How much RAM is enough for a MacBook Pro (M2)?

How much RAM is enough for a MacBook Pro (M2)?
Photo by Jonathan Kemper / Unsplash

Earlier this week, Apple announced the new M3 models of the MacBook Pro. The new models also have support for up to 128 GB of RAM, which sounds both insane and awesome.

I've been using my 2023 model MacBook Pro 14 M2 Max now for 273 days - almost every day. I'm typing this blog post with the same device - you can read my initial thoughts on the device here and my thoughts after using the device for 100 days here.

How much RAM do you need for a MacBook Pro?

When I was speccing my MacBook Pro in early 2023, I wasn't sure how much RAM I would need. For the most extended time, my Windows laptops have been equipped with 32 GB of RAM, and my desktop PCs are with 64 GB of RAM. "Just in case," I assure myself. RAM is relatively cheap - I recently upgraded my backup PC from 16 GB to 32 GB (an Intel NUC device), and I think the cost was less than 100 euros.

For an Apple laptop, you have to future-proof a bit. Getting a device with only 8 GB of RAM would make you struggle for a year or two at the latest. I opted for 32 GB of RAM on mine. It cost extra - I forget how much, but in the hundreds of euros - but I figured if that allows me to extract a year or two of additional use from the device, it's worth it.

Activity Monitor on MacOS tells me I've used about 24 GB of RAM (out of 32 GB). This isn't the whole truth, as I have about 8 GB of cache data, and apps currently utilize about 18 GB.

Let's break this down – the apps I'm running right now are:

  • Firefox - maybe about 25 tabs open
  • Outlook
  • Greenshot - for making screenshots
  • Microsoft Teams
  • WhatsApp - native app
  • Signal - native app
  • PowerPoint
  • Bitwarden - password management
  • Parallels with Windows 11 running - 8 GB committed to that virtual machine
  • Tailscale - private tunnel to a home network and between my devices
  • OneDrive for Business - three different instances
  • A bunch of small helper apps in the background

Shutting down Parallels for a moment, I can review what MacOS and my native apps need in terms of RAM:

Just 7 GB for apps! So even with 16 GB, my usual workloads would run perfectly well. I occasionally do coding on this machine, but most of the heavy lifting is done in the cloud, so I'm not expecting any large workloads on this machine.

16 GB is enough - usually

For someone like me, who frequently works on a MacBook Pro, and needs to do "IT stuff" and works as a consultant, 16 GB is enough. 24 or 32 GB is an excellent option to future-proof it, but if you have to stretch, 16 GB works well. I've never run out of RAM - except when I run multiple instances of Windows with Parallels on the side - and then the 32 GB ceiling is easier to reach, as each VM needs about 8 GB of RAM.

Sometimes, people claim that 64 GB is the minimum, as they run some esoteric and super complex Generative AI model locally. Sure, go ahead - perhaps you'll need the massive investment for the extra RAM. I rarely need such stuff to run locally - I can borrow compute capacity from the cloud for a few days, and it's beefier anyway.

If you're unsure and want a cost-optimized approach, opt for 16 GB on a MacBook Pro (M1, M2, M3 models). You'll be more than fine. If you can afford it, and you know you'll do more tech work on the machine, aim for 24 GB or 32 GB. Anything beyond that is probably overkill for most needs.