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Three Ways Embedded Memory Beats Removable Memory

By Michael Fisher October 1, 2012, 1:44 pm

A few months back, I wrote a piece where I suggested everyone stop whining about nonremovable batteries. Everyone hated it, so I figured I'd write another one just like it.

We're not talking about milliamp-hours this time around, though; the topic of the day is gigabytes. Specifically, whether your mobile phone's onboard storage should or shouldn't be removable.

The common thinking in more technologically-savvy circles is that devices featuring removable memory are superior. For the uninitiated, this means smartphones or tablets which include an expansion slot that accommodates a memory card. Those typically take the form of SD cards, which started appearing in smartphones a little less than a decade ago. Today, phones featuring removable memory almost always do so via micro-SD cards about the size of a pinky nail, and featuring storage capacities up to 64GB.


Devices so equipped are superior, the thinking goes, because they're more versatile. Much like swapping a SIM card into a new phone to move one's mobile account to a new device, swapping a memory card allows a user to move his or her entire content library, including music, photos, and any other kind of storable data. Card transfers can also be faster and more secure than passing information over the network, and carrying many memory cards increases your amount of mobile storage without a corresponding increase in bulk.

Unless you’re a real hoarder.

Much like the aforementioned battery debate, there has arisen in tech circles a backlash against the trend toward nonremovable memory in smartphones. This case is a more difficult one to play devil's advocate for, as the advantages of embedded memory aren't as clear as those for integrated batteries. Also, it's very annoying to be forced to pay $100 more for a device just because it packs an extra 16GB of memory that only cost the manufacturer $10. I get all that. I even called out removable memory as one of the factors in favor of buying the midrange HTC 8S over the 8X. My objective here isn't to nullify any of those points; removable storage has many advantages, some of which make my life considerably more convenient.

But there's a bright side to nonremovable storage as well, which is why it's appearing in more and more high-end devices. Here's three reasons it's not the worst thing ever.

Versatility Doesn't Always Mean Convenience

I routinely swap a 32GB memory card between my Samsung Galaxy S III and a Motorola Droid RAZR M, depending on how much rough-and-tumble action I'm planning on getting into when I venture into the outside world. I do this mostly so I can bring my music collection with me when switching devices, but it doesn't always work out in my favor.

Yes, the core problem I'm trying to address gets solved: I end up with my music on the new device. But Android's stock music player apparently doesn't like getting its memory fiddled with too much, and my playlists end up jumbled beyond recognition, with many of them empty. After a few swaps, now even my cover art has somehow become dissociated from its proper music.

Not correct. At all.

There's also the small matter of Android's tendency to automatically generate new folders when taking photos if it detects a new memory card ... even if that memory card isn't really "new" at all. In my case, that's led to the irritating side effect of having three separate camera albums, two screenshot repositories, and a folder confusingly labeled "sdcard."

I understand that swapping memory cards is still a relatively uncommon practice among laymen, and if you're doing it, you should be willing to properly manage your smartphone's filesystem to avoid these troubles. But not everyone wants to do that. Which brings me to my next point ...

Embedded Means Added Simplicity

Apple's been pitching the "simple is better" mantra for so long that it's almost a cliché, but it's true: there's real value in simplicity. Sure, with smartphones bearing embedded memory you're confined to whatever the manufacturer gives you -a real problem if they shortchange you like HTC did with the measly 16GB of space on the 8X- but at least you know what you've got right out of the box.

Dang it.

Best of all, that value never changes. The device had 16GB when you bought it, and it'll have 16GB when you retire it for a newer, higher-capacity device. There's none of the fragmentation problems with photo albums, none of the confusion involved with playlists suddenly disappearing, no mounting and unmounting memory cards— and no losing them between the couch cushions, either. My time with the Galaxy Nexus LTE was made more enjoyable by this simplicity; the 32GB of on-board storage was more than enough for me, and it was great to carry it around without worrying whether I had the right card installed.

The Cloud Makes It Redundant

This is the least-convincing of the arguments in favor of embedded memory, so I saved it for last. It definitely doesn't work for me, as I spend a good amount of time in areas with poor wireless coverage. It's also less appealing considering the extortionist data rates of some wireless carriers.

But if you're on a carrier like Sprint that offers "truly unlimited" data access for a reasonable rate, and you spend all day, every day blanketed by excellent cellular coverage, using the much-ballyhooed "cloud" as a substitute for on-board storage might be doable.

The general idea is that almost nothing is stored locally on your device, at least not for very long. The types of media which traditionally consume the most memory, such as songs and videos, are streamed live on-demand from services like Spotify and Netflix. Photos taken on the device are uploaded on a regular basis to a server-based solution like SkyDrive or Google Drive, after which they can freely be deleted from the phone because browsing them also happens via a remote connection. The phone becomes more akin to a dumb terminal.

This, however, leaves you vulnerable to Jeff Goldblum PowerBook attacks.

Like I said, I understand the need for both paradigms to exist, to satisfy the wide spectrum of users. And there are still times I need removable storage, and I'm grateful for it at those times. But there's a trend, pioneered by the iPhone but now backed up by Nokia, HTC, and others, toward eschewing removable memory for integrated solutions. As the landscape continues to mature, it's likely that micro-SD card support will continue evaporating from high-end devices, trickling down to the mid-range with other formerly deluxe features, whether we like it or not. We'd better find a way to deal with it, before we start trading microSD cards like pogs or primitive wampum chips, without a card slot in sight to use them for their intended purpose.

Independence Day screenshots source: PCMag


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