“Who would ever need a 6GB smartphone?” Questions like that will get you in trouble. Despite the fact that he says he never said it, Bill Gates still gets cited as the guy who said we’d never need more than 640KB RAM in our computers, and we’ve seen how that turned out. If the Vivo Xplay 5 is to be considered today’s benchmark, the 6GB smartphone is just around the corner. But that brings us back to the question: How much RAM is “enough” in our smartphones, and is 6GB “too much”?
To answer those questions, we’ve got to know what RAM is, and what it’s used for. Thankfully, we covered that back in 2012 when we were talking about OEMs who were starting to consider upping the RAM in their handsets to a whopping 2GB. Today, time has inevitably marched onward, apps have gotten bigger and more complex, video has increased in resolutions ranging from 1080P to 4K (with 8K on the horizon), and operating systems have had to keep up with all these technological demands.
Instead of going over why someone might want (or “need”) a 6GB smartphone, let’s focus on how a smartphone could effectively use that much RAM.
At the peak, I had around 150 apps installed on my smartphone. Since then I’ve been able to cut that in half (by checking which apps I actually use, and removing those that I seldomly do). That freed up a considerable amount of storage space (which isn’t RAM), but because a lot of those apps have processes that run in the background, removing them freed up a fair amount of RAM, too.
Another consideration is that apps, especially complex ones, can take up quite a bit of RAM while they’re running in the foreground. This can kick apps from running in the background, ending processes and losing the state of apps that you might want to swap back to.
More RAM is the easiest way to solve both of these concerns. The software developer in me has to add that this probably isn’t the “best” way to “fix” the problem – optimizing code to run as slim as possible is a better approach in the long run. Nonetheless, more RAM certainly won’t hurt.
The RAM in our smartphones isn’t just system RAM (like we have in our computers and laptops). Since the “video card” in our smartphones is actually part of the SoC, the RAM which the “video card” uses is the same RAM that the rest of the system uses. That may sound a bit obvious, but it has some significant impacts.
In many of today’s performance computers, you’ll find a dedicated video card. That video card has it’s own RAM. For example, Nvidia’s GeForce GT 705 (OEM) (a decent entry-level video card) has 1GB RAM onboard. The GeForce GTX TITAN series comes in 6GB and 12GB configurations. All these are separate from the RAM that plugs into your motherboard.
Onboard video, like we have in our smartphones, doesn’t have dedicated RAM, and has to use system RAM for its duties. When that RAM is shared between system and video needs, the amount and speed of that RAM becomes doubly important.
We’re consuming more video on our devices – and by that I’m not just referring to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. “Video” is anything that’s displayed on your screen – moving or not. It’s all got to be processed by various APIs, and ultimately pushed through your video card and onto the screen.
A “standard” high-definition screen (1080P) is 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels – that’s a whopping 2,073,600 pixels! At 60 fps, you could be pushing over 124 million pixels to the screen every second. When it’s raw video, that’s impressive enough, but when that’s a game with dynamic lighting, shadows, particles, and more – not only do you need a lot of processing power, you need a lot of RAM in which to store all that data.
4K screens have over 8 million pixels (3840 x 2160), and 8K screens are on the horizon (33.2 million pixels at 7680 × 4320). As you can see, video processing power as well as RAM are only going to need to increase over the coming months and years.
To add to all that, virtual reality (VR) and 360° video are already here. These videos need to have enough data to cover not just the 180° in front of your eyes, but all the area behind you, below you, and above you prepped and ready for you to turn your head and look. That’s a lot of pixels that have to be stored in RAM.
Ultimately, do we “need” 6GB smartphones? Absolutely not – not right now anyway. However, take that in the same context that we’ll “never” need more than 640KB RAM in our desktop computers. Even today, those computers still run their original operating systems and original applications just fine. You’re not going to be able to listen to your MP3 collection on them. You’re not going to be able to record your podcast or edit your videos on them. You’re not even going to be able to watch Netflix, Hulu, or even YouTube on them.
We’re in the same situation today. The apps of tomorrow may not run on the smartphones of yesterday, and a 6GB smartphone is simply making sure that you’ll have the resources you’ll need for the future that’s closer than you might imagine.