I'm the owner of mid 2010 iMac (core i7) with 16GB memory installed.
Normally, Mac OS X (SL and Lion) never uses swap (that is page ins/outs = 0), there are always 3-8GB of free memory.
But after watching a few DVD/h264 movies, there are only 50-100*MB* of free memory and swap is used actively. Looks like video files are mapped into system memory, since the amount of inactive memory ~= size of files. The only workaround is to use purge utility.

I'm looking for a solution which is better than running purge every time I looked a movie.


4:08  up 3 days,  7:35, 5 users, load averages: 0,71 0,76 0,71


Mach Virtual Memory Statistics: (page size of 4096 bytes)
Pages free:                         738409.
Pages active:                      1715722.
Pages inactive:                     536891.
Pages speculative:                  857329.
Pages wired down:                   344323.
"Translation faults":           1067897384.
Pages copy-on-write:               6068992.
Pages zero filled:               591232281.
Pages reactivated:                 1906255.
Pageins:                           5019598.
Pageouts:                           861857.
Object cache: 16 hits of 1354202 lookups (0% hit rate)
  • What video players are you using? Also keep in mind, the system will always try to get to 50 to 100 MB free memory, so that means things are working properly. What also do you mean by "swap is used actively"?
    – bmike
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 14:50
  • QuickTime/built-it DVD player/VLC/MPlayerX. I mean date is written and read from swap for almost every operation.
    – Kentzo
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 14:58
  • QuickTime and DVD player swap minimally on my lion machines. Even on an air with 2 GB RAM, playing video doesn't cause even the second swap file to get created on disk.
    – bmike
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 15:04
  • 1
    @bmike: It's not QuickTime swapping, it's the OS caching every disk read that he's seeing. Because his other memory pages are inactive for longer than the disk cache, they get swapped out first. This is normal and desired behavior.
    – Josh
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 19:20

2 Answers 2


What you're seeing is normal, and desired behavior.

OS X, like Linux and BSD, has a disk cache. This means anything read from or written to disk is kept in memory. The "Inactive" memory includes this disk cache.

This answer on AskDifferent explains it, as does this post on macosxhints.com:

However, X's underpinnings (ie the UN*X kernel) provide both these features without any inputs being needed by the user. It's called the file system buffer cache. The one most significant difference is that the size of this buffer cache is dynamic. It starts of with some small size and can grow and shrink as the i/o demands and Apps memory requirements vary over time.

It's called a 'buffer cache' because it buffers the i/o data on its way to/from the disk. When an App writes data it first will be deposited into the Apps file buffer memory region and will subsequently be requested via library routines to have the kernel (the OS) copy it from the App's buffer to disk. The kernel will oblige and will copy it first to its buffer -- the file system buffer cache. If the kernel requires more room in its buffer cache it will obtain it from the free memory. When this happens the free memory value, in say the Terminal's top command, will immediately show a reduction of free memory. At some later point the kernel will copy this data (referred to has dirty buffers) to the appropriate disk location. I believe the frequency of this being done is 30 secs -- called sync-ing to disk.

Note that having memory paged out to disk is not always a bad thing. If memory pages are completely inactive, paging them out to disk can improve performance, because they are wasting RAM which could otherwise be used for disk cache. Once they are paged out and you stop watching movies, when needed they will be paged back in, automatically replacing the buffers and disk cache. You don't need to run purge each time. Just let OS X manage the disk cache as it was designed to do.

For more information on this, consult the wikipedia article on paging, and the article on the Page cache.

TL;DR information:

Here's an article describing how swap works under Linux. WHile not 100% applicable to OS X, the concept is the same. I'll quote the relevant part:

When an application needs memory and all the RAM is fully occupied, the kernel has two ways to free some memory at its disposal: it can either reduce the disk cache in the RAM by eliminating the oldest data or it may swap some less used portions (pages) of programs out to the swap partition on disk. It is not easy to predict which method would be more efficient. The kernel makes a choice by roughly guessing the effectiveness of the two methods at a given instant, based on the recent history of activity

Since you're watching a DVD or a movie, the most recently active pages of memory are the disk cache, so OS X decides to keep that in RAM and swap out pages of memory which have been inactive from before you started accessing the video files. Once you stop accessing video files and access the programs using the memory pages which were swapped out, the reverse is true: OS X will discard the disk cache containing the video data and replace it with the memory pages which it swapped out. Then your swap usage will decrease.

