Entirely anecdotal findings on memory management in the iPhone 6 Plus.

In the course of the month in which I’ve used my iPhone 6 Plus, I’ve noticed some behavior that I had attributed to the phone hardware itself. Being a “new” year, Apple will have taken some steps to create hardware that is of course refined in the following “S” year, strengthening the foundations it put in place with the new model. As adopters and followers of these cycles, many of us become intimately aware with the nuances of how the updates to the hardware affect our expectations. I have been enjoying the 6 Plus immensely, but I’ve found some limits to its abilities and I’m starting to suspect that while 1gb of RAM was really not enough to manage the phone and its massive screen, iOS is making some questionable choices (perhaps dependent on the hardware constraints) as to how it manages app use and memory flushes.

It started to become obvious how aggressively the phone killed apps each time I launched the App Store. Previously on my iPhone 5 running iOS 8.0 and 8.0.1/8.0.2, I would routinely leave the App Store on the “Updates” tab and go about my business. Upon returning to the App Store some time later, I would find myself in that tab, and the content would refresh. It started to annoy me, but I assumed it was a new behavior with the App Store app, potentially to drive users to the “Featured” tab for any number of reasons.

But I started seeing it as I moved across other apps too. Moving between apps that, to my knowledge, almost never got flushed. I was starting to see an app like Mail (which I am in constantly, and should always be retained in memory) open up fresh as I returned to it (i.e., not preserving my place in a message I was reading). The most notable and egregious instance of this happened one morning as I was checking my email in bed upon waking up, having done nothing with the phone for hours. I tapped a link, went to Safari, and when I returned to Mail, was sent back to the inbox as though it had launched cold. iOS is supposed to flush apps from memory after a period of not being used, or when absolutely necessary, not switching between two apps and returning. Something was definitely not right.

I began complaining on Twitter, like any other normal person. A lot of replies validated what I was seeing. Lots of users with a 6 Plus having the same experience, apps always reloading and state rarely being saved. I had several suggestions about what might be causing this:

  • Rogue process? Potentially, but I would assume that I’d also be seeing a sharp decline in battery longevity with something like that, and my battery is still incredible.
  • iCloud backup process? It happens all the time, off wi-fi, unplugged. Doubtful.
  • Background refresh issues? I toggled all apps off for background refresh and saw the same behavior.

I did soft resets/reboots and hard ones. Didn’t seem to make any difference. My apps were constantly getting tossed out of memory. Someone suggested I download a system utility app to see how much memory was actually used/free, so I did. In fact, I downloaded three, to compare results and make sure one wasn’t skewed in one direction or another. All the apps said the same thing: even after a complete restart, my iPhone–before I’d even opened an app–had between 3–8% available memory. Interesting aside: this was brought up on Twitter, and verified by me and a few other people.

Don’t know why it happens, but it’s bizarre. Try it and see. It doesn’t matter, because the phone chews up the free memory almost instantly anyway.

And yes, random Twitter person who felt obliged to point out that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I understand UNIX manages caching differently. Thanks once again for the pleasant lesson about never sharing anything on the internet, ever.

I assume this has something to do with the fact that the 6 Plus is constantly downsampling its graphics from 3x to 1920×1080 because of its unique screen, which would likely require resources to do those calculations all the time. Understanding this, I have to say this scenario is unfortunate and unpleasant. The phone is supposed to be this big productivity enhancing flagship, and it’s taking me longer to do things as I wait for apps to resume state. I’ve gotten reports from people saying that their iPhone 6 will do this, as well as iPhones 5, 5s, and 5c. Which turned my attention from the 6 Plus itself to iOS 8. Specifically 8.1, since I had an iPhone 5 running 8.0.x for a solid two weeks without any of these issues I’ve noted. The fact that the 6 Plus has only 1gb of RAM is an unfortunate truth we have to live with in the light of the insane beast that is the iPad Air 2, which, as you might guess, suffers from exactly none of these issues. Both devices run 8.1, so I was leaning toward it being a hardware issue (and specific to the 6 Plus), but the changes people noted in other models make me think it may be related to software. I honestly don’t know. I do know that having extra RAM seemingly mitigates this, and the iPhones 6 should have an extra gigabyte at this point. In light of all this, it’s disappointing that they don’t, as we’d probably never notice these potential software issues if the hardware could carry the load silently.

It’s all anecdotal at this point (I’ve been busy and haven’t been really inclined to dig deeper), and I really hope that there are improvements to the way these devices feel as we use them that can come from software updates. It’s disappointing to me that my iPhone 5 felt more usable in this regard than this massive hardware upgrade I yearned for. That said, a few people have asked me if I’d recommend the device at this point. I still enjoy it immensely, even with these current shortcomings, and I would say it’s one of the most interesting iOS devices I’ve used. If this is something that can be resolved through software optimization, my feelings would most likely be to wholeheartedly recommend it. If not, I’d still say that the phone is worth it alone for the battery life, which is positively otherworldly.

If you’re having similar issues or feel like getting more technical than I’ve had the time to, let me know. I’m curious to hear other experiences with the 6 Plus.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.