Now that Apple has refreshed their 2020 iMac with absolutely killer specs and features, a lot of you guys are upgrading, so we created a Buyer’s Guide to help you figure out which model and which upgrades you should buy, but one of the biggest dilemmas is how much RAM you should buy.
This article is going to apply to every medium to higher-end Mac, like the higher-end 13” MacBook Pro which can be configured with up to 32gigs of RAM, the 16” MacBook Pro, the Mac Mini, the 5K iMac and even the Mac Pro.
The great thing about the new 2020 5K iMac is that we still have a RAM access door for upgrading it ourselves, and RAM is MUCH less expensive than it was last year. For example, 32GB used to be $171, now it’s only $120. And 128GB used to cost $1100, and now it’s only $500. So what we’re going to do in this article is run actual benchmarks and real-world tests like photo editing using Lightroom Classic, video editing using Final Cut Pro X, Gaming performance, Logic Pro X music production and I’ll even discuss programming using xCode.
We’re going to be comparing the factory 8GB that comes with the iMac, then 16GB for $70 on Amazon, 32GB for $120, and 64GB for $250. We’re actually not going to be testing 128GB of RAM because we tested 64gigs and realized that even THAT was overkill for a lot of these tests, so you really only want to get 128gigs if you want to show off to your friends, or maybe if you’re running virtual machines.
Before we begin, here are the specs of our test machine the $2300 2020 5K iMac which we think is a very solid option for a lot of people, as you guys know if you watched our recent review. I do want to mention that we ran all of our tests with 10 chrome tabs open in the background, which is a good realistic limit to give a bit of extra wiggle room just in case you like to browse the web while doing your work, like I personally do.
Let’s start off our tests with some simple benchmarks, like Geekbench 5’s CPU test which actually does get affected by RAM since the test happens in short bursts, unlike a real-world scenario. Going from 8GB to 64GB, the single-core score does go up by around 28 which honestly isn’t that much, but wait until you see the multi-core score. Here, we see a massive gain of 1617 points going from 8GB to 64GB of RAM, or a 22% improvement in this benchmark, and there really wasn’t that big of a jump between 32 and 64, so 32gigs of RAM seems pretty solid so far. And interestingly, just going from 8GB to 16 gave us a huge improvement, almost 1000 points higher.
Let’s get right into our Lightroom Classic tests, which greatly depends on RAM, so we should see some interesting results here. Exporting 500 RAW 42MP photos, there was a massive improvement going from 8GB of RAM to 64GB, being almost twice as fast, which is a huge surprise since all we did was change the amount of RAM, and this is still on the same 8-core system! And by simply going from 8GB to 16GB saves you over 10 minutes on the export, not bad for an extra $70 if you’re buying the RAM straight from Amazon instead of paying Apple $200 for it on their website.
Moving onto building 1:1 previews of 50 RAW 42MP photos, our results are actually a little bit different! Just like the export test, we finished almost twice as fast by having 64GB of RAM compared to the factory 8GB. And again, just like the other, test, going from 8 to 16 saves you over a full minute, so this shows that even for users who are looking to buy a 13” MacBook Pro, definitely get at least 16GB if you’re photo editing for doing graphics design work like in Photoshop and other apps like that, and it’s even worth going up to 32GB if you’re doing it all the time. However, going from 32GB to 64 only saved us 3 seconds when building previews, which isn’t nearly as big of an improvement as for the export test.
Moving onto our Gaming test, we ran Unigine’s Heaven Benchmark while having 10 chrome tabs open and to our surprise, we got basically the same exact score no matter how much RAM we had, even with only 8GB of RAM, which was surprising!
LinusTechTips actually did a great video on this, testing three different games and they found that going from 8GB to 16 gave them a much smoother gaming experience, but going from 16 to 32 didn’t really change much at all, so you should definitely watch that video if you want to learn more.
One benefit with the iMac is that you can buy some RAM and add it to the existing 8GB of RAM that’s in the system, so if you buy a 16GB kit for only $70 on Amazon, you can fill the empty slots and have 24GB total, just to be safe. Or of course, you can get a 32GB kit and end up with 40GB of RAM total.
