Is RAM the Thing That Will Dictate iPhone Multitasking?

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On the last iPhone Live!, Dieter, Phil and I discussed iPhone 4.0 and whether, as rumors suggest, we'd finally see multitasking brought to the platform. That's when the discussion turned to RAM. The iPhone 2G and iPhone 3G have an anemic 128MB of RAM. The iPhone 3GS has 256MB. That's the same amount as the original Palm Pre and Motorola Droid, which do multitask but do bog down and sometimes error out while doing it. Just-released phones like the Palm Pre Plus and Google Android Nexus One up the ante to a beefy 512MB of RAM.

What does this have to do with the iPhone and multitasking? We've seen time and time again that Apple would rather not offer a feature at all then offer one with a poor user experience. It's why we waited for copy and paste until iPhone 3.0, and why the iPhone 3GS does 30fps video recording and even though the iPhone 3G could do half that, maybe, Apple won't enable it.

When Push Notification was announced, head of iPhone software Scott Forstall made fun of Windows Mobile-style task management on a mobile device, and sighted battery drain as the primary reason Apple wasn't doing it. Let's assume Apple gets better battery life in the 4th generation iPhone as well, unless they get more RAM, it's still tough to see them enabling multitasking unless and until they beef up the RAM so that at least a few apps can run in the background with as much smoothness and reliability as Apple demands.

Will iPhone 2G get another free update to iPhone 4.0 when it's released? Will it get the full update, unlike 3.0 when it didn't get MMS or A2DP. Will iPhone 3G, when it didn't get video recording? Will iPhone 3GS?

If RAM is the thing that will dictate iPhone multitasking, 512MB (or more?) might just be the magic number, and potentially the magic cut off (or scale back) as well.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Is RAM the Thing That Will Dictate iPhone Multitasking?

47 Comments

The ram is going to have to at least be doubled - 512! But I wouldn't be surprised if they gave it a little more...

I'd love to see a microSD slot that I could use for documents. Kind of like "My Documents" on a pc. Then I could add and/or remove contracts and forms so simply... Yup, that's my wish.

512 will be the magic number. 1g might be "too much" since apple will want to release iPhone 5.0 hopefully!
But my question is, will the price of the phone go up with all these great upgrades ( ram, iChat camera,...)????

I'm a little surprised at how weak the 3GS was (so I didn't upgrade). I would hope that apple would push their next phone beyond. I don't want to see 512 as that will quickly become "not enough". It would be wise of them to build the phone with hardware that could handle and update after 4.0.... People are going to push the device to it's limit (particularly jailbreakers, but we won't count us, I mean THEM). If they really want to pull away again and make the iPhone untouchable (which they are good at doing) they shouldn't match the market they should set the new standard....again....

I have never had apps bog down or error out in either the pre or Droid. That said iPhone apps use more memory. I think 512 would b sufficient maybe put a limit. Like only 3 third party apps at a time.

512MB of RAM on any Mac hardware is much, much different than 512 on a Windows device. Windows has always been very inefficient in utilizing RAM. I think 512MB on the iPhone 4.0 would be more than enough to support multitasking...and then some.

SaggyBalls (I can't believe I typed that)-- 512 is "enough" then why not up the amount to plenty? imagine what developers could do with MORE (and I do understand how well apple uses resources, I have been a mac user for years)
Blayze04-- if you start adding limits (in this case to backgrounding/multitasking) then it becomes mostly pointless, as you can background to your memories content on jailbreak phones now, I can easily run 5 (i haven't tried more) on my 3G with out crashes.. that's just simple apps like sms, facebook, twitter, email & phone are always running via Apple, whatsapp, ipod.. those I run at the same time.., so people would be well aware that the fact that it wasn't really a quality feature. Apple would be silly not to look at what the jailbreak community has accomplished and not try to incorporate some of the advances.

1GB would be a very good selling point.
I dont think anyone is even thinking about 1GB at the moment.
I think Apple will rest the iPhone for a year, they may hold back on features for a year while the Tablet has its first year.
Bring on 5.0...

Coming from a few years on WM, I definitely think more RAM is better.
However. I am not even sure if Apple will enable multi-tasking (I hope they do) also what happens to the notifications system, would it be scrapped when MT is enabled?
It has been awhile since we've seen a FW update. I hope when OS4.0 comes the 3GS get's all the features.
A couple I'd like to see:
AVRCP
multi-tasking or limited multi-tasking of 3rd party apps
more control over alerts (changing the sounds for SMS, etc etc)

@jtp Why would they put something in their phone that they don't need? That's wasteful, something Apple is not accustomed to do. And I actually said "more than enough", which essentially DOES mean pleny. You also have to remember that with a 1GB stick comes the cost of a 1GB stick. All these little things add up at the end of the day.
And thank you for typing my name, as painful as it was, I appreciate it.