Here's a bit more information, specific to FreeBSD (which is similar to Mac OS X):

FreeBSD will use 'all of memory' for the disk cache. What this means is that the 'free' bucket typically contains only a few pages in it. If the system runs out, it can free up more pages from the cache bucket.

System activity works like this: When a program actively references a page in a file on the disk (etc...) the page is brought into the buffer cache via a physical I/O operation. It typically goes into the 'active' bucket. If a program stops referencing the page, the page slowly migrates down into the inactive or cache buckets (depending on whether it is dirty or not). Dirty pages are slowly 'cleaned' by writing them to their backing store and moved from inactive to cache, and cache pages are freed as necessary to maintain a minimum number of truely free pages in the free bucket. These pages can still be 'cleaned' by allocating swap as their backing store, allowing them to migrate through the buckets and eventually be reused.


The VM buffer cache caches everything the underlying storage so, for example, it will not only cache the data blocks associated with a file but it will cache the inode blocks and bitmap blocks as well. Most filesystem operations thus go very fast even for tripple-indirect block lookups and such


FreeBSD has arguably some of the best swap code in existance. I personally like it better then Linux's. Linux is lighter on swap, but doesn't balance system memory resource utilization well under varying load conditions. FreeBSD does.

FreeBSD notes the uselessness of existing pages in memory, and decides that it might be advantageous to free memory (enabled by pushing pages to swap), so that it can be used for more active purposes (such as file buffering, or more program space.) It is a terrible waste to keep unused pages around, for the notion of saving (cheap) disk space. Since low level SWAP I/O can be faster, with less CPU overhead than file I/O, it is likely desireable to push such unused pages out so that they can be freed for use by higher overhead mechanisms. (note 1)

(Emphasis mine, check that bolded part for specifically what you're asking about, that is, "Why is swap being used when I have inactive memory?)

  • I don't want to say caching is bad thing and I know its purpose. The bad thing is that I have 16GB of memory (which is enough to keep almost all data/code I use in memory) and OSX uses swap because half of it keeps huge cached video files. I'd like to set caching policy to release files from cache when amount of available memory approaches e.g. 100-200MB.
    – Kentzo
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 19:58
  • 3
    Outstanding answer Josh! A shame it looks to be lost on the OP. I've never understood users that don't quite understand how the system works but want to alter it's behavior all the same. @Kentzo, you cannot adjust such things. They are not open to user control.
    – user10355
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 20:11
  • I never said I'm looking for a userland. If there are kernel-side functions to control the caching policy, just point me, I'll do the rest. The idea was someone already encountered that problem and already wrote a daemon/script.
    – Kentzo
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 20:22
  • @Kentzo: You said, "The bad thing is that I have 16GB of memory and OSX uses swap because half of it keeps huge cached video files". It should do that only when you're not using the memory pages which get swapped out. Swap is not bad. The pages should be swapped right back in when you're done watching video files.
    – Josh
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 20:35
  • 1
    Try setting your pagefile size to around 250MB. See if you witness the same behavior. (I don't even know that you can do that on OSX.) What it's doing is copying the stuff in for the video, and making it all contiguous for playback. Also, verify that it does this when you're playing a DVD directly off the rotating shiny optical disk, instead of playing a DVD rip to your HDD. If it does the EXACT SAME THING with a shiny optical coaster, then you know that you've probably found a bug with the OSX apps, and not with the kernel.
    – jcolebrand
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 21:09

For what I know (and have noticed) you don't have to worry about this "inactive" memory. The system will reallocate it on demand. It happens when the system have huge file transfer to process. This kind of operation use as much memory as possible to speed up the process. When the transfer is finished, the memory state remains as "inactive", but you could as well considered as free...

  • What process is OS trying to speed up if I properly quit all video players after watching a movie? Why does it use hard drive (where swap is located) instead of reusing inactive memory?
    – Kentzo
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 15:03
  • @Kentzo: The OS automatically caches disk reads into free RAM. Memory pages which have been inactive for a long time are paged out to disk to make room for disk cache/buffers as this can actually increase performance. I put that in my answer, and am looking for a reference to back that up with.
    – Josh
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 19:07

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