On October 15, 2014, hordes of loyal Nexus 5 owners waited behind their keyboards for the fateful reveal of what they believed to be the successor to the phone that captivated the market. The Nexus 5 was a price-point pioneer that managed to avoid cutting corners on the most crucial specifications.
““we like to think we’re striking a strong balance between premium features/experiences and affordability.””
And yet Google shocked many Nexus 5 owners with the introduction of the Nexus 6 – a device with such a radical size and price change that many people decided to skip the phone entirely. Google did not forget the success the Nexus 5 had brought, however, and unveiled the Nexus 5X (“the all-around champ”) this September to much fanfare, with one caveat – it only has 2GB of RAM.
The All Around Champ Breaks from the Pack
Why is this unusual? Towards the end of 2014, it seemed clear that 3GB of RAM would become the norm amongst flagship phones (the 32GB variants of the LG G3 and Xiaomi Mi4, and the OnePlus One were among the first, but it was Samsung’s Note 3 that brought 3GB in 2013). In 2015, this trend has continued, with some company’s flagships devices even boasting 4GB of RAM! There’s no indication that Google’s choice of the Snapdragon 808 SoC directly resulted in the Nexus 5X having 2GB of RAM, as the other 4 Snapdragon 808 devices have at least 3GB of RAM, but it does limit RAM to DDR3.
The previous Nexus 5 also featured 2GB of RAM, but was generally considered top of the line during its time. Google seems content that despite the fact that the amount of memory in the new model hasn’t budged, you’ll still enjoy the device. In a recent Ask Me Anything on the IAmA subreddit over on reddit, members from the Nexus team stated that “we like to think we’re striking a strong balance between premium features/experiences and affordability.”
A Trip down Memory Lane
Many bloggers and commenters expressed disappointment with these news. Would the device suffer from having only 2GB of RAM? This is a question that Android enthusiasts hotly debated after the reveal. Yet I would argue that it’s not as bad as it seems – yes the Nexus 5X can cut it with 2GB of RAM. But it completely depends on your own experiences – what phone you’re coming from, what kinds of apps/stock features you use, etc.
Understanding how Android memory management works is important when considering whether or not you should consider 2GB of RAM to be a dealbreaker. The way Android handles memory management is like so: rather than immediately killing off every process after its activity ended (like when you press the home button to exit an app), the process is kept in memory until the system needs to kill it to free up more memory. How does the system decide what processes to keep and what to kill? The LMK (Low Memory Killer) driver. Every process is assigned an oom_adj value ranging from -17 to 15 by the ActivityManager Service, which dynamically adjusts the oom_adj value depending on the process’ importance. Higher oom_adj values mean the process is more likely to be killed to free up memory, while lower values mean the process is less likely to be killed.
Manufacturers love to tweak these to their liking depending on how they feel it best suits their device
Android categorizes each process into five categories (Foreground, Visible, Service, Background, and Empty) ranging from most important to least important to keep running. Processes belonging to each category are killed off at different levels of free memory remaining (called the LMK minfree value). For example, if your device’s LMK minfree values are set to “2560,4090,6144,7168,8192” (listed as 4k pages, which can be read from /sys/module/lowmemorykiller/parameters/minfree) then your device will kill off processes defined as ‘Empty’ when your free memory falls below 32MB, processes defined as ‘Background’ when free memory is below 28MB, and Foreground apps when free memory falls below 10MB (heavens forbid!) Now, these minfree values aren’t typical on most devices these days as manufacturers love to tweak these to their liking depending on how they feel it best suits their device. But what you should take away from this brief explanation is that the more free memory you have, the less likely you’ll see critical processes being killed off.
Task Killers Be Gone!
But the truth is, the days where users had to constantly fight with their own device to keep important processes in memory are, for the most part, long gone. We don’t grapple with task killers anymore to ensure that our text messaging apps don’t suddenly close while we’re using them. Most apps (with the exception of some really high-end games and tab-heavy Internet browsing) don’t eat up much memory. The main difference between a device with 2GB of RAM versus a device with 3GB of RAM is that the device with 3GB of RAM should be able to cache more processes in the background without triggering the LMK driver to kill it off.
But even that line is murky, because of the huge diversity of features that come with every type of phone out there. For instance, although the modern flagship Samsung Galaxy phones usually come with 3GB of RAM, in practice the staggering amount of stock features thrown into the phone (where many may not even be used) end up reducing the amount of free memory left for user apps. The Nexus 5X, while having has less memory on paper, may end up matching a Galaxy S6 in the free memory department due to having less bloat. My point being that you shouldn’t necessarily look upon other devices with 3GB of RAM in envy, you need to consider what kind of experience the Nexus 5X brings to the table compared to other devices.
Examining Your Own User Experience
Which brings me to my final point – consider your own experiences and needs with your previous device before deciding if 2GB of RAM is a dealbreaker. How would you categorize yourself as a user? Are you a power user who syncs multiple e-mail and social media accounts? Are you a casual user who only uses your phone as texting/Internet browsing machine with a few games on the side? In both cases, I would argue that 2GB of RAM isn’t really a dealbreaker due to how smart Android memory management has become.
You’re really unlikely to miss any important messages from not having 3GB of RAM. But I can understand if it frustrates you to have to reload Chrome tabs after a few minutes (it happens a lot to those of us with 3GB RAM phones too, though!) Finally, consider: what phone are you upgrading from, and why do you feel that the 2GB is an issue? It’s easy to get tech spec envy these days due to how hard companies are competing to win us over, but you have to remember that specs aren’t everything. What’s most important is the entire hardware and software packaged together into a singular device – and whether or not it provides a good experience for your needs.