There are other memory management options available too...
For one, keep in mind that we don't have just 128MB/256MB of RAM, we also have 8GB-32GB of solid state flash storage here. While we don't want to be swapping out needlessly (due to flash read/write cycles, and relative slowness of writing to flash), if the OS were to track dirty pages, everything else could be dumped from memory immediately when RAM is in short supply. Things like coredata could be updated to mark pages as disposable even when they're technically dirty if the underlying data is already written to flash and the data in RAM is really just a cache that can be rebuilt.
Another option would be to not run regular applications in the background at all, but instead, only allow daemonized apps to run in the background and limit their memory usage. An instant messenger might have a small daemon that handles all communication with the underlying chat service(s), then when the user brings up the chat app, the chat app connects to the daemon to retrieve conversation threads for display.
This advantage of daemonizing background apps is fairly straightforward, you don't want the UI to hog limited memory when it's not actively needed.
Of course if Apple really cared about memory and the related user experience, Safari would get out of RAM before limited RAM impacts app performance.

I don't think that Apple will implement multitasking in the next release as that would mean fragmenting the App Store which is the biggest success that they have had. I don't think IMHO that they would go that far yet, probably in OS 5.0.
Also, where does it say that the Palm Pre Plus have 512 Mb of RAM, as far as I knew it had double storage (16gb instead of 8gb) and no centre button. The next iPhone will possibly have double the RAM of the 3GS, faster processor and increased storage but that will be it. I think that Apple will be concentrating more on the tablet they are supposed to be building and OS 4.0. I think that the table device will have the multitasking capabilities that every one wants from the iPhone OS platform.
Could be wrong but hey that's just my opinion.

Couldn't Apple update the OS and have a portion of the iPhone's memory be treated as virtual RAM and dedicate that to multitasking, similar to the virtual RAM that can be found in Microsoft's OS's?

It's ridiculous that a small todo app needs a push server just to have an alarm/alert happen! I support the daemon/cron type system though, not full blown multi-tasking.

No it is not RAM because an iPhone or iPod Touch can multi-task when after jailbreak and on video I see no problems with a good amount of apps oppen. The main problem is Battery life I know that Android phone and PAlM web when running many apps drain battery life fast but Nokia phones(I do not know about windows mobile but windows mobile)
I do not know any other resons why Apple will not let the iPhone multi-task maybe because it is so far ahead that it was good for the time and they what you to keep comming back to the new one or something.
It is not RAM think about what about jailbreaking more RAM would only make it better.

"# The Dave Says:
January 15th, 2010 at 1:26 am
There are other memory management options available too…
For one, keep in mind that we don’t have just 128MB/256MB of RAM, we also have 8GB-32GB of solid state flash storage here. While we don’t want to be swapping out needlessly (due to flash read/write cycles, and relative slowness of writing to flash), if the OS were to track dirty pages, everything else could be dumped from memory immediately when RAM is in short supply. Things like coredata could be updated to mark pages as disposable even when they’re technically dirty if the underlying data is already written to flash and the data in RAM is really just a cache that can be rebuilt.
Another option would be to not run regular applications in the background at all, but instead, only allow daemonized apps to run in the background and limit their memory usage. An instant messenger might have a small daemon that handles all communication with the underlying chat service(s), then when the user brings up the chat app, the chat app connects to the daemon to retrieve conversation threads for display.
This advantage of daemonizing background apps is fairly straightforward, you don’t want the UI to hog limited memory when it’s not actively needed.
Of course if Apple really cared about memory and the related user experience, Safari would get out of RAM before limited RAM impacts app performance."
What he said!

RAM is no problem. I am using ProSwitcher (wich is amazing) and i never had any problems with performance or errors or whatever. No battery problems also.

My Amiga multi-tasked with 256MB of memory. The iPhone is faster too, so why is this so hard?Maybe enable swapping memory to flash?

The 3gs didn't have that many upgrades compared to the 3g. That's why i never upgrade. Hopefully the tablet won't keep them from pumping out an amazing iPhone this year. 1GB would be amazing. Shock us all apple, unlike the 3gs.

Robert up there is right. They can add whatever features they want, but without battery life, everything is a joke. They have given battery life as an excuse for everything from screen resolution to multi-tasking. They need a serious breakthrough in their battery R&D.

Apple has never been strong on hardware. I think people use windows as to much of a baseline for how performance should be. People are snowed over at the fact that you need alot of everything for something to run efficiently. When in actuality Snow Leopard will still run faster on a system with half the ram as a system with Vista.

You can use Status Notifier on a jailbreak iPhone to truly monitor the amount of free memory and see how a bogged down iPhone correlates with the low amount of free memory. A 2G or 3G phone with 128 bogs down to 20-30Mb free with only one app running. A 3GS can run 3-5 apps at the same time with the Backgrounder app installed before you get to 30b free. 512 should be fine.

