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Nexus: Learning to Live Without an SD Card

While Apple users are quite used to (and apparently content with) not having a microSD card slot on their phones and tablets, a lot of Android users consider it a God-given right. Unfortunately, the latest (and greatest) devices coming out seem to be bereft of removable storage solutions. This includes the beloved Nexus line from Google and its affiliates.

In this article, we’ll examine the hows and whys of this phenomenon, then we’ll help you cope with the loss – which just doesn’t give any indication of ever coming back.

The Real Cost of Adding Removable Storage

Those of us puzzled over the move by Google (and other vendors like Amazon with their Kindle Fire line) have trouble coming to terms with the apparent reason microSD storage isn’t put into these devices; added cost.

After all, how much can adding a microSD card slot really add to the overall price of the product? The answer is a bit deeper than you might think and spans three areas of discussion.

Hardware Cost

The competition in the portable device market is fierce – and every penny counts when you’re moving hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of units. My research shows that in retail dollars, a microSD slot costs about $2.50. That’s raw material costs – and in quantity, surely they would be cheaper. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the cost is about $2 per unit for hardware and assembly. If Google sells one million Nexus 7 tablets, they are out $2M in profit. That’s not a small sum. The SD slot would roughly represent 1% of the cost of the unit.

There is also the “hidden” costs of support; give an end user another moving part and that has a negative effect on the “simplicity” factor which then in turn adds to support staff requirements.

Licensing Cost

Here is something a lot of people don’t consider. When you give someone a slot, they want to put a card in it. Without being able to control the content of the microSD card, they have to worry about the wildcard factor of the OS the card was formatted with; FAT(16), FAT32, NTFS, etc.

Unfortunately, Microsoft holds the rights to many of the common formats – which means if Google wants to use them, they would have to pay for it. I was unable to find an exact price per unit that licensing costs but I’m sure it is enough to cut the profit margin down on competitively priced electronics. While open source projects exist to “get around” official licensing, Microsoft aggressively pursues questionable usage of its intellectual property in the file system world. Doing away with a removable card slot eliminates this headache and cost.

Reduction of Ecosystem Profit

Most people assume the reason that removable media isn’t part of the equation for devices coming from ecosystem giants like Google or Amazon – is because they don’t want you having space to store your own stuff. After all, if you can store your own media files like TV shows, movies and music, it might reduce your dependency on purchasing (or repurchasing) this content from your friendly neighborhood ecosystem like Amazon Video or Google Play.

I’d like to believe this too – I love a good conspiracy theory. I’m sure this is a nice “side bonus” of leaving the card slot off the devices, but in the end – I believe it is all down to costs; hard costs and soft costs.

Coping With The Loss

If you really think about it, 16GB isn’t too shabby. A well-compressed HD movie can be around 1GB. HQ music files are about 7MB each – that’s over 2200 songs. A very good quality TV show can be had for 350MB – that’s two full seasons of your favorite network show. Even the biggest games on Google Play’s store are 1.2GB or so with the average size being more like 20-50MB for a really graphically rich game.

That’s not good enough for some of us, though. We really need a means of removable or external storage – even if size isn’t the issue.

Fortunately, there are MANY ways to deal with the lack of storage space and depending on your particular needs you may be able to use one or many of these methods.

For a lot of folks, just the ability to store a file externally and retrieve a file externally does the job. For others, having a large repository of storage directly accessible to the Android’s file system is much more desirable. Fortunately, there are multiple ways of accomplishing either task.

Non-Root Methods

If you don’t have a rooted device and you’re not interested in doing so, there are still several things you can do.  I recommend it on Nexus devices – see my Five Reasons to Root here.

USB Cable

Sounds blatantly obvious, but many people do not realize they can simply plug a USB cable into their device – then plug it into a computer and access the file system. From there you can use your device like an external USB drive – copying files on and off as you see fit using Windows Explorer or similar file manager.

It is worth noting here that you’ll probably need to install some drivers and when it is connected to your computer it comes up as a “Media Device” – not a proper external drive.  This can cause your favorite file managers to respond oddly – but if you stick with Windows Explorer or the like, you’re probably ok.

“Air” Type Apps

If your device and computer are both on the same network, you can use one of dozens of apps to “remotely” access your device from your PC. Some are robust beyond words – like AirDroid – which gives you a full remote “webtop” to your device allowing you to not only copy files to and from, but also work with contacts, send/receive text messages and much more. There are other apps like File Expert that offer multiple ways to share over WiFi, including my favorite – via FTP. Searching Google Play for “wifi share” should give you plenty of free and paid options to select from.

Samba (SMB) