iPhone’s limited RAM struggles under the stress

February 28, 2008

iPod Most iPhone users may not be conscious of problems with software crashes, but for some owners this happens all the time. Applications close without warning and the iPhone returns to the home screen. It can happen while surfing the ‘net on Safari, while selecting or playing music, watching video, anything. The effect is indistinguishable from using ‘Force Quit’ to close an application (by holding down the home button for 6 seconds) except that it happens unexpectedly rather than at your instigation.

The same thing happens with the iPod Touch, particularly the new 32GB version, only worse.

It is not a widely reported issue, but is definitely real. It was confirmed by Engadget when they reviewed the iPhone in July.

“We managed to continuously crash the iPod app while listening to music and doing other things, namely browsing. We wouldn’t call it incredibly unstable, but we wouldn’t say it’s rock solid, either.”

ipod touch 32GB

My son Alex recently bought a brand new iPod Touch 32GB and promptly loaded it up with 20 or so GB of music, videos etc from his computer. It started misbehaving. He would flick through albums using Cover Flow and would suddenly find himself looking at the home screen. It was starting to get difficult to play music without a song crashing halfway through.

He thought he must have messed up the setup so he returned the device to its factory settings, flattened the memory and started again. Same result. He went straight back to the Apple Store and they seemed puzzled, had no explanation, but replaced the device without a quibble.

Alex set the new iPod up with the utmost possible care and for a time all seemed well, but later on the problems started to reappear. Ultimately, it became clear things were no better than before.

What then? A bad batch of iPods? Some rogue corrupt music or video file? If the latter it could be a real needle in a haystack job to find it.

I tried Google and found that many iPhone and iPod Touch users have had the exact self-same experience. It is all there on Apple Discussions. All there, that is, except an explanation or solution.

A Hard Reset (hold Home and Sleep/Wake buttons simultaneously for at least 10 seconds) does make the problem go away, at least for a while. That got me thinking, as did the fact that using Safari (via the domestic wifi) seemed to encourage the misbehaviour. In particular, under no circumstances could Alex fully open the home page of my personal blog without his iPod crashing. As the images downloaded it would get to the point where it gave up and died. Now there are a lot of images on my blog home page, and many are large high resolution files, so memory, or insufficiency thereof, would seem to be implicated.

My conclusion is this. It is not that hard to completely run out of RAM space on an iPhone or iPod Touch. It depends on how many applications you leave open and the memory usage demands placed on each application.

Early on some iPhone users thought it was a Safari related problem because they first encountered it while surfing the ‘net. It wasn’t though anything to do with Safari specifically – it is just that the easiest way to crash an iPhone is by navigating to a web page with a large amount of embedded content, particularly images. If there is more on the page than RAM can hold it will just crash. I do not think there is an equivalent of a Windows Swap File or this would not happen – slow down yes, but not crash. Alex still has a fair few GB spare on the iPod’s flash memory.

With the iPod Touch there is greater likelihood of a crash while, say, using Cover Flow particularly if a large proportion of the 32GB is filled up with music files. It means Cover Flow has that many more album art images to display. Overdo the flicking back and forth from A to Z and at some point it will crash. Less likely to be an issue with the iPhone or Touch 16GB because the flash memory doesn’t hold as many albums/music files.

There is no solution reported in Apple Discussions because there is no solution. The 128MB RAM in the iPhone/iPod Touch will simply run out if challenged too hard. Users just have to live with this, adapting their behaviour to minimise the impact. That means avoiding some websites, closing down applications (with Force Quit) when not using them, using Cover Flow just to locate music not as a pretty plaything.




  1. I really got issues and problems with my iphone when the software crashes. I hate it when it bugs. Hope they will update for a better firmware.

  2. Why do they provide phones with great memory but when you use it and store stuffs, the phones messing up? I got issues on the storage on my phone. I just wish I bought a cheaper one instead.

  3. Hey everyone, u can get free Gift Cards ($10 iTunes, Amazon, Paypal, etc.) when u doaonlwd App Trailers from the App Store / Android Market. Watch 30sec trailers and get free gift cards! Use bonus code and get 500 points now!Bonus code: mew521

  4. Have you ever considered about including a little bit
    more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and all.
    But just imagine if you added some great photos or videos
    to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with
    pics and videos, this site could certainly be one of the
    greatest in its field. Good blog!

  5. Heya! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the superb work!

    • You are so awesome! I do not think I’ve read a signle thing like that before. So wonderful to find another person with a few genuine thoughts on this subject. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that is required on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!

    • Great post with lots of important stuff.

  6. Solution mem tool

    • How to get free giftcards using your iPod/iPhone/iPad:1.Go to app store and doolawnd app trailers (free app)2.Type in maxform as the bonus code to get you started on some points3.Redeem those points for giftcards4.Enjoy!

    • Whoa, whoa, get out the way with that good information.

