The Memory Issue

Memory has long been an issue for Chromebooks, but I didn’t understand why until recently. The incredibly high pixel count certainly wasn’t going to help things. To find out how they might cope with this issue, we caught up with Caesar Sengupta, Product Manager at Google for Chrome OS. I've never understood why Chromebooks always come with modest memory on-board. It isn’t a cost issue, certainly; memory is cheap. It's soldered on, and comes in denser packages so it’s not likely a space issue. Google's making a conscious choice to go small with memory. So, how do you cope 4 million pixels and just 4GB RAM? In this case, the first step is to render all pages at 1280 x 800, unless HiDPI assets are available. The final product is upscaled to the full 2560 x 1600, but the memory doesn’t take nearly the punishing you might expect; unless, of course, every site you visit has HiDPI assets.

Then there’s a user behavior problem that has long plagued Chrome OS. Tabs linger and multiply. An untidy user could tax the memory assets of any system with tab after tab of unread longreads and cat GIFs. With memory taxed, the OS will begin shuffling under used bits of data into a swap file on local storage, effectively an extension of system memory stored on your hard drive. Even the fastest SSDs are several orders of magnitude slower than RAM, so switching to a tab whose contents had been pushed to the swap file would briefly yield a blank screen as the content is brought back to system memory. The developers of Chrome OS had a mission: an operating system that lives and breathes entirely within system memory. That means, no swap file. And that means an often frustrating user experience. 
That same untidy user could bring a Chromebook to its knees with open tabs, and with no swap file, pages purged from memory are simply refreshed when focus is restored. Not that big of a deal, right? Say those tabs are actually your site’s content management system and dozens of tabs of research. Further, that you’ve just spent an hour putting together a great post, and tabbed away just long enough to verify a bit of research. Switch back to your CMS, the page refreshes, and your great post disappears into the ether. Surely, there's a better alternative. Please?

The Chrome OS BSOD (plus touch indicators)

Android enthusiasts will be familiar with compcache, a method of creating a compressed page file on system memory that can help alleviate memory shortages. Now called zram, this technique fits perfectly within Chrome's philosophy of speed over all other factors. Local storage options vary too much in speed for their speed targets with Chrome, so operating even the page file within memory is a logical step. In practice, zram is better, not great. When a page is purged completely, you get the Chrome BSOD equivalent and an option to reload. This alleviates system slow downs that arose from automatically refreshing each page as you tabbed through them. I haven't noticed any particular slow down that might indicate that a given page's data was being recalled from zram, which could be a good sign. But there's no changing the fact that slicing a piece away from that 4GB for use as a page file isn't nearly as effective as adding another 4GB. 
Why Not Android? Display
Comments Locked


View All Comments

  • cjb110 - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    Excellent review, would be perfect for my intend usage...just need to be able to afford one:)
  • Adhib - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    Why don't you just get one of the Samsung Chromebooks?
  • jeffkro - Monday, June 3, 2013 - link

    They're ok, but the screen resolution kind of stinks.
  • xyzzy1 - Friday, June 14, 2013 - link

    I'd rather buy the mackbook and run windows on it. Overall better specs and better overall build quality.
  • Belard - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    Wow... I know I read it before... but still... the thing has far higher resolution than my 24" display.

    Even thou its a desktop and twice the distance away from my eyes... I can see the jaggy pixels on my 24" monitor that I cannot see with my Android phone or a modern tablet.

    Its good to see something going against the dead-end Windows platform.

    Interesting thou... and funny in a way, Dailytech is a malware site?
  • damianrobertjones - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    What? 'Dead-end windows platform'? Yeah ok.

    This might have a higher resolution than your 24" screen but which has more 'working' space...
  • Alexvrb - Saturday, June 1, 2013 - link

    This might compete with expensive Apple hardware, but it's not a direct competitor to Windows-based Ultrabooks/Ultrathins. Maybe if it was $500 cheaper. The display is awesome, the chassis is pretty, but that's it. The memory is on the low side, and is not upgradeable. The internal storage (fairly fast) is very limited and also not replaceable. The CPU is inferior even to the one in the Air. Etc.

    There's little chance anyone who has the word "affordable" in their vernacular would buy this over an Ultrabook. I don't personally think browserOS is all that great anyway, but if you're going to buy a Chromebook the cheap ones are the way to go. If Google was really out to help the open source community (like they pretend to be, meanwhile using them like any other tool), they would have built their own flavor of Linux with Google Happyware integrated and would use that instead.
  • Selden - Saturday, June 1, 2013 - link

    Alexrvb: The CPU spec is identical to that in the 13" Macbook Air: 1.8 i5 @ 1.7gHz, with Intel® HD Graphics 4000.
  • jeffkro - Monday, June 3, 2013 - link

    Have you used chrome OS? Its extremely lightweight and doesn't need much in the way of cpu and memory. Its even blazing fast on a celeron 847.
  • JDG1980 - Friday, May 31, 2013 - link

    "So, how do you cope 4 million pixels and just 4GB RAM? In this case, the first step is to render all pages at 1280 x 800, unless HiDPI assets are available. The final product is upscaled to the full 2560 x 1600, but the memory doesn’t take nearly the punishing you might expect; unless, of course, every site you visit has HiDPI assets."

    So you're not even getting sharper text, just blurry low-res text upscaled? That sucks. What's the point of having a HiDPI display at all?

    I'm not at all impressed with the notion of a browser-only OS. It is not and never will be enough for serious users. And I don't want Google to be monitoring every single thing I do on my local PC. "The cloud" can go take a flying leap.

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now