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How to fix “Your system is out of application memory” on Mac

Woman using a MacBook on a desk
Farknot Architect/Shutterstock.com

Does your Mac freeze regularly? Do you see the same pop-up window complaining about running out of memory and asking you to quit some apps? Here’s how to fix the problem and reduce the chances of it happening again.

Use the Force Quit option to end running apps

macOS only displays the Force Quit Applications window when memory is completely exhausted, including both physical memory and virtual memory on your boot drive.

macOS system memory warning

If you see this window, you need to force quit non-critical applications to stabilize your system. Apps you don’t use or running in the background that you forgot should be the first to go. Your system should be responsive again after removing some apps.

In the window, you’ll see app names listed next to the amount of RAM currently in use. Click on an app and then “Force Quit” to quit it, but note that no data will be saved. If you’re working on a document in an app and force quit it, expect to lose work.

Sometimes the system gets stuck on this window when trying to exit apps or resume from the problem state. You can wait minutes for things to get back to normal.

If you have unsaved work on the line, you’ll have to wait. Otherwise, you may want to restart your Mac by holding down the power button until the device turns off. Then start it again.

TIED TOGETHER: How to restart your Mac

Restart your Mac for a quick fix

Even if you get macOS back to a usable state using the method above, there’s a good chance you’ll see the window again soon. Make sure you save whatever you’re working on, then restart your Mac with the Apple logo in the top-left corner of the screen. This will free up as much memory as possible.

Restart macOS without reopening applications at login

Consider unchecking the “Reopen window on re-login” check box and only opening business-critical applications in the future.

You can save physical and virtual memory by not loading unnecessary apps when you boot your computer. It’s easy to see your startup items by going to System Preferences (System Preferences) > User Groups > Login Items. Here you can remove apps from the launch list by highlighting the app and clicking the minus (-) button.

Start app list on Mac

Free up disk space to prevent the error from occurring again

macOS can manage physical random access memory (RAM), provided there is space to swap things in and out. The system takes things from physical memory and puts them in virtual memory when needed.

You can get a good idea of ​​this process by opening Activity Monitor and clicking on the Storage tab. At the bottom of the tab, you can see your total “Physical Memory” (how much RAM your laptop has) and “Memory Used” total (how much RAM is currently in use).

Storage tab in macOS Activity Monitor

You will also see “cache files” listed, which are files that are commonly used by the operating system and are swapped in and out of physical memory. Swap Used refers to the amount of space used to swap files in and out of RAM.

If you’re running out of disk space (or running out of disk space), your system won’t have room to store cached files, and there won’t be room to swap them in and out. This is one of the reasons why you see a window asking you to free up memory by quitting applications.

You can avoid this by preserving free disk space on your Mac.

Apple doesn’t specify how much free disk space your Mac needs to function normally, but if you see this error frequently, there’s a good chance you don’t meet the criteria.

As a general rule, we recommend aiming for around 10% of your total disk space. There are many ways to free up space on your Mac, such as: B. emptying your Downloads folder, deleting apps you never use, or automatically emptying the Trash.

macOS download folder

You can also move files on your hard drive to another drive, e.g. B. a USB stick, a hard drive or a specially designed drive that is located in the SD card reader of your MacBook Pro.

Avoid doing too much at once

If you frequently encounter the error “Your system is out of application memory” and have tried to reduce your storage space, you may be encountering the limitations of your system. This is more common on older Mac models with less memory.

The key is to know the limits of your system and avoid taking things too far. This can mean reducing the number of browser tabs open at the same time, being careful not to have too many resource-intensive applications (like photo editors or games) open at the same time, and reducing background processes.

Safari tabs on macOS Monterey

You can use Activity Monitor to see what processes are running on your Mac. You can also see background processes currently running on the top right corner of your screen. Some processes, e.g. B. Helpers for note-taking apps like Evernote or Duet Display can be prevented from loading until you need them.

To stop these processes, you need to open each app’s settings to disable the launch agent. The easiest way to do this is to use an app like CleanMyMac X to find startup agents and then disable them.

Most importantly, make sure you have a nice buffer of free space on your boot drive so macOS can properly manage your physical and virtual memory.

TIED TOGETHER: How to troubleshoot your Mac with Activity Monitor

Isolate apps with memory leaks

If the problem seems limited to using a specific application, you may have encountered a memory leak. A memory leak is a software problem that causes an application to request more and more memory without ever reallocating it.

TIED TOGETHER: What is a memory leak and what can you do about it?

Monitor memory usage in macOS Activity Monitor

You need to be vigilant to see if your problem occurs more often when using certain apps. You can always take a look at the “Storage” tab in Activity Monitor (click the “Storage” column to sort the list by usage) to see if there are any apps that are using more than their fair share seem to be.

If you find an app that seems to be leaking memory, you can always quit it by highlighting it and then using the “X” button in Activity Monitor. If an update is available, try applying it to fix the problem.

Upgrade your RAM (if you can)

Mac upgradeability has been on a downtrend ever since Apple started soldering RAM onto logic boards, sometime around the release of the Retina MacBook Pro. And while it has performance benefits, the decision to go with unified memory didn’t help.

Some models are easier to upgrade than others, but none of the Apple silicon versions that use an M1, M2, or similar chip can be upgraded this way.

Some older Mac models, notably the Mac mini (2012, 2011, and 2010 models) and the iMac (2020-earlier models with Intel processors) are remarkably easy to upgrade. The iMac even has a pop-out port on the back for easy installation.

Upgrading an iMac with user-upgradable RAM

Before you buy, consult Apple’s recommendations for RAM types (like this iMac guide or this Mac mini guide) to make sure you’re buying the right modules.

If your computer is old enough to have user-upgradable memory, don’t expect miracles in terms of performance improvements. If memory is particularly expensive, consider putting the money into a replacement Mac instead.

If the problem is caused by chronic lack of disk space, consider upgrading your Mac’s SSD instead.

Consider replacing your Mac

For many users, seeing errors about the system running out of physical memory should be a reason to think about the age of the computer. This is especially true if your Mac is so old that it no longer receives software updates.

A new Apple Silicon Mac will offer a big leap in performance over an older Intel model. There’s a Mac for almost every budget and need. For example, choose the M1 Mac mini, which offers unbeatable performance for the price. Or the M1 Ultra-powered Mac Studio, which is perhaps the fastest Mac out there.

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