MacBook Air 8 GB vs. 16 GB: Which One to Choose?

MacBook Air 8 GB vs 16 GB

The recent release of the M1 versions of the 13 inch MacBook Airs has seen many consumers having to make a choice between the 8 GB or 16 GB versions. There is a lot of discussion around the topic, so which one is the one for you: MacBook Air 8 GB or 16 GB?

Most people will be perfectly fine with the 8 GB version of the MacBook Air. Unless you’re going to be running multiple intensive programs and dealing constantly with 8K video, there’s no need to spend extra, even for future proofing.

We’ll look at some tests and comparisons between the two models, as well as how well they perform in everyday tasks compared to each other, and reasons why the difference of 8 GB RAM doesn’t matter as much as it used to.

MacBook Air 8 GB vs. 16 GB: Differences

The figures of 8 GB and 16 GB refer to the amount of RAM (Random Access Memory) on the computer rather than the internal storage.

RAM is a key computer component, with RAM temporarily storing data so as to serve as the computer’s ‘working’ memory.

Additional RAM thus allows a computer to deal with more information concurrently, improving total system performance and speed. This is particularly the case when doing multitasking, that is having multiple programs and processes running at the same time.

Another important point to consider is the use of swap memory. Swap memory refers to using the computer’s hard drive to essentially increase the total amount of RAM. It can also be referred to as a page file.

While swap memory has been in use for a long time across multiple operating systems, the rise in the use of solid state drives (SSD) has meant that swap files have become even more powerful, given the superior read and write speed of SSDs over traditional platter drives.

Testing has shown that MacBook Airs will use up to 10 GB of their SSDs for this swap memory. This is not as big a deal as previously held, because the modern SSDs are much more resilient to this constant read and write cycle than previous generations.

As far as the video card or GPU is concerned, the MacBook Air 8 GB has only seven cores compared to the eight cores of the 16 GB model. This is not a massive difference in reality, however.

It’s also important to look forward and realize that you can’t just upgrade the 8 GB to the 16 GB version when you wish. Controversially, the RAM is soldered onto the motherboard and so that price difference can’t just be paid later if your needs change.

RELATED: 8-Core vs. 10-Core: Which One to Choose?

MacBook Air 8 GB vs 16 GB: Which One Is Better Choice?

Benchmarks are one of the more objective ways to test which is better although it is not the be all and end all.

The Geekbench 5 cross-platform benchmark saw the 8 GB model obtain a 7582 multi-core score in comparison to the 7586 points of the 16 GB Macbook Air. [1]

The 8 GB single-core test scores at 1728 points, slightly lower than the 1733 points for the 16 GB version.

This means that raw processing power doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the two of them. However, further tests focused on multitasking do start to show the gap widening between the two.

Opening up 12 applications to run simultaneously eventually pushes the 8 GB past its limit, but the 16 GB continues to run. This includes multiple tabs on Safari as well as playing YouTube videos and running common apps like Slack and Spotify.

Putting the MacBook Air onto an external display didn’t seem to make any difference in slowdown, even having multiple fullscreen YouTube videos playing fullscreen and swiping between them.

Further testing by Max Tech reveals that applications such as Xcode and Lightroom as well as video exporting saw the 8 GB version lag behind its 16 GB version significantly. [2]

The 8K export to 4K conversion also saw the 8 GB model comprehensively crushed.

When considering what the better choice is, the factor of future proofing often comes up. Sure, how you use your MacBook today may mean you’re going to have no issues at all with the 8 GB model, but who can say what will come around in the next few years?

There could be new software coming out or new standards that come out which displace the old ways of doing things, and you’ll quickly find your MacBook that was ‘good enough’ just a few years ago is now very useless.

One only has to look at the massive increases in data streams from 360p to 720p to 1080p to now 4K becoming the must-have, and the exponential strain this is putting on hardware.

The M1 chips found in the MacBook Air have gone a long way to help guard against these types of issues, but that comes with its own issues. Not everything is properly coded or optimized for the M1 chip yet either, meaning you get less than stellar performance.

The reason the M1 is so powerful is it has such a high concentration of transistors, especially when compared to the competition. A smaller structure width of the chip means more transistors per nanometer, and the M1 has 16 billion transistors, a huge amount.

The M1 chip also has a massive advantage in that it has unified memory architecture. All components such as the CPU, GPU and other components access the same RAM storage technology. 

This means that loss of performance due to memory access issues is minimal, if even possible. This has seen the M1 chip way outperform the older Intel-based chips. 

Just from a business point of view, for Apple to bring the manufacture of the chips in house also gives them much more flexibility, and rather than having to depend on other companies and their construction constraints, they can build their M1 chip precisely for their own needs.

So not only does Apple end up with the best possible architecture for their models going forward, but also maximum efficient use of the onboard memory and superior power efficiency.

The introduction of the Neural Engine is also a massive game changer, which you’ll get in both the 8 GB and 16 GB models. This will take care of image recognition, speech recognition and motion analysis in videos boosting performance in apps like Final Cut Pro.

Although anecdotal, I’m yet to ever read a comment or article from someone who regrets spending the extra to get the additional RAM. A rule of thumb that transcends the Apple line of computers is that if you can afford the additional performance, just purchase it anyway.

If you don’t end up using it, well you just went slightly overkill. In the case you do end up needing it, you’ll be very happy with yourself. If you skimped on it and then run up against a productivity or performance brickwall in the future, you’ll be annoyed to say the least!

Is MacBook Air 8GB or 16 GB for Developers?

Before making a decision on which one is good for you, we should perhaps define what we mean by ‘developer.’

If you’re into software development, your workflow may look drastically different from the developer sitting across from you.

So it’s important to consider use cases and what your day-to-day looks like before the 8 GB or 16 GB can be said to be best for you.

Firstly, if you’re doing a lot of work in Chrome or other such web browsers, you’re going to find that they’re massive memory and CPU hogs.

This isn’t much of an issue, but if you find yourself opening up multiple tabs constantly as well as running many other apps, this may cause slow downs or crashes at inconvenient times on the 8 GB.

This can only get worse when you have multiple running environments. If you’re part of the massive work from home revolution, then you often have to be running multiple apps such as time management software, a communication medium and many more.

The M1 chip that comes on the new MacBook Airs is one of the best innovations to come to the MacBook lineup, and has shown to be superior in multitasking even on the 8 GB versions that the Intel-based chips of old would have struggled mightily in.

  • Laura Bais

    Laura is a co-owner of Computer Zilla and an editor. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Cultural Studies and a Master's degree in Journalism, both of which have sharpened her skills as an editor. During her college years, Laura served as a marketing team leader for one student asso...