Tablet storage: Do you really need an expansion slot?

Tablet makers are split on whether it's better to keep data in the cloud or on physical media, like a microSD card

Some popular new tablets come equipped with storage expansion slots; others do not. Which is better?

The simple answer depends on a user's personal preference. Sometimes the way storage is handled on a tablet is just another item on a lengthy checklist of important features, including screen size and resolution, processing power and price.

But there's also a more detailed answer that highlights a tug of war going on behind the scenes between prominent tablet vendors.

Tablet bigwigs like Apple, Amazon, and Google don't include an expansion slot in their devices. Among the tablets without expansion slots are the new 7-in. Nexus 7 from Google, which goes on sale tomorrow for $229 for a 16GB model, or $269 for 32GB.

Meanwhile, other tablets tout the availability of a Micro Secure Digital (microSD) slot in addition to the built-in storage. These include the recently-announced Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 models, in 7-in., 8-in. and 10.1-in. sizes. All three come with either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, which can be expanded using a 64GB microSD card.

Google has for a while architected its Nexus products to rely on both internal storage and online storage in the cloud, so the lack of a slot in the new Nexus 7 comes as no big surprise.

Asked to explain its no-slot principal, a Google spokeswoman echoed what's been surmised by analysts about the company's storage direction for the past two years.

The Android operating system used in Nexus devices doesn't offer a way for users to see and manage external physical storage, the spokeswoman said. "As a result, it's up to different apps to expose and support that extra storage space, and that creates an inconsistent and frequently confusing experience for users," she said. "Users are putting more of their data and getting more of their content from the cloud. Instead of being tied to one device, movies, books music and documents are available on any device."

Generally, modern tablets can hold "an incredible amount of content -- more movies than I can watch before my battery runs out and more songs than I could listen to in a year," she said.

Even though some storage card vendors believe Google and others are trying to capture users in a closed-cloud storage ecosystem that benefits Google, the company doesn't require users to rely on Google Drive cloud storage -- or any Google product -- to take advantage of the cloud, the spokeswoman said. Netflix, Hulu, Dropbox and many other storage products are supported by Android, she said, and "let users connect to a virtually infinite amount of content."

In setting up its Nexus products this way, "Google realizes what Apple understood long ago [with the iPad]: Most people aren't that interested in using these expansion slots and they can negatively impact design, cost and usability," said IDC analyst Tom Mainelli.

After the iPad first took the tablet market by storm in 2010, competing vendors tried to find ways to differentiate themselves, Mainelli reasoned. "So they put in USB ports, HDMI ports and [storage] expansion slots," he said. "In many ways, I think the slots are a throwback to expectations people had around their PCs and the need for additional storage and more inputs/outputs."

Some customers do demand storage expansion and other slots, but mainstream tablet users "are rapidly moving away from them," Mainelli said. "People use their tablets differently than they use their PCs, and cloud storage is definitely part of this evolution. Smartphone usage impacts this, too.

"Dramatically fewer people need to get an image off a storage card in a camera and into their tablet, since most of that is happening through services like online photo sharing sites, such as Facebook and iCloud," he said.

IDC analyst Ryan Reith said that while storage expansion slots in tablets may have been at one time a major threat to enterprise security, some companies are installing system-wide mobile management software that can disable external storage.

Even so, some companies have to devise stop-gap measures to prevent workers or visitors from using expansion slots, like putting tape over the slots, Mainelli said.

Samsung defended its use of SD card slots, which show up in Galaxy Tab 3 tablets, as well as Galaxy Tab 2 devices and the Galaxy Note phablets. "Samsung has actually offered expanded storage through SD card slots for a while now," a spokeswoman said. "We want to offer consumers the additional space for storage."

Microsoft didn't respond to a request for comment on its use of storage slots in Windows 8 tablets, including its own Surface Pro and Surface RT machines. Mainelli expects both Microsoft and Samsung to continue to offer a storage expansion slot as a way to differentiate their hardware.

"Microsoft's motivation [for storage expansion slots] is that they are really driving people to use their tablets as both a PC when they want and a tablet when they want," Mainelli said. Meanwhile, Samsung makes many tablets and other products in different sizes and with different features, meaning some future devices will have expansion slots while others don't.

In a recent TV advertisement, Dell compares its 32GB XPS 10 tablet (running Windows RT and selling for $399 at the moment) to an iPad with the same storage and a $599 price tag. The ad calls attention to the iPad's inability to take an SD card since it has no SD card slot, unlike the XPS 10.

Mainelli isn't sure how important the SD card slot will remain for Microsoft. He's one of many analysts concerned about slow sales for Windows RT tablets, although that may be due more to its operating system than the hardware.

"A small percentage of buyers want a storage expansion slot," Mainelli said.

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, offered a contrary view. "I don't believe local storage [and SD cards] are going away anytime soon," he said. "Vendors that don't have an SD expansion slot on their devices are using the cloud as a way to spin for why they don't have the slot."

Gold said as a practical matter that users are not going to want to store too many data-laden movies in the cloud, and possibly pay for that service. "Not everything will end up in the cloud," he said. "Why do I want to store a bunch of films I am going to view on my flight to California in the cloud? I'd rather simply side load them through the expansion slot. To my way of thinking, that's a lot easier than waiting for a cloud upload/download session. "

"So, not everything should go into the cloud -- only the stuff I deem important enough to store long term and don't have to pay for or doesn't make it painful to download," Gold added.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said consumer tablet buyers will prefer having an SD card slot as long as the tablet doesnt become too thick to accommodate it. So, there can be trade-offs with other tablet features.

Who's right? The storage expansion slot debate will continue for some time.

This article, Tablet storage: Do you really need an expansion slot?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Read more about data storage in Computerworld's Data Storage Topic Center.

This story, "Tablet storage: Do you really need an expansion slot?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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