How much storage do you really have available on your tablet?

A California lawyer is suing Microsoft Corp., claiming the Surface tablet he bought doesn't have all the storage space the company advertised. Welcome to the American thirst for high-profile law suits with questionable value or merit.

The basis of Andrew Sokolowski claim is that he bought a Surface with 32 gigabytes of storage. Andrew quickly ran out of space after loading it with music and Microsoft Word documents. So let me rewind here, he used the device, filled it with applications and content and maxed out the device's storage to capacity. This doesn't sound like anything too shocking.

The lawyer discovered that a significant portion of the 32 GB storage space was being used by the operating system and pre-installed apps such as Word and Excel. This left only 16 GB of storage available for his additional content and applications.


This raises an interesting issue that is unique to Microsoft's tablet technology. The Surface operating system (Windows RT) uses a large chunk of the storage for it's monstrous operating system and applications.

To make matters worse, Microsoft has built a transitional Surface tablet that runs Windows 8 on Intel processor technology. There is a second tablet that uses the Windows RT operating system designed for the ARM processor and only runs applications specifically designed to work on the new tablet operating system. The Windows RT Surface tablet cannot use older applications that were designed for devices with an Intel chip inside.

The transitional Windows 8 tablet built with Intel processors looks like a traditional tablet but really is a lower battery life, hotter running, thicker, heavier version. Microsoft is advertising the Surface tablet running Windows 8 as a true tablet but it really is not a tablet that users have come to expect based on innovations by Google and Apple. Apple and Google have tablets that were re-engineered from the ground up to be tablets and use the efficient and fast ARM processor, not older Intel technology that is not designed to perform adequately in mobile devices like tablets. This Windows 8 tablet is a bridging device for users who need productivity apps on their tablets that are not currently available on the Windows RT version of the Surface tablet because these applications need to be completely rewritten to work on these tablets.

Sokolowski's lawyers filed the suit alleging false advertising and unfair business practices. It is a class action suit. The goal of the suit is to change how Microsoft advertises its device. Microsoft has many resources to throw at this law suit and in a statement Microsoft stated that it believes the suit is without merit.

"Customers understand the operating system and pre-installed applications reside on the device's internal storage thereby reducing the total free space," the company said. It noted that people can add storage via the microSD slot and USB port. microSD is only available on the 4th generation iPad or later.


Microsoft does clearly state on their website that the 32 GB Surface has 16 GB of free space while the 64 GB version has 45 GB free.

The industry is using some interesting trickery to falsely advertise storage space on their devices. Flash drives and regular hard drives provide less usable memory than their labels say, mainly because there are two definitions of the word 'gigabyte.' Consumers get about 7 per cent less storage space than advertised. A 16 GB drive, for example, has about 15 GB available storage space.

With flash drives that are used in tablets, another factor reduces the available storage even more. A portion of the memory space is set aside to replace flash storage 'cells' that wear out over time. For this reason, Apple's 16 GB iPad has an actual storage capacity that's 11 per cent lower than the one advertised: 14.3 GB. The 64 GB model stores 57.2 GB.

On the iPad, all the storage space after the 11 per cent 'discount' is available for the user's photos, movies and apps. The operating system and Apple's pre-installed apps have their own, separate memory space. Microsoft's tablet operating system and apps, in contrast, share an equal amount of memory space with the user.

The industry is in an educational game with customers to help them understand what these storage numbers and specs mean. In my opinion it makes sense to clearly state the actual amount of usable storage space that the users can fill with their own content and apps so they have realistic idea of what they have to work with.

The problem with this approach is that users may perceive the low-end devices, with less storage, as being impractical to use on a daily basis due to their limited storage availability. This will render the entry-level devices obsolete as users realize they have very little real storage to work with. The value proposition will be completely obliterated for the entry-level devices and companies will be forced to increase the storage on their low-end devices. Tablet manufacturers will have to eat the additional cost of storage because the price point will still need to remain low for these entry-level devices.

Microsoft has consistently informed users that there would be less memory available than is advertised. Analysts believe that it is not a shock that Microsoft's new operating system, with a near fully-featured version of Office, will take up a large percentage of the Surface tablet's memory. Analysts are well-versed in technology but the average user may still need some education to understand these realities.

To put things in perspective, even if Microsoft's base-model Surface has 16 GB of memory available, that is actually slightly more than the 14.3 GB you'll get from the latest Wi-Fi only iPad for the same $499 price-tag. To make matters worse, on the iPad you will need to install the Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps from iTunes App Store which takes up additional iPad storage while the Surface has these Office productivity apps already factored into the used storage space.