What I can see happening is. Apple in the 4.0 update enabling limited multitasking for the 3gs(maybe a 3 app limit) and full multitasking for iPhone 4.

I think I front facing camera would take away all the attention from the competition, I don't know of any phones in the us that have that capability. 512 ram is a given. Multitasking with one app outside apples would be fine for me.

@ brick....It's been the battery since day one. Apples fixation on "smallness" has caught up with the iPhone. They never put out a product like it (and no, NONE of the iPods are close) so their small at all costs approach has caused this problem. When BB came out with the Bold (which I have also) they made sure that the battery would work. What Apple seems to have down is strip the phone down to make it "work", instead of upping the battery size to handle the load. Don't believe me, go back and read the reviews for the first gen phone. And the second gen phone. And the third gen. I just hope this one problem / excuse dies with #4.

I don't know, when I had backgrounder on my 3gs it multitasked just fine. The only reason I got rid of it is I never used it. I bet the people who are dying to have multitasking won't use it either when they have it, but we'll see. I would like to see an iPhone in an itouch case, with a high def screen, snapdragon or equivelent processor, better notification, and I want the weather icon to show the actual weather. The last two are the only reason I'm still jailbroken.

Jailbroken 3GS - will lots of apps running, Lockinfo, SBSettings, Backgrounder, ProSwitcher, Reflective Dock, Weather Ico, OverBoard, Infinidock.. then indiscriminate use of background/proswitcher functionality to background apps like Navigon (big battery drain - so only when actually needed), Pandora, leave some games running (skeeball), etc. Pretty much flawless.
I agree that many wouldn't use user selectable backgrounding (like purposely leaving skeeball running), but background/multitask apps are critically needed for location based apps. Also, I think apps with system hooks - like caller id web search, etc, have a big future.

Too bad Apple removed RecessionApp's FreeMemory application that allowed me to clear the memory if I wanted to. Now they just offer a lite version that is highly crippled. I wouldn't mind an app limit on multitasking, as long as that number is at least 3. Any other program could rely on Push Notification if need be. Unfortunately, battery life will be compromised in some way, but there are no real breakthroughs in battery technology that will give us 14 hours of heavy use on one charge. I believe we've reached the current limit on battery tech, with maybe a few hours at most squeezed here and there. Maybe they can mine unobtanium...

512 should be fine. I run lockinfo with a theme, proswitcher and have a few winterboard items running and I still have plenty of memory. My screen shot shows 88MB of RAM, but the Mail and Safari app eat close to about 40MB together when running. I could still open Facebook, twitter, slacker radio and a GPS or maps app and have 25-30MB free, and that's with 256 available to play with.
http://i1010.photobucket.com/albums/af226/MyIPscreen/e5a4c118.jpg
http://i1010.photobucket.com/albums/af226/MyIPscreen/eb9ea7ef.jpg
http://i1010.photobucket.com/albums/af226/MyIPscreen/849c9597.jpg

Now that @Beau mentioned it, I run infinidock, weathericon, SBSsettings too. And the 88MB of RAM is what I have left AFTER I have memory hogs like safari and the mail app open.

Given the performance reports from people with a jailbroken iPhone 3GS, I think that some form of multi-tasking will appear in the next OS, but that the iPhone 3G will not support that feature. However, the iPhone 3GS, its successor, and the Tablet will all support that feature. In general, I believe Apple will feel comfortable with having fewer features for iPhone 3G users, who will be finishing up their 2-year contracts this summer.
I also predict that the next iPhone will not have its RAM bumped up to 512 MB. No one really needs to run more than 3 to 5 apps on a phone at the same time; what you need is a smart way of closing background apps when you run out of system resources. Also, Apple will want to carry along the iPhone 3GS users with their new OS update; I don't think Apple would increase the screen resolution and bump up the RAM for a hardware update at the same time. 256MB of RAM sounds like more than enough from the reports of people who are multitasking on the iPhone now.
However, the Tablet may have 512 MB of RAM, because it will support larger, more complex apps and will be used primarily as a stationary device.
As far as battery life goes with the multitasking, I don't believe it's a real issue. WM, at least in the past and probably still now, never really closes any apps but instead just puts them in the background. That was by default. To do a "hard close" you used to have to get a 3rd party app to supply that function. What does drain battery power is streaming media over wifi or 3G. If any single app is constantly receiving data, that is going to have a much greater impact on battery life than having 5 apps that don't stream data running at the same time.
I also believe that increasing the processor speed and optimizing its performance are more the key to multitasking with the iPhone, than the amount of RAM (since the amount of RAM is sufficient right now). A faster CPU will enable the device to get tasks done faster, so that it can throttle down for greater periods of time than a slower CPU. The current GPU should be able to handle 800x480, but a 1GHz Snapdragon CPU or something similar may be in the next iPhone, while the GPU remains the same.

