For many phones, the storage onboard is what you get, and that’s it. A phone with expandable memory allows you to add storage if you find you need it in an easy and inexpensive way.
When you’re researching a new smartphone to purchase, you’ll frequently see a number in gigabytes listed after the phone model. So for example, it won’t just be described as an iPhone 7. Instead what you will be sold will be an iPhone 7 32GB, or similar. That number refers to the amount of core storage on the device. In effect it’s the hard drive for your smartphone. As we all take more photos and videos on our smartphones, we tend to fill up that available storage, at which point you’ve got to either offload some apps or data, or do without adding any more. A phone with expandable storage via microSD cards makes it easy to bump up the storage on your phone via the use of tiny microSD cards.
What is a microSD card?
A microSD card is a tiny fingerprint sized storage device that can be inserted into a smartphone with expandable memory capabilities. Storage sizes can range from 2GB upwards. The current SDXC card format (which not every phone will support) calls for a maximum size of a whopping 2TB. You won’t find those in stores just yet though, with manufacturers still only demonstrating early samples of 1TB at the time of writing. In terms of commercial availability you can get 512GB microSD cards, but they’re seriously pricey prospects. Comparatively, a simple 32GB or 64GB card should only cost you in the region of $30-$100.
How do I put a microSD card in my phone?
Before you start (and, indeed, before you even purchase a card), the first thing to do is check that the handset you want to use actually supports expandable memory. The bad news if you’re a fan of Apple’s iPhone line is that none of them do. Apple has never supported microSD card expansion directly for any of its phone or tablet products. That includes the new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus handsets. On the Android side of the fence the general rule is that microSD expansion will be supported by most phones. Samsung briefly dipped its toes into the fully sealed, no expansion space with the Samsung Galaxy S6, but it reversed that position with the Galaxy S7. Google’s older Nexus phones are fully sealed, so for example the Nexus 6P doesn’t support expandable data via microSD card. Still, most Android phones, whether budget offerings or premium superphones support memory expansion. It is also worth checking whether or not your phone of choice supports newer higher capacity microSD formats. The SDXC standard should be supported by most new phones, but older handsets may be limited to smaller capacity cards. There's no point in buying a higher capacity card if it won't work in your phone. Actual insertion of the microSD card will vary by phone model, with two primary approaches favoured. Many metal body phones offer a microSD card slot on the side of the phone, similar to the SIM card slot, and in some cases presented in the same carrying caddy. Insertion there is a simple matter of popping open the tray with a fingernail or a supplied SIM tool (or in a pinch, an unfolded paperclip or pin) and dropping the microSD card in. Phones with removable batteries often place the microSD card slot in with the SIM card slot, and may require removing the battery in order to change or add a microSD card slot. If that describes your phone, you are much better off properly shutting your phone down before yanking the battery out and adding your microSD card.
My phone doesn’t support expandable memory. What can I do?
There are a couple of avenues worth exploring if you’ve got a handset with no microSD expansion capabilities. The first and most obvious is to take stock of what you’ve got on the phone, working out where you can save space by offloading content. If you’ve never backed up your photos to your computer, that can save considerable storage space, as well as being a good general backup precaution. If you’ve got heaps of applications that you rarely or never use, delete them. Most apps can be redownloaded from app stores if you need them again. Consider also offloading some content types to streaming or cloud services. So rather than having a large music library loaded on your phone, use a service such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music or Google Play Music to deliver your tunes. Be aware however that this means you’ll be using data for each song play, which can add up in cost terms if you’re not connecting via Wi-Fi. There are also some novel approaches that use external full drives to connect to Android and iPhone devices that can add a lot of storage accessible via specific apps. Wireless drives such as those made by Seagate and Western Digital can offer you terabytes of storage that you connect to via an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network for access, while external storage devices connect up via microUSB or Lightning ports to give more direct access, although typically with much less storage available.
Why don’t I have all the storage my phone says I should have?
One thing you’ll quickly work out is that a phone with 32GB of storage doesn’t actually give you 32GB of available space to store your files and apps on. That’s partially down to a quirk of the way that data is counted, but mostly because the quoted figure for a given smartphone relates to the entire amount of available storage on the device. That storage has to include the operating system as well, which eats up storage space all of its own, especially if you opt for a model with a lot of preinstalled applications.