feel fast.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

Here’s how RAM works and what it does in your smartphone

  • You can think of RAM as your pocket and your phone’s main storage as your backpack. It’s much faster to pull something out of your pocket than it is to pull something out from your backpack.
  • When you turn on your phone, and open an app for the first time, your phone pulls the operating system (OS) and app’s data from your phone’s slower main storage and stores the bulk of that OS and app data in your phone’s faster RAM so you can use different elements and features of the OS and app quickly.
  • When you’re finished with the app you’re using, your phone keeps the app and whatever you were doing on it in your phone’s RAM, even if you switch to another app.
  • When you return to an app you used a while ago, it’ll open right where you left off, as if you never even left the app, because it’s been stored in your phone’s RAM. Essentially, apps you used are kept running in the background while you use other apps.
  • Switching between apps and picking up right where you left off is often called “multitasking.” If a phone is said to multitask well, it’s because it makes good use of RAM or simply has a ton of it.
  • If a phone didn’t have RAM, apps would fully close whenever you switch apps. That means apps would need to fully re-open, as if you opened them for the first time after turning on your phone, which causes a delay before you can use the app.
  • Your phone’s main slower storage could potentially keep your OS and used apps running in the background, but it’s much, much slower than RAM. Your phone could have the fastest chip in the world and it would still feel slow without RAM.

iPhone XS Max

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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

So, yes, more RAM is generally better, but it’s not that simple

Indeed, more RAM means your phone can store more of the OS data and apps you often use for quick access. It gives off the impression that your phone is incredibly fast because the OS and apps you’ve previously used are ready to use straight away when you return to them.

But you might look at the iPhone XS’s paltry 4GB and compare it to the OnePlus 6T McLaren Edition’s 10GB of RAM, and immediately think the iPhone XS is an inferior device. But it’s not quite that simple.

Apple uses a relatively low 4GB of RAM on its iPhones because they’ve optimized the iOS operating system, components, and the way it handles app data to perform very well with only 4GB of RAM. The same goes for Google and its own Pixel 3 phones, which “only” have 4GB of RAM compared to other Android devices with 6GB or more.

With Android devices that aren’t made by Google, you could say the optimization is generally less efficient. There are so many Android devices out there with difference specs and versions of Android that optimization is almost never going to be as good as it is with Apple and its iPhones. So a lot of Android devices will have 6GB or more of RAM in order to perform as well as an iPhone with 4GB of RAM.

With that said, the OnePlus 6T McLaren Edition – which runs Android – has so much RAM that it could brute-force itself to better app multitasking than the iPhone XS, and any other phone for that matter.