New Hardware and OS from Apple Don't Solve Existing Problems

By P. J. Connolly  |  Posted 2010-10-22

Apple may not have invented the notebook computer, but it certainly is pushing the envelope. Wednesday's announcement of new models of its MacBook Air-which include the debut of a new release of its iLife application suite and a preview of the forthcoming "Lion" release of Mac OS X-appears to solidify the company's image as the most forward-thinking player in the personal computing marketplace.

There are many things to like about the new models of the Air; the lightness and battery life are going to win over a number of people who lug their machines around for whatever reason, and the stability of the Airs' solid-state storage certainly make me think about buying one for myself.

But from my perspective, the MacBook Air comes across as a bit underpowered. With 2GB and 4GB memory configurations available, the new Air models offer as much RAM as the MacBook Pro that I bought in 2007 and upgraded earlier this year. Although it's not that long ago that 4GB was a pretty decent memory configuration for a rack-mounted server, I've found that the applications that are my bread and butter simply can't get enough RAM to be happy. My next machine will have 8GB of memory even though I strongly suspect that my application mix will use all the memory available just to feed my Web browsing habits.

Now, I don't run anything terribly fancy on my machines; as is the case with many people, the Web browser is the first application I open and the last one I shut down. Although I do the vast majority of my surfing in Apple's own Safari browser, a good deal of my work requires that I use Mozilla Firefox, and I guess I should be thankful that I don't have to use Internet Explorer 6.

But I've been paying a lot of attention in recent months to how my applications use memory, and, to be perfectly honest, Safari's proving to be a bit of a pig. I admit that I'm probably an extreme use case--I have a habit of keeping a few dozen browser windows open. At one point last weekend, I realized that I had 120 windows open for one reason or another; but even after shutting down two-thirds of those, my machine was still reporting that it had less than 5 percent of its memory free.

As I write this, having rebooted a few hours ago and with 32 Safari windows open, the browser is using more than a quarter of the machine's real memory, or almost 1.3GB. Microsoft Word 2011 and Mac Mail are using less than 100MB each, and the Adobe Flash plug-in for Safari is using about 80MB of RAM.

Just for giggles and grins, I'll quit Safari and wait a few minutes for my computer's OS to do a little cleanup before relaunching the application and restoring the previous session. Let's keep score, shall we?

Safari has stopped loading viewable content and, as I type this, the same windows as before are open; I'm watching the memory usage in Activity Monitor continue to tick upward, from 975MB to 1.02GB in the last five minutes. The counter keeps going, although I'm not interacting with the browser whatsoever; Safari is in a separate desktop space from the one I use for Word 2011, and I'm resisting the urge to peek. Meanwhile, the other applications are holding steady, with the obvious exception of Flash.

There could be a valid reason for this behavior, but I can only guess at what it might be. Whatever the reason, it's not good; if I wanted to explain to somebody what a memory leak was, this would be the way to demonstrate it. (Safari's using 1.05GB now.)

Although I'm interested in seeing what Apple has planned for Mac OS X Lion, to be honest, I'm not looking for a new way to purchase and install applications, and I don't care that much about multi-touch. (Safari's at 1.06GB) No, I'd be much happier if Apple would take a hard look at how Safari (1.07GB) and similar applications use system memory. All of the improvements promised for Lion in user interface and user experience won't matter (1.08GB) when a user's bread-and-butter applications consume all the memory on a machine.

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