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.

phonememory-hdd

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.

research 1..6

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.

14 comments

    • The word “storage” and “memory” are used interchangeably as a colloquialism. My use of both words interchangeably (which technically isn’t necessarily wrong) was intended to make it a little bit easier for some readers who do not understand English as a native language to read the piece more easily.

      But… You gave me a great idea for another discussion topic (Storage vs. Memory), although I think another article on MTE covers this already.

  1. Like with the PC golden years our phones functions are limited by their capacity and hardware. I think it is inevitable that the memory go as high as possible so that the rest of the technology is not bottlenecked by it. In the case of technology I don’t think the old adage applies where they say just because you can you shouldnt. I say if you can do it by all means make it happen. Who knows what tech is coming down the pipe that will need it!

    • Want my honest opinion? I don’t think we should be in a major hurry to amp up the memory of phones. It gives app developers incentive to continue their bloated ways. Any storage increase in a device gives app developers license to develop ever-larger applications with features no one seems to care much for.

      Consumers demand feature-rich apps, but app developers add these features so sloppily and quickly that they end up creating code that allocates memory unnecessarily. They start using wrappers and helpers that work to their benefit but don’t really benefit the consumer in any way. These helpers make the development process easier. However, by no means is a helper API ever going to lead to a more compact end result. This is the predicament we faced when PCs started introducing 1 TB hard drives. It’s all repeating with phones.

      • It’s a chicken/egg situation. Do apps get bigger because more storage is available, or do the storage devices grow because apps require more space?

        • The situation can be easily manipulated with a play on incentives. Limited storage space creates the incentive for apps that are more frugal with that space, since the demand for them will grow considerably as people attempt to fit more applications into an increasingly limited amount of space.

          Either way, I hope phones will be able to store upwards of 4 TB in the near future. If manufacturers manage such a feat, we won’t need to worry about app size since we’d have more space than the apps can fill.

          • When manufacturers install 4 TB of storage, the apps we want will require 4.1 TB of storage and the entire cycle will start all over again.

            As you say above, with more storage available, app code can be sloppier and less eficient.

  2. The Supreme Court has now ruled that your smart phone is an extension of your home and requires a search warrant. My life is on my smart phone from banking to recipes for dinner tonight.

    Now I don’t personally see a need to have 1000’s of movies or songs on my smart phone. After all I have a network drive for that. But with this advancement in technology I could see where a traveler could download a movie library kick back and enjoy a movie on a long flight.

    In my line of work I have 100’s of documents that I use for reference. Some more often than others. I keep the more frequent documents on my smart phone for quick reference.

    But then, if in the future my smart phone has the memory I am sure that I will fill it weather or not I use that data frequently.

    Interesting thought, in collage I was selective on the books I would carry because of the weight. We all don’t have Herminie Grangers endless handbag to store everything from a tent to clothes. But if I am sure if I did I would fill it even if I hardly used it. My future smart phone could possibly hold anything and everything I could possibly want.

  3. I applaud the move to more local storage– and removable local storage– on my phone. I use my phone for just about everything– calls, camera, music player, geolocation, etc. I like having a wide variety of music available on my phone. Since most of what I listen to is classical, this means symphonies, oratorios, operas, film scores, etc.– very large files (at high data rates to boot). I keep an assortment of films handy for long travel. And as a serious amateur astronomer, I have a serious astronomy app (Sky Safari Pro), with its well over 1 GB of support data. Finally, I am into constructed languages, and have complete dictionaries of four languages on my phone. All of this I do without any reliance on the cloud. The whole purpose of the cloud is to eventually cost us a lot of money every month. Plus, it is not available where I really need it, like at remote asronomical observing sites. I struggle to keep everything in 40 GB in my current phone. So yes, big memory is very important thing for phone makers to include.

  4. With more and more users demanding that their smartphone also act as their PC, a dramtic increase in memory/storage is inevitable, if not just around the corner.

    “In the beginning of the PC era, a 500 MB hard drive occupied as much space as a 1 TB hard drive occupies now. ”
    You need to move your decimal point 2 places to the left. When Winchester hard drives for IBM PCs first hit the market in the late 1980’s, they had 2.5 or 5 MB of storage and were the size of a small portable typewriter.

    • Yes, it’s easy to forget that the PC era began a bit earlier, back when hard drives could only store about three times as much as a floppy disk. I probably should have mentioned the year in which 500 MB drives started appearing, like this: “In year x, a 500 MB hard drive on a PC occupied as much space as a 1 TB hard drive occupies now.”

      I’m starting to get a nostalgiagasm after remembering that one PC model from IBM (or was it another firm I don’t remember?) that had a fan on the rear end the size of a rhinoceros!

  5. My Samsung Galaxy S2, which I originally got from my employer in 2011, has 2GB of storage in “device memory”, plus 12GB “USB memory”, plus a 64GB microSD card that I bought. Despite the additional 12 + 64 = 76GB of storage available, it (only) puts most things into the 2GB, so it is constantly full. I have had to uninstall a load of apps so that I could update others.

    My next one will have to have at least 64GB of “device memory” onboard, plus the ability to insert a microSD card.

  6. hi there this why i am buging a 128 gegabyte iphone 6 plus with apple pay too infact your right micro sdxc card new format can go too 2 terabytes then next gen 144 petabytes apple working on a 500 terabyte ipod nano with 4 petabytes in the fute intel flash going too black hole storage then google plix bytes then computers wont read data too many bytes the system read unlimited google plix bytes then zero read out says storage capacity unkown storage capacity dn
    a storage is in the exabytes per single nano gram of dna isalinar chips holds exabytes per size of regalar memory chips your right first hard drive from ibm was only 5 megabytes of data a552 11111:.1
    ? s x

  7. Nature abhors vaccum. More storage will only allow us to store more crap, I mean DATA. No matter how much storage we are provided with, we will find ways to exhaust it.

    When I started with PCs, I was able to comfortably run the O/S and an office suite in 48 KILObytes of memory. I stored my data on 143 KILObyte floppies. When I got a 5 MEG HDD, I thought I was in heaven. Now my PC has 4 GIG or RAM and ! TB of storage and the apps run slowly and there is barely enough space.

Comments are closed.

Sponsored Stories