Over the past few years, smartphones have radically changed. Instead of simply being portable email devices, they have evolved into pocket-size entertainment systems with huge, super clear displays, powerful processors, blazing fast wireless radios and over one million applications and games to choose from. Almost every aspect of the smartphone has been completely altered – from the camera to the number of buttons and ports, almost every component has been improved and every square millimeter utilized more efficiently.
Through all of this, there are two areas that have faced far less improvement than anything else: battery life and flash memory for storage space.
Battery life is a topic I've harped on for years now. What good are all of these improvements on a mobile device if you have to spend the majority of your time tethered to an outlet trying to keep said device charged? Alas, some more recent moves by Motorola and Samsung have shown that simply packing more milliampere-hours in a phone should suffice. Seeing as devices are becoming almost too thin, this isn't a terrible trade-off. The only down side is that charge times will undoubtedly climb with larger capacity batteries.
The other area, flash memory, has sort of been pushed to the back burner. Sure, it's improved over the years, and those improvements have been reflected in smartphones. I remember my BlackBerry Curve 8330 had a whopping 32MB of storage space and would only read a 4GB microSD card. Now both of my phones – an iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus – come with 16GB of built-in storage. It's uncommon for a high-end smartphone to come with anything less than 8GB, and most come with a microSD card slot capable of reading up to 32GB.
But what about the memory hoarders? I used to be one myself and constantly found myself having to either carry around multiple SD cards or delete some stuff to make room for new downloads or music. And that was something I never enjoyed. Seeing as I have been trying to replace my home PC for years now, I want to be able to access everything from wherever I am. Even with a phone with 32GB built-in memory and 32GB of expandable memory, I would only be carrying a fraction of my music, no movies, no apps or games and no additional documents, etc.
Enter the arbitrary "cloud" term.
Cloud services have made this somewhat easier. I have several different cloud storage accounts, like Dropbox and Box.net where I have a few hundred gigabytes of space and thousands of files stored online. And I pay a monthly fee for music and video streaming services, like Hulu, Netflix and Spotify. I also use Google Music for streaming my personal library. So I no longer worry about filling my phone's internal memory with multimedia or documents and other files.
But let's not forget that smartphones are still improving with each passing moment. One of the more recent races for the best of the best has been with mobile displays. A handful of pocket-sized smartphones now tout displays that boast a full 720p or higher resolution. Tablets are now approaching (and surpassing) 1080p resolution. Apple's new iPad, which will launch tomorrow morning, features a Retina Display with a resolution of 2048 by 1536 pixels. That's one million more pixels than your standard HDMI television set.
As I noted last week following Apple's announcement, there are some caveats with ultra high-resolution displays. Aside from possible performance faults, I said that applications that will take full advantage of the high-res graphics will be much larger than standard definition applications. My assumptions (and reservations) were further proven yesterday with a story that spread around the web, claiming the new iPad apps will be up to five times larger than their predecessors. The Verge reported that Vietnamese site Tinhte had some hands-on time with the new model iPad and discovered some interesting info on the size of Apple's latest iWorks and iLife applications:
"The applications developed by Apple have been upgraded to support the Retina Display. For example Keynote was previously only 115MB but its latest version is 327MB. Numbers is up from 109MB to 283MB, Pages moves from 95MB to 269MB, and iMovie from 70MB to 404MB."
What's more is that these downloads will not only affect those with new iPads, as Aaron Souppouris of The Verge points out. "As Apple doesn't fragment its releases, instead relying on unified apps, the bump in size will also hit owners of the iPad and iPad 2, as they'll have to store the unused Retina graphics," says Souppouris. He also notes that the aforementioned application sizes are only the sizes of the download files. After installing the packages, they are very likely to take up more space.
The worst part? All of this comes without a bump in storage space. The new iPad comes in the same capacities as the iPad 2, despite featuring a better camera and ultra high-resolution display. And there is no way to expand memory. A 404MB application may not seem like a lot when you have a 64GB tablet. But if you start installing application after application (especially games, which could easily surpass 1GB), your free space will begin to disappear quickly. Things are kind of looking a little bleak for those looking at a 16GB iPad.
Apple isn't the only one who will face this storage limitation either. My Galaxy Nexus doesn't have expandable memory. Neither did my Galaxy Tab 10.1, and I filled its memory up on a regular basis, solely with applications. As devices become more compact and cloud services become the norm, manufacturers are finding it okay to cut corners and skip microSD card slots while only offering basic built-in storage options. However, as resolutions, graphics and file sizes increase, built-in storage will become more and more important. In many cases 16GB and even 32GB isn't going to cut it. While 64GB will probably be plenty for most people, it wouldn't hurt to have a little breathing room.
What say you, readers? Are you beginning to feel a little cramped on 16, 32 or 64GB? Do cloud storage and streaming services help? What about expandable memory? Is it about time we see a bump in mobile devices' flash memory capacities?