  7. I found this article online while searching for a similiar swap system for iPhone as Windows. Link is provided. Note that it appears that this feature was built-in by apple. Follow update #2 instructions using the plist method.


    • Thanks for that Daniel. I had never heard of this app.

      One note of caution. I believe that unlike hard disks, there is a limit to the number of times you can write data to each location on the type of flash memory used in the iPhone before that location becomes unusable. The limit is large, of the order of many thousands of writes, so it’s not a problem for storage of say music and image files which tend to get saved to the iPhone then pretty much stay put. An area of flash memory used as a swap file is a different matter. By definition it will get pounded with new writes all the time so it is quite likely that, within the lifetime of the phone, parts of the swap file will start to get marked as unusuable by the system and the effective flash memory size will start to reduce.

      Now I’m not sure how much of a showstopper this issue is likely to be in practice, and it may depend on user habits, but I thought it was worth the mention.

      I rather imagine it was for this reason that Apple didn’t provide a swap file system on the iPhone in the first place and I would still prefer to see at least a doubling of the RAM.

  8. Well, it looks like you’re in more trouble than me guys because although I have experienced frequent app crashes, the ipod funcion of my iphone 16gb never suffered the consequences. Digging up a bit about low RAM on iphones I found a guy who had a peculiar solution: crate a new page in Safari, close all other open pages and close it. The seemed to actually work for some people… unliekely as I find it. My solution was to download Memory info from appstore for 0.99. It frees up to 35mb which does the trick for me. My iphone now flies and apps are more responsive. We should get used to having to free some memory when we are about to use a memory intensive app like a game or Safari. Cheers

    PS: I am not lying about the blank safari page. Try and see what happens.

  9. Download the task manager off of cydia. This helps free up the all memory and process used, similar to a hard restart but quicker to access.

  10. I agree with most of the points that a lot of you have made. The thing that I would most like to see is a little more effort out of apple. They seem to shy too far away from the thoughts and suggestions of their most important assests, their customers! Almost in complete disrespect, or distain for their customers. I agree that it has to hit a limit somewhere (size of the “toy” to capabilities of it) but there could be a way simpler solution then has been presented here. Before I open my digital mouth to wide, I have to say that I know what some of you are going to say, but I think it would help. It would be nice to see close buttons on apps and such instead of having to do hard closes all the freakin time!!! I get so sick of holding that damn home button after any app use just so I can listen to music on my glorified mp3 player.

  11. Well there are a couple things I notice in this discussion.

    First off, a lot of people have mentioned a swapfile solution, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. On a hard drive with virtually unlimited write capability it makes perfect sense. On a flash drive where the number of writes is limited, I can see how Apple might shy away from letting the OS write to flash an unbounded number of times any time the memory fills up and the user keeps asking for more.

    That said, I used to have a lot of safari crashes on my 16GB iPhone. This seems to have cleared up in firmware 2.2, but I’m not sure what changed or whether it was related to this in the first place. It was certainly no fun, and I do think that more graceful error handling is necessary; simply crashing apps with no error or warning is really bad form. Apple could do a number of things to mitigate this without having to resort to swapfiles. In coverflow, for instance, they can arbitrarily change the number of images they keep in memory…when the available memory gets low, you drop the first half of the images and keep going. If the user scrolls back over there they need to be repaged, which might slow the application down, but what’s worse, slowing the flow or totally crashing? In my opinion it’s a no-brainer. Similar story with Safari; if it can’t load a page…uh…DON’T. Pop up a message saying “not enough free memory to load page.” Simple enough.

    Which I guess leads me to weigh in on the first two comments here. Sure, a small amount of RAM is a device constraint, not a bug. But just crashing an app when the memory runs out without warning, error or exception is a BUG, plain and simple.

  12. […] HD – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). There are more problems associated with this memory limit (iPhones limited RAM struggles under the stress Hasta la vista!). Up to now you have to live with it (but the iPhones other great features don’t make it that hard […]

  13. Well, I just spent a good part of my Saturday loading images into itunes for my 32 gig iPod Touch. It was fun adding my own images to replace cover art I didn’t like. Now cover flow is crashing. One of the biggest “wow” factors of the device is a no-go. This is BAD. I guess I’ll just never use cover flow; or try removing all of the damn art I spent hours loading! :;

  14. Question: Some albums iTunes does not have correct art, doesn’t have art at all, or has really bad JPG compression. For those albums I have replaced with my own image (always less than 100k). When this happens, I believe iTunes actually writes that info into the MP3 file. Now, when Cover Flow loads those images, is it going to load just off of one song for the album, or is it going to load every single one, and then group them together as an album? If it does that, I can’t imagine it, but if it does, then that would be a way to save memory. Even at 100k per album (and my art is usually less), if you had 500 albums (and I have less than 350 right now), if Cover Flow just loaded those images when needed when you’re actually browsing, that would only be 50 megs of the available memory. And yet Cover Flow crashes for me when I’m not even doing anything else on the iPod touch, after a full shut down / start up. Ugh.

