Adoptable storage on Android: What is it and why does it matter?

Then

For those of us who have obsessed over Android for quite some time, just as is the case today with the current generation of devices from Google, the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, Google’s devices back then were what most of us desired but either couldn’t access them or afford them in instances where access wasn’t a problem.

Back then, those devices fell under the Nexus lineup which has since been retired in favour of the Pixel lineup we have today – and still, probably, can’t afford. Sigh. Hello, Android One and Android Go.

The one thing anyone from that era can confirm is that Google, the custodian of the platform we all love and enjoy, has never been a fan of external storage. For good reason.

When talking about storage expansion options for Android devices, external storage options, like microSD cards, come top of the list. However, the introduction of such devices means that the mobile operating system, swarmed as it is with other requests, also has to handle their demands. This has an impact on the kind of performance that a user gets at the end of the day. As such, with the various options available when it comes to external storage options and the lack of an assured, standard performance rate, nothing is guaranteed. A device maker can’t ascertain its users when it comes to the type of experience they get.

Google’s solution back then? Restrict external storage options on its Nexus devices. The trend continues to date but, thanks to advances in technology – there are some pretty fast cards out there – may not be much a concern as it was 6 years ago.

While Google was still handling its end of the bargain, some of us weren’t really concerned with the speeds but rather how much storage we could hoard.  I mean, you’d do the same if your “costly” 2011 Kshs 12,000 Samsung Galaxy mini only packed 160 megabytes of internal storage, right?

Link2SD was our main weapon after exhausting the options made available by Android 2.2 Froyo like moving apps to external storage. Not only was that not enough due to the obvious – system apps, which were quite a number, being limited to internal storage – but those of us who had gotten into the habit of flashing custom firmware simply needed more. Link2SD allowed us to run simple user scripts that made the system allow our memory cards to be accepted as internal storage.

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That was 7-8 years ago and, if a month in mobile tech is like a decade then what about what is essentially a real decade?

The present

Back in 2015, with the arrival of Android 6.0, Marshmallow, came an interesting feature: adoptable storage.

Adoptable storage was Google’s way of letting Android device users add more storage to their devices in a more meaningful way. Instead of the usual arrangement where external storage is treated as just that, external storage (a more accurate term today is “portable storage”), with adoptable storage, it got to be treated as internal storage.

Here is where it gets interesting. You see, normally, any external storage medium is usually treated as a separate storage, and rightly so, and only used for specified functions. In this case, that means mostly multimedia content (photos, videos, music) that a user moves to it and, in instances where the user specifies so for a specific app in the settings app of an Android device, only non-private data and limited app data gets stored.

What this means is that no matter how large the memory card is (HMD Global’s budget Nokia smartphones, for instance, allow users to insert 400GB microSD cards), whatever they are trying to avoid (i.e. filling up the meagre onboard storage) still happens.

That is where Android’s adoptable storage feature comes in.

With adoptable storage, such problems as the internal storage getting filled up, become a distant rumour. This is because one’s internal storage then becomes dictated by the sheer size of the microSD card that they are willing to insert in their device and not the storage it shipped with.

How adoptable storage works is such that the selected external storage medium gets treated as part and parcel of the device’s internal storage. This is achieved by initially formatting the memory card or stick using the ext4 file system (instead of the usual FAT32) and encrypting it so that it matches the integrity of the other partition.

When external storage media is adopted, it’s formatted and encrypted to only work with a single Android device at a time. Because the media is strongly tied to the Android device that adopted it, it can safely store both apps and private data for all users.

After the completion of the process, which can always be initiated through Settings > Storage, when a microSD card is already inserted, one gets a bump in their internal storage capacity which is always a good thing. The more storage the better, right?

One more thing: adoptable storage is not limited to just microSD cards. It works even for memory sticks. So, say you have an Android box that has support for adoptable storage, you can bump up the internal storage available so that you can download a couple more games and whatnot, by simply plugging in a flash drive. In fact, unlike in most phones where one is never prompted to format the inserted external storage to become adoptable storage media, that happens automatically on devices like Android boxes. Particularly ones that are powered by Android TV (yes, there is a difference).

Heck, even USB OTG (on the go) devices can be used as adoptable storage. Good luck walking around with a flash drive sticking out of the bottom of your phone as you make a phone call or snap a photo. Worse off, getting the damn device charged.

The only downside to adoptable storage, and probably the only reason why you may need to pause for a moment and consider if it is something that you want to do is that once a microSD card or flash drive has been “adopted” as an internal storage medium then there’s no going back. It can no longer be ejected and used for other purposes (like, say, transferring files from another device). It becomes dedicated and removing it results in lots of system errors. Nothing that can’t be fixed, though (this is Android, after all) unless in very unlikely and extreme scenarios. Still, users can follow simple procedures to reverse the process.

The future

Look at look at the new Samsung Galaxy S10 and the several variations it is available in. That, already tells us a thing or two about the future of features like Android’s adoptable storage: they’re endangered.

The S10’s base storage is a whopping 128GB. Elsewhere, on devices like the Xiaomi Mi A2, the microSD card slot has been edged out completely.

As memory chip prices keep going down and media consumption habits go up, device makers are being pressed to release devices that have more and more memory. Today, at least in the Kenyan market, 32GB onboard storage is almost a standard for budget devices. Others, like Huawei’s Y9 2019, even have double that (64GB) straight out of the box, more than enough for most users. Heck, Infinix’s new smartphone is only available locally in its 128GB variation. Which buyer of either of those devices is going to bother fumbling around to buy a microSD card and activate adoptable storage?

This is why it is interesting that there are reports that Samsung, after years of never supporting the feature on its heavily modified version of Android, is bringing it to its Galaxy smartphones with the One UI that is built on top of Android 9 Pie.

Adoptable storage may have a future in devices like media streamers like the Xiaomi Mi Box and the NVIDIA Shield whose main undoing is the limited storage they ship with.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com