The Asus ROG 5 just launched with up to 16GB of RAM – and if you somehow snag the limited-release Ultimate model, you can hold one of the only smartphones in the world with a whopping 18GB of RAM. But… what does all that RAM get you?
For years, RAM has been used alongside chipset and storage space as shorthand for a phone’s performance. Roughly, the more RAM, the more the phone can do at once: currently open applications use RAM as quickly accessible memory, with excess RAM keeping track of other applications in the background so you can swiftly swap back and forth. Graphics-intensive games may use more RAM, too, to produce lots of complex on-screen effects.
The gold standard of Android phones, the Samsung Galaxy S21, only packs 8GB of RAM, while the S21 Ultra starts at 12GB and maxes out at 16GB. In our testing, these phones handled every task a consumer would put it through, from browsing the internet to binging media to gaming. But they are aimed at mainstream consumers.
Thus, it’s no surprise to us that Asus – itself a producer of gaming-focused products – is signaling to its demographic of performance enthusiasts that its new handset’s 18GB of RAM is an extravagance that can, in theory, push a lot of pixels.
So does that mean you’ll instantly have better graphics in today’s games by playing on an 18GB phone? Not really, according to experts, as you’ll get much the same performance out of phones running 12GB so long as you’re playing casual games. But tomorrow’s games – especially in mobile esports – is another question.
The 18GB question
Mobile games will obviously evolve to take advantage of more powerful components in phones, and we’re already seeing some with graphics rivaling their PC versions – just look to Genshin Impact, suggests Jennifer McLean, VP of Industry Relations at industry analysis firm Niko Partners. But it might be a few years before games come out that can truly harness 18GB RAM.
“As far as game developers taking advantage of the new higher RAM devices – there will need to be a significant enough installed base before developers will make games that require those specs,” McLean told TechRadar in an email.
But there are some gamers who can really use 18GB RAM, according to McLean: “Mobile esports will benefit greatly from these devices NOW.”
Mobile esports has been growing, but is especially embraced in East and Southeast Asia: a Niko Partners report noted that in 2018, mobile esports generated $15.3 billion, of which $5.6 billion came from China alone, compared to $16.1 billion earned by PC esports. Mobile esports games have higher install rates than their PC and console counterparts, which translates to better revenue per player.
Mobile esports require higher-performing phones, so consumers may naturally gravitate toward higher-spec devices like the Asus ROG 5. But it’s not just consumers playing mobile esports – pro players and streamers who need these high-performance phones could drive adoption, too.
“Niko’s data on Asia’s gamers shows that hardware and peripherals used by esports competitors and streamers influences gamers and fans to purchase those devices as well,” McLean said. “So as we see competitors and streamers adopt these more powerful devices, we will see gamers and fans follow suit.”
Given the release of mobile esports outside East Asia around PUBG Mobile and Call of Duty: Mobile, along with upcoming titles like the still-in-beta League of Legends: Wild Rift and the just-announced PUBG New State, we could see this phenomenon become even more mainstream in the US and Europe.
The magic RAM number
The good news, then, is that you don’t need to upgrade to 18GB this year. That amount is aspirational – even the upper limit of phones today with 12GB breeze through tasks.
“I don’t think that there is a perfect number for how much RAM a smartphone needs. It varies on the operating system and the application,” says Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. “For example, my [Samsung] S21 Ultra is using 75% of RAM on 10GB, which means that 12GB seems pretty reasonable to give breathing room for top-end models.”
That makes even 16GB RAM an edge case for consumers to consider, Sag says, though phone configurations have had that much RAM since 2020 when the Samsung S20 Ultra first offered it.
Of course, the rules are different between Android and iOS. Even the iPhone 12 Pro Max only has 4GB of RAM – and still beats out every other phone yet released on Geekbench 5 benchmarks (4240 iPhone 12 Pro Max vs 3518 Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, per GSM Arena). This isn’t exactly new: Apple has always done more with less in terms of RAM thanks to, logically, its control of the entire hardware-software ecosystem in its phones.
That’s very unlike Android, which has to work on devices of far more spec configurations, as Sachin Dev Duggal, Founder & CEO of Engineer.ai, explained in a 2019 Firstpost interview.
“Android is built for various devices with varying hardware specifications, hence, it needs more memory to execute the right code for the right device,” Duggal said. “Also, apps on Android are allowed to use as much of RAM that is required, so, they end up collecting more data on the RAM and when it is not used the data is cleaned.”
iOS, on the other hand, has multiple reasons it needs less RAM – but a big one is memory management: Apple’s operating system “doesn’t rely on Java Virtual machine to execute its codes and the app codes are directly executed on the hardware thus limiting the need for RAM to run virtual machines on iOS,” Duggal explained.
Given that article was written in August 2019, its aspirational questions are correspondingly quaint from today’s perspective: Duggal noted that 6GB of RAM is “more than enough to future-proof a device” and 8GB will be good in the near future. 4GB of RAM was the standard of the day, and continues to be overrepresented in terms of global smartphone distribution: after the iPhone 7 and 8, some of the most popular phones in the world outside China are the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S9 (both of which have 4GB of RAM), according to an April 2020 Yahoo Finance report.
But in the intervening two years since Duggal’s estimations, Android phones have included more RAM, and developers will likely start upgrading their system requirements for more functionality and, in games, more advanced graphics. The high-water mark for RAM will rise as original equipment manufacturers (OEM) aka phonemakers stuff more and more in their devices.
“Android is inherently a more memory-hungry operating system, so it appears that OEMs are looking for ways to up the specs for differentiation but also to improve the user experience as apps get more memory-hungry on Android,” Sag pointed out.
In short: you probably won’t need an 18GB RAM phone for awhile, but as always, it’s nice to be ahead of the curve when developers start adapting to the new cutting edge.
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