CPU should be multicore ARM Cortex A9, though I doubt we'll see 2 GHz ;)
just because Jailbreak can background doesn't mean Apple considers it consumer robust. Cycorder does video on 3G, Apple only does it on 3GS.
I'm guessing they want it nearly bullet proof.

Back in the day when WinMo devices never went above 128MB RAM, they always claimed that RAM drained the battery in an amount directly proportional to its size, so that 256MB burns twice as much battery as 128MB, etc. For that reason alone I highly doubt we will see 1 GB RAM. iPhone kept itself at 128 MB RAM for 2 years, so by that scale, we're not due for another RAM doubling until summer 2011.

Cortex-A9 would be awesome but I don't reckon we'll see that until iPhone 2011. In 2011, it'll be a 600-800 MHz single-core Cortex-A9 with a PowerVR SGX54x GPU at 45nm.
This year, I reckon we'll get double the RAM (for multi-tasking in OS 4) with a similar CPU/GPU but at 45nm for lower power consumption.
If Apple were to add multi-tasking, they would probably put a limit on the amount of memory an app can use in the background AND limit the number of apps that can run in the background.
They might even only allow daemons to run in the background with APIs similar to Grand Central Dispatch. When the application "quits", it would start the background daemon. This would allow the OS to control CPU utilisation so the phone doesn't get bogged down due to background processes.

I suppose Apple might double the RAM, but I just don't see doubling the RAM every year as a viable long-term strategy. While the resolution of the screen, the data speed, and the number of simultaneously running apps may increase with the next hardware release, the iPhone is only going to be so large, so the complexity of the tasks that you perform on it has some relatively low limit compared to what you can do on a device with a screen that's eight times larger, for instance.

I don't know why people complain about the battery so much. I have a 1st gen and a 3GS. I use the phone heavily. I get about 10 hours of data access out of it. I play a few games, heavy txting and web use.
I would like to see some sort of multitasking. The 3GS was a major refinement in my opinion in the hardware area and is drastically different from the 3G. If you have ever used a 3GS and then used a 3G it's amazing the difference in speed and polish. 3GS is what the 3G should have been.
1Gig ram in the Tablet, 512 in the 4th gen iPhone.

If Apple hasn't offered multi-tasking after all this time on the iPhone platform, why do it now? To "catch up" to the competition? I thought Apple was the leader of knowing what's best for consumers? I mean, after all, they seem to only put features on their products that offer the best consumer experience, i.e. control everything and make it seem "better".
Who is really multitasking on their phone? I use mine for just about everything but I don't find myself needing to read a document, open 3 emails, play a game, check ESPN, and get directions at the same time! And if you are GO GET A LAPTOP! I can only imagine battery life is going to go right into the toilet since people will simply leave a ton of stuff running becuase they forgot about it.

And another point to the RAM thing. if the iTablet (or whatever its going to be called) is an overgrown iPhone, I can't see Apple sinking more RAM into the iPhone since they would be in competition to each other. And its also a harder sell for the iTablet since its a $1000 touchscreen netbook. Thats a lot of change for something to read email on and check TMZ.com ;)

Why do multi-tasking? Perhaps to have the iPhone catch up with windows 3.1? :)
Ok, maybe that was a little cruel but I wanted to make the point that multitasking has been fairly standard for computing for a long, long time. Sure you can work around it, but why put up with Apple making you work around it?
Even AT&T don't agree that multitasking is not needed - see their talk and data at the same time adverts! Apple agree it's needed too so they made sure that you could at least talk and do one other thing.
I guess 'denial' isn't just a river in Egypt eh?
If I had my guess it Apple would be against general multitasking for the same reason they were against cut and paste, MMS etc - there is a fundamental problem they need to sort out first. Then the whole 'battery life' excuse will disappear down the memory hole...
In the mean time they'll throw up red herrings and we'll gobble them down and pretend they're the finest dining...

I'd be surprised for the 4.0 software to include widespread multitasking. Part of what makes multitasking work on the Pre is the UI.
Steve Jobs is not going to let a half baked solution out the door. The iPhone User Experience is really the product, not a cell phone.
So I can see some multitasking support added to allow some of the core apps to work simultaneously or to work in concert with a single active 3rd party app but I'd be mightily surprised if you can run two or three 3rd party apps.

Well hopefully the 3gs will be able to run backgrounder. My friend has a 3g and my phone is a good deal faster than his so I don't think it would be a problem to multi task. The 3g is to slow. I will probably upgrade to the 4.0 when it comes out anyway.

I am using backgrounder from cydia and I have apsolutely no problems with programs in background. I usualy have around 5 app at the time and the battery is good. There are no crashings or anything. This just something apple won't give us because of their stupid ideas. Every smartphone on the market has a multitasking by default. This is just stupid