Removable storage is just for the spec sheets

January 12 2010

Google released their official phone early last week: the Nexus One. Putting aside the fact that they’ve completely shafted all of their technology partners, I’d like to discuss how spec sheets are ruining the user experience of mobile devices. Many users (myself included) may plead the case for expandable storarge, but there is strong resistance when users are forced to manage their own files. Bad UI of file browsers and locks preventing data from being moved make using removable storage on phones a drain.

A prime example of this is my current phone — Nokia N73 — which comes with 32MB of built-in storage but is expandable using the provided miniSD slot. I thought this would be brilliant! I could store applications, images, messages and contacts all on the miniSD card and never have to worry about transferring any of this data, phone to phone, ever again. As always, there’s a catch. I’m limited to storing just media files on the miniSD card and all other data is stored on the phone’s paltry memory. The reasoning provided is for security, but surely I — as the user — should be able to choose where my own personal files are stored?

In much a similar way, Google is failing to understand the same issues that are plaguing my three year old phone. While the Nexus One has an expandable Micro SD card, the on-board memory is just 512MB. This wouldn’t be too bad until you take into account that the Nexus One is a smart phone targeted towards users who will take advantage of its many applications. Sadly, a limit has been placed on how much storage can be used for applications to 190mb:

The Nexus can accommodate memory cards up to 32 gigabytes (a 4 gigabyte card comes with it) — and yet, inexplicably, the Nexus allots only the tiniest sliver of that (190 megabytes) for downloaded apps. Source.

Why are Google so insistent on messing up the storage situation on Android phones? The N1 had 512mB memory built-in, which Android will only use for storing the OS, applications and any relevant application data. Similarly, the earlier G1 went through the same issues having just 256MB built-in memory, which wasn’t even enough to install any official OS updates! Instead of learning their lesson, Google has just taken it up one notch. Rather than learn from these mistakes and become a real competitor to Apple, they’ve failed miserably.

Considering the cost of physical memory these days, it doesn’t make sense when companies aren’t willing to increase built-in storage sizes. These days 4GB storage should be seen as a minimum, while allowing room for premium SKUs with 32GB+ to pile on markup without anyone complaining. Apple’s abhorrence towards removable storage isn’t just because Jobs’ saying is final, or compromise on form factor, but simply because it’s a usability nightmare.

Modded firmware has been released for most phones, allowing users to bend the will of their mobile device’s storage. However, allowing all photos, music and applications on the removable media will mean that it has to be unmounted on the device, removing the use of any applications in the process. I understand that an easy way around this may be to expose a samba share, e.g. Archos, rather than give direct access to the storage media, but what’s to prevent a user from just ejecting the media and doing so anyway?

As a result of this fatal flaw, I have no plans on buying the new Nexus One in the immediate future. If I were to purchase a new phone based purely on usability of storage, it would probably be an iPhone. Alternatively, I could just stick with my current N73 and save myself a lot of wasted money on applications.