How Much Bigger Can Phone Memory Get?

Smartphones and tablets suffer from a limitation in the amount of phone memory they can store. Most mid-range models can store anywhere between 8 and 32 GB of information, with some of it being occupied by the operating system. While 32 GB might initially seem like a lot (especially considering that the average size of an app in iOS is 23 MB), you’ll find that the space on your phone for other purposes is shrinking ever-so-slowly. What do you do when you run out of space? The answer currently is “nothing.” Will this always be the case? How much bigger can mobile devices really get?

64 GB and 128 GB phones exist, but there isn’t a great deal of them. Despite the lack of a manufacturing trend biased towards making higher-capacity mobile platforms, there is always a demand for them. The average app size between March and September 2012 grew 16 percent. Bloated software is getting even more bloated all of the time, not to mention the increasing graphic resolution that the developers need to pack in their apps. We’re seeing the same phenomenon plague phones just like they did in the PC’s golden years.

The demand for larger hard drives in personal computers came directly from the fact that programs and games were inflating off the charts. There was a point back in 1997 when my IBM Aptiva computer’s 2 GB hard drive was more than I’d ever need. Fast forward to 2014, and I’m struggling to live on 1 TB (around 1,000 GB).

If 32 GB is enough for you and your smartphone or tablet, I applaud you. However, this will certainly not be the case in a few years.

Unlike a desktop PC, a phone doesn’t have a whole lot of space. In the beginning of the PC era, a 500 MB hard drive occupied as much space as a 1 TB hard drive occupies now. The issue here wasn’t space, though. Hard drives got larger capacities when manufacturers figured out how to make their mechanical parts more precise and fit more platters into the disc array.

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With phones, we’re dealing with an entirely different beast. The average smartphone has a flash memory storage area no bigger than a postage stamp. All of its memory has to fit there, or else it will bump heads with other chips inside it. Flash memory is organized in cells, and each cell is capable of storing only three bits (the smallest unit of memory). This is its limitation. The physical size of these cells can shrink, but you can only do so much with today’s machinery. In addition to this dilemma, the demand for higher-capacity phones is exploding.

Using traditional flash memory, a phone can probably house a comfortable 128 GB, depending on its physical size and other limitations that the manufacturer may run into when creating the device. Any more than that, and we approach a level of technology that today’s machines have difficulty reaching.

This doesn’t mean that phones can’t get any bigger, though. Researchers at the ReRAM company (acquired in February 2012 by Rambus) are coming up with a new kind of random-access memory that could be the key to answering the memory question hopefully for the next decade. They have developed something known as Resistive random-access memory (RRAM, also called ReRAM, after the company that researched it). Crossbar, a company that manufactures computer hardware, has come up with a prototype of RRAM that can store 1 TB of memory within the space occupied by a postage stamp!

Rice University scientists have managed to up the ante in RRAM development and created a chip that can be made very cheaply by filling the pores within a porous silicon oxide sheet with conductive metals. This type of storage not only requires a lower amount of power to operate, but also can store three times as much memory per cell as flash memory.

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An undisclosed amount of phone manufacturers have already shown interest in RRAM and wish to implement it in their phones. We really won’t have to wait very long to start seeing multi-terabyte phones in the market!

What do you think about having a “superphone” with thousands of gigabytes of storage? Do you feel it’s necessary or not? Let your voice be heard in a comment below!

Cutaway image taken from Rice University.