Filed on Tuesday, a class action lawsuit claims that Apple is misrepresenting and falsely advertising how much storage is available in the iPhone and the iPad. Far be it from me to to defend on Apple on a situation like this, but the media covering this story has blown a fairly common practice wildly out of proportion. The filing itself reads like it was written by someone who lacks basic knowledge of math and technology.
This is a problem we’ve been dealing with since the advent of home computing. How do we accurately report how much space is on our device?
The main issue comes down to the discrepancy between advertising and how computers are actually programmed. To grossly over simplify, you are allowed to advertise a megabyte as being equal to 1 million bytes, and a gigabyte as being equal to 1 billion bytes. Makes sense right? All those metric-y words? This is known as “decimal notation”.
But that’s NOT how your computer utilizes storage. Your computer stores info via binary powers of 2. Your computer treats 1,048,576 as a megabyte and 1,073,741,824 as a gigabyte.
So if we do a little math, the outside of the box claims the iPhone has 16GB, in that it has sixteen billion bytes on board. But iOS will use that in binary compatible chunks. Those same 16 billion bytes will be reported to the operating system as 14.90 GB out of the box before you slap an OS on the device. Have a “32GB” phone? The OS will report that as 29.80GB when it’s totally empty.
The larger the pool of storage, the larger the chunk of data you lose via this advertising hijinkery. Have you cracked open a hard drive recently? Sure you can buy a box which claims to 4TB packed inside, but your computer will report that as 3.64TB. You didn’t “LOSE” this data, you did receive 4 trillion bytes, but your computer doesn’t use a storage device like that. It has to cluster them, so it looks like you’ve lost some 360GB, when you haven’t.
This practice is so common that pretty much every hard drive and flash memory manufacturer has some link in their respective FAQ’s that explains this very phenomenon. Here’s Seagate’s for example.
The chart being used in this class action suit is conflating the difference between decimal notation (1MB = 1,000,000 bytes) and binary notation (1MB = 1,048,576 bytes) to make it look like Apple is trying to do something nefarious, and to make it look like iOS has eaten up significantly more space than it actually has.
If we want to talk about bloat, I think Samsung customers have more reason to complain as the first batch of “16GB” Galaxy S5’s were delivered with less than 10 binary gigabytes available to the user depending on carrier. Samsung took more than 30% of the available storage for the OS, pre-installed apps, and partition.
What I hate most about this situation is that it forces me to defend Apple here. We do have an issue with how products are advertised, and it’s a problem we’ve had since the first storage devices were built into PC’s. What’s not going to help us explain this situation to consumers is screwing up the math being used to demonstrate the problem.
The problem here isn’t with Apple being “stingy”. It’s with an entire industry and how it advertises its products.