Running out of space? Could an SD card help?

Phone storage full? Could an SD card help?

Running out of space on your phone is a real hindrance, and cleaning out old apps or moving photos off your phone never seems to solve the problem for very long.

What’s worse, getting your hands on a phone with a good amount of internal storage can be outrageously expensive.

The standard amount of storage space available on most newly-available smartphones is 32GB.

For older smartphones that may well be more like 16GB or even 8GB – which is where the option to add an SD card really comes in handy.

When is 16GB not 16GB?

Your phone sets aside space for its operating system (either Android or iOS) and more of your precious storage space is for downloading updates and store browsing data. This means your standard 16GB can be more like 10-12GB when you get it out of the box.

Most models of new smartphone are available with storage beyond the standard 32GB, but the prices rapidly increase as more space is added. For many phones, the cost can rise by hundreds of pounds for a 64GB version.

Some – but not all – smartphones offer a cheap alternative to internal storage – an SD card slot.

Samsung’s 32GB Galaxy S7 Edge has expandable memory, accommodating microSD cards up to 256GB. On the budget end so does the Honor 8 – which made our recent pick of the top five best Chinese Android phones.

This slot allows for external storage cards to be plugged into the phone for extra space. This space can be cheap, especially when compared to the internal equivalent – 128GB SD cards can be had for as little as £10.

Unfortunately, using an SD card for extra storage isn’t as good an option as it first seems. You may be able to get a lot of space for cheap, but your phone will struggle to make use of much of it.

What’s an SD card good for?

As long as you get an SD card with a decent write speed (around 100 MB/s), using it to store photos and short videos can save a chunk of space on your phone’s internal hard drive.

Even better is that transferring those files to a computer can be a very fast and simple job – just take it out of your phone and pop it into an SD card reader for instant access to all your files.

However, be aware that some third-party camera apps may have trouble saving images directly onto external storage.

Internal and external storage used differently

A handset can’t use the space on an SD card the same way it can use the space on its hard drive. For example, you can’t install an app onto external SD storage.

Larger apps may allow you to move some of their files onto an SD card, but a good amount of the app’s data has to be kept on the hard drive for it to run correctly.

SD cards can be slow

The speeds that SD cards can read and write data can vary drastically. If external storage is too slow, it will cripple its usefulness. Any apps with data stored on a slow card will perform much worse or not run at all, video can’t be recorded onto it or watched off it and even simple tasks like browsing through photos can be frustratingly slow. Even with a faster SD card, you’re still going to notice a significant drop in performance when it’s in use.

The ‘Adoptable Storage’ option

Some Android phones now have the option to try and make better use out of external storage with the feature of ‘Adoptable Storage’. When a new SD card is inserted, the phone can choose to ‘adopt’ it as an internal storage device. This effectively makes the SD card function in the same way as the phone’s own hard drive, removing the limitations of what apps can be installed where. The cost of this is that the SD card will be encrypted, so it can’t be used for anything else, and your phone will no longer work if the SD card is removed.

While the phone may treat the card like it’s internal storage, the truth remains that SD cards just aren’t as good at handling data as a hard drive. An ‘adopted’ card is going to be in use a lot more than an external one, and the phone’s overall performance will take a hit.

When the Adoptable Storage feature is first set up, the phone performs a benchmark to assess how big that hit will be. If the loss of performance or stability is too high, it will recommend reverting your settings.

Adoptable Storage doesn’t seem like a very popular feature at this stage – the Samsung Galaxy S7 has brought back the SD slot that was lacking in the S6, but has specifically removed the Adoptable Storage feature from its Android-based operating system.

In conclusion

Sadly, there isn’t really a perfect alternative when you’ve run out of internal storage.

If you want to keep stuff on your phone, it’s certainly worth looking at copying your files, photos and data to cloud storage or to an external hard drive and deleting the originals so you’re not always trying to find a couple of hundred MB here and there to get you through the day.


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.
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