  15. I have 344 albums on my new 32 gig iPod touch and I’ve still got a ways to go in filling it up. I’m starting to get crashes in Cover Flow and it’s annoying the heck out of me. I love Cover Flow, but this sucks. I’ve learned not to even attempt to use Safari when playing music, which is pretty lame. While playing music, it can’t handle even the simplest mobile page like gmail. With a device that has as many features as iPod touch, I expect Apple better get their act together and add some improved memory management in the next update to 1) avoid crash-causing situations in the first place and 2) don’t crash an app when a memory problem occurs.

  16. When you press the home button, the application is actually gone. All RAM it uses is freed. The only background processes are Apple’s (for mail, clock, push, music, etc).

  17. I *do* see this a a bug. They knew going in the types of things that users would ask the iphone/ipod touch to do and that those things would cause the iphone/ipod to run out of memory. The problem is how they chose to deal with the lack of available memory.

    My biggest complaint is that it closes the active application rather than the inactive applications. Why in the heck does it do that!?!? If it can free ram by closing an inactive application, then I don’t have to start my web-form entry all over again… after typing an entire paragraph no less.

    This is a change they could easily implement, but haven’t, and I don’t understand why.

    • I guess it’s because it’s the active application that’s hogging all the

  18. Is there a petition for them to upgrade their firmware to support swap!? It’s such a must have!

  19. My smarty-pants brother seems to be right, once again. When I deleted several applications (in iTunes) and resynched, the 3G, everything was A-OK. The dead apps have performed a Lazarus. All-hail the smarty-pants, Hooie.

  20. Is there any way to see how much memory is full? My 3G is crashing every time I try to open an application. Judging from this thread, the problem might me that the memory is full. That is EVERY added app crashes immediately after their start screen.

    I can see, from the iPhone info that the memory for music, pictures, and movies is WAY below the 16GB capacity. But my smarty-pants brother says it might be too many free apps (though the price really is irrelevant) — that I have no more free memory.

    So how can I tell? I’ll try to delete some of the lessor-used ones (hear me “More Cow Bells?”) and hope it works, but isn’t there some way to see the actual memory usage on the iPhone?

  21. I have the same problem with my iphone, and at most the safary closing after taking time to load a page full of pictures. How it happens with alot of embedded content has lead me to belive it is iphone’s not-very-well managed ram and obviusly no page memory or swap file, which is a surprise actually. Now I know there are reasonable limits to the stress on any system, but the kind of pages iphone fails to display can be viewed on any pc not older than 5 years. There’s no way that is beyond normal usage.
    The iphone is simply badly prepaired to browse the internet, along with some other stuff.
    But thats easy to get rid of – for iphone developers – if they ever added a swap file, page memory, cache, or some other solution to compensate for low ram, keep it clean, etc.
    While adding some ram sticks would be awesome, all they really need to do is release an update that would include a better memory management system.
    I would love to see such an update, so guess we’d better go to their forums and meke them see the problem and solution, while now, all we can do is hard-resets, closing programs, keep our usage to paranoid level “reasonable limits” and still bear with the crashes.
    Sorry if that offended anyone. I just want my internet working for real. Thank you.

  22. Why don’t the slavering Apple zealots just admit to themselves that Jobs’ OSes are really not that much better than Bill’s…

  23. With the new iPhone 2.0 update visiting your website no longer crashes Safari. It doesn’t display all the pictures, but it does load.

  24. I’m not sure the issues raised in the post are really “bugs” in the strict sense. More in the nature of limitations of the iPhone’s capabilities. Any device or system will behave erratically or crash if faced with too big a challenge.

    The question is whether the design of the device caters for typical normal use and expectations. My own feeling is that particularly with the iPod Touch 32 the boundaries are starting to get stretched. There was nothing “wrong” with my son’s iPod. It is just as fault free as anyone else’s yet he was sufficiently alarmed by its behaviour that he took it back to Apple for a replacement. Now maybe it was an extreme combination which caused the limits to be hit (the new larger 32GB capacity, the fact that Alex instantly filled most of that up, the fact that so much of the music included album art images, the fact it was new so he was playing with all the apps and “over-using” them in a way you might not do when the novelty has worn off …) but it still came as a surprise. Alex has now got used to using his iPod sensibly, as a mobile media device not an exciting new toy, and the crashes are no longer a practical problem to him.

  25. Crashing Cover Flow definitely seems like a bug. The browser crash I’m less willing to agree. While the iPhone is essentially a full-featured computer, it is still one with the specifications equivalent to a desktop from several years back. There will always be some limit on the amount of data a given app+system can handle. Loading your home page into Firefox causes its memory consumption to grow by 165MB, which is simply too much data for a device with 128MB of RAM. You can produce a web page with 2GB of pictures and IE/Firefox on the desktop will fall over as well.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: