Removable storage still makes sense

Advertisement

Smartphone users face trade-offs all the time when selecting which devices to buy. Do you get the super slim handset with the latest processor, or go with a thicker phone that not only packs a larger battery but also uses a more conservative, energy-efficient chip? Do you go with the phone with the best camera, or the one running a platform with the better social apps, making it easier to share your pics?

Last week, Pocketnow’s Taylor Martin was sizing-up another issue that all too often has us making compromises: storage. He rightly called-out manufacturers for failing to deliver adequately sized storage options more often than they do, while also rejecting solutions like USB OTG flash drives or even microSD expansion as practical options.

I’m totally with him on not wanting to carry around external accessories for USB OTG, and while I’m a lot more sympathetic to the idea of microSD expansion (it’s a perfectly sound idea, but – with Android, at least – Google’s been ham-fisting it to the point of uselessness. It’s totally redeemable if anyone cares enough to make it happen) I’ll agree that in its current form there’s a lot to be desired.

And while I’m very much with him in wishing that larger capacity phones were far more ubiquitous, I’m still very much a proponent of removable storage. All this got me to thinking about the idea, and the conclusion I keep coming back to isn’t that removable storage is hopelessly flawed, but that ALL phone storage should be removable.

I’m quite serious; the entirety of your phone’s flash memory should be accessible as a removable component.

A change like that would bring with it numerous benefits, and while I can think of a couple possible problems with it, none seem like deal-breakers.

gs4-board

Storage is blue.

But let’s back up for a second here. What exactly am I talking about when I say the storage should be removable? I want the chip that physically holds all your phone’s data – boot code (well, aside from the very early boot code in the SoC ROM), the system software, your apps, and all their associated files – in a package than can be removed like a SIM or microSD card.

As for the internal storage currently in your phone, these are typically eMMC chips, bundling a memory controller and NAND memory all in one – really, it’s essentially an industrial-grade SD card, soldered securely in place.

Well, then why not just use commodity SD cards in the first place? If this is going to work at all it needs to be extremely reliable and high-speed, and I’m hesitant to trust that to off-the-shelf SD cards. Really, for the sake of this argument the technical details of the storage aren’t so important, save the fact that we’re taking what’s currently locked to the phone’s motherboard and giving it wings.

Smartphone retailers could sell phones with such cards pre-installed and with their software ready to go, or maybe you’d choose which capacity you wanted at the time of purchase and the retailer would flash the OEM’s software for you right then and there.

Let me get this out of the way now: such a design will be more complex to implement than phones using the surface-mounted eMMC chips we see today, and that’s inevitably going to mean the need for thicker components. That said, I in no way think that the risk of added thickness should discourage anyone from this idea. For the moment, device thickness is dictated mainly by battery and camera concerns, and their needs will dwarf any allowances that must be made for this removable storage idea. We could also save space by no longer needing separate microSD support on phones that would have otherwise received it.

emmc-programmer

Hopefully, with programmers a little more polished than this.

Hopefully I have you on board with me so far that this is at least a plausible idea. But what about offering actual benefits?

Well, beyond satisfying the notion that I went into this little thought experiment with – that there must be a better way for users to have control over just how much internal storage their phones have – I can think of quite a few promising outcomes.

Have you ever been afraid of “bricking” your phone? Fully removable smartphone storage would do away with that problem in one fell swoop. The issue has always been that the only way to interact with data on our phones was through software on the phones themselves – and if that software’s corrupted and non-functional, there’s little recourse to change that data. If you can pop out that storage and just place it in a PC reader, such concerns disappear.

Having access to such a direct PC storage interface offers other benefits, as well: you could very easily do an extremely comprehensive backup of your phone’s software, saved as a convenient system image.

And what about security/privacy concerns? Sure, you can wipe the data off your phone before you sell it or return it to a manufacturer for service, but if it’s broken to the point you can’t power-on or otherwise access that feature, how are you going to protect you data? Easy: just pop out the module, and the handset’s a blank slate.

Will we ever see a system like this? Oh my, no. Not only does this create added expense and hassle for manufacturers, but the very real benefits it would offer are solely focused on the end-user, and even then, on the very techy end-user; I harbor no illusions that the vast majority of the benefits fully removable storage provides would go unnoticed, unused, and unappreciated by 99% of smartphone owners.

But man – wouldn’t it be nice?

Image: iFixit

Advertisement

What's your reaction?
Love It
0%
Like It
0%
Want It
0%
Had It
0%
Hated It
0%
About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!