Will more RAM make up for low graphic memory on my iMac?
November 9, 2016 10:11 AM   Subscribe

I have an iMac from 2012 that is starting to show signs of age, notably when playing games and when browsing with multiple tabs. Would upping the memory from 8GB to 32GB (the max this machine can take) help enough to be worth the $200 price tag, or should I save my money for an upgrade? Specifically interested in people who have done this with a Mac and how much real difference you saw.

The specs of what I have:
macOS Sierra
iMac (27 inch, late 2012)
Processor 2.9 GHz i5
Memory 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3
Graphics NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660M 512 MB
HD 1TB Fusion drive

When running a typical regular-use session (web browsing, iTunes), Activity Monitor is showing just under 7 of the 8 GB of my memory in use. However, I have been getting fairly frequent freezes where some program stops responding and has to be force quit.

I recently got the game Obduction and could just BARELY get it to run by pushing all the settings and the resolution down to about the minimum, and even then it's still skipping. I know this particular game is a resource hog, but I wonder if it's a harbinger of things to come.

I'd appreciate any insight from other Mac users about how much performance bump I can expect from a RAM upgrade. I do use Adobe creative suite sometimes, but not heavily. My main concerns are multi-tasking with music, word processing, and web, and gaming.
posted by oblique red to Computers & Internet (6 answers total)
No. I'd save the money for an upgrade. Your graphics card is aging. The minimum system requirement for that game is a GeForce 660 GTX w/1GB / AMD 7700 series w/1GB equivalent or better. You have the mobile version ("M") of the chipset with half the GPU RAM. Upping the system RAM won't help in this situation, unfortunately.

Moving to 16GB and changing from a fusion drive to all SSD might help a little with peppiness, but gaming would likely still suffer.
posted by bluecore at 10:26 AM on November 9, 2016

I have a 2012 Mac Mini with the same memory, slower processor, slower video card. Web browsing with a variety of browsers is very responsive. In fact, I typically run Chrome, Firefox, and Safari all at once (one browser per pesron), maybe a dozen tabs. Never a crash. Crashes are never a performance issue. My 2012 Retina Macbook Pro is starting to freeze, and I haven't pulled the plug yet and done a fresh install.

As far as gaming goes, Bluecore is correct. The iMac and Mac Mini are both, effectively, laptops in a semi-desktop form factor. He/she is also correct that 16GB and a full SSD would help a bit, but it's not going to be dramatic.
posted by wnissen at 10:43 AM on November 9, 2016

I upgraded a 2010 Mac Mini to max out the RAM and it helped a bit but as bluecore pointed out the GPU won't improve and it's the weak link here. I bought a used Alienware Alpha for playing games because even a brand-new Mac Mini has a pretty gutless GPU and there's nothing to do about it.
posted by GuyZero at 10:44 AM on November 9, 2016

Since you have a discrete graphics chip, adding ram won't do anything.
Bumping up to 16GB won't hurt, though, in terms of general performance.

You don't say how much of your HD is filled. By your description, it sounds like you're starting to run tight on disc space.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:31 AM on November 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The graphics will never be that good.

That having been said, bumping up the RAM to at least 16GB tends to make a difference with memory-hog things such as browsing. The Mac Mini mid-2011 with 16GB and SSD here is still fine for lots of less-intensive tasks, and having been upgraded, still "feels" at least as fast as it did in its original HDD/8GB configuration, despite the software getting slightly larger and slower over the last few years.

If you are not running multiple programs or piggy programs, more memory isn't necessarily helpful. If Activity Monitor is showing that the system is under at least moderate memory pressure, then you might see some improvement if you are managing to consume almost all of your 8GB.

Going all SSD can also makes a substantial impact in the system responsiveness, but I don't know what the options are for that with the iMac.

Your best bet would probably be to determine how your memory slots are currently filled, see Apple->About This Mac->Memory. If you have two slots free, you might find it beneficial to cruise around eBay looking to score some cheap RAM from someone else's 32GB upgrade, such as a pair of 4GB modules, which ought to run around $30 or maybe $40 tops. Sit it out until you find some cheapish deal.

Do note that the newer variants of these machines are not substantially faster, as they are still effectively laptops-minus-the-laptop. The biggest advances have really been in the form of the GPU's, so if gaming with modern games is a big issue for you, then you may need a new machine, and probably *not* an iMac. I believe the current version of the iMac is only one generation newer than what you have.

If you are looking to extend the lifetime of a four year old system to use as a web browsing, word processing, iTunes playing computer, you're likely to find that adding some memory and maybe contemplating some storage upgrades will get you to about 80% of a contemporary machine.
posted by jgreco at 1:13 PM on November 9, 2016

I have the exact same machine. It's very limited for gaming; my "just barely works" game is Civilization VI. That game runs much better on a 2011 iMac I have because that machine has a AMD Radeon HD 6970M 2GB in it. The graphics card matters.

One thing that might improve your game performance (and stability) is to install NVIDIA's third party graphics driver. Yeah I know that sounds weird for MacOS, but it really works. Here's my notes on the topic. Even finding the download page is a challenge, but this site may help. Once installed the drivers work well, upgrade themselves, and are easy to disable.

Another option is to use Bootcamp to reboot to run Windows. It's a drag, but MacOS is really bad at gaming. Civ 6 runs 50% faster on Windows on the same hardware, for instance.

To answer your direct question, adding more main memory won't help game graphics performance. It may help with system performance, although 8GB is good enough for MacOS if you're not running a huge number of things at once. (I use 8GB just fine). If you want to see if you're swapping frequently the memory pressure graph is most useful. (Really you want to watch page in / page out for the process you suspect is swapping, but Apple has hidden that so you'd have to use top from a terminal window or other low level tools).

If you do decide to go to 16 GB, it's significantly cheaper to buy RAM from a third party than from Apple itself. The installation is pretty simple.
posted by Nelson at 8:02 AM on November 10, 2016

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