However, if you simply fill in the empty slots, your RAM speed will actually downclock from 2666Mhz to 2133MHz, so 9to5mac found a great trick on how to get around this. You basically take the bottom stick from the existing RAM and move it to the top slot, so you should have the top two slots filled and then put in your two new sticks and you should end up with all of your RAM running at the highest speed.
Moving onto music production with Logic Pro X, our viewer Joe Swainson pointed us to the New Logic Benchmark 2 project created by Martin Raay, which basically has you run as many instrument tracks as possible before you get a system overload message.In this test, we were surprised to see that Logic was only taking a couple of gigabytes of memory, and going from 8GB to 64GB only helped our system run 5 extra tracks at once before overloading. So it seems like, at least for this test, RAM isn’t that big of a factor for Logic Pro X, and we’d recommend at least 16GB unless you know your workload will require more RAM due to using more plugins and things like that.
Finally getting into video editing with Final Cut Pro X, we exported our standard 5 minute 4K clip with 2 Lutz and film grain added, which is basically the most common format and workload that most YouTubers use. Going from 8GB to 64GB, we saved about a minute and 20 seconds on our export, which shows that Final Cut was definitely being limited by only having 8GB of RAM, and over time, you’ll definitely notice that difference. And even going to 32GB helped out quite a bit for exporting this 5 min 4K clip, saving us 26 seconds in this test, but going from 32 to 64gb didn’t really do much, only saving us 4 seconds, so we can definitely see the diminishing returns here.
We also ran our 5 minute Canon C200 60p RAW export, which is definitely a more difficult test, and here, we saved 2 minutes and 20 seconds by going from 8GB to 64GB of RAM, which honestly isn’t as big of a difference as I was expecting. We definitely saw a decent improvement going up to 32GB of RAM, but going to 64gigs only gave us a 15 second improvement, which isn’t that much at all considering the total time it took to export this RAW clip.
Before we get into the conclusions, we ran just one more test. We basically ran the Lightroom export test while having the 5 minute 4K project open in Final Cut Pro. It was interesting to see that most of the results were identical compared to not having Final Cut Pro open, which means that macOS is doing a very good job with page filing, or basically offloading Final Cut from the RAM onto the SSD to give more RAM to Lightroom Classic, so that’s a very good sign! However, with only 8GB of RAM, our export was slower by around 50 seconds, which means that even page filing couldn’t help with RAM that low.
So now, with all of that testing complete, let’s go through our recommendations. 8GB is simply not enough, even for basic web browsing with chrome. It suffered greatly in basically every test, taking almost twice as long for video editing and photo editing.
If you’re a gamer, you’ll want at least 16GB of RAM for a smooth gaming experience, potentially keeping the existing 8GB so you have some extra wiggle room for Discord, and you should probably go up to 32GB if you want do some live streaming, but you honestly don’t need any more than that.
For Logic Pro X users, we were surprised to see that RAM didn’t have that big of an effect, so 16gigs should be enough, or 32GB if you are running various plugins, but 64GB is probably already overkill.
For video editing using Final Cut Pro, it seems like 32GB is honestly the sweet spot, so you can buy a 32GB kit for $120, and then in the future, you can add another 32GB if you feel like you’ll need it, but honestly, we don’t think going for 64GB is worth it for video editing, and that applies to all Macs, including the 16” MacBook Pro.
For photo editing using Lightroom Classic, or other graphics design work like Photoshop or anything like that, you’ll definitely want at least 32GB for a smooth editing experience and fast export times. Going up to 64GB didn’t really help with building previews, but it did save a couple of minutes on our export test, so to some people who believe that time is money, paying an extra $130 for 64GB would probably be worth it in this case. In this case, you’ll still have 2 extra RAM slots empty and ready if you ever want to add another 64GB for a total of 128gigs if you ever feel like you wanna try and squeeze a bit more performance out of your Mac system, or if you just wanna show off to your friends.
So based on that conclusion, I think that users who use xCode for programming will probably have a great experience with 32GB of RAM, and possibly a bit of extra gains with 64GB of RAM, which could be worth the extra $130 to some people, but not to everyone. Hopefully this article helped you finally figure out how much RAM you need for your Mac, no matter which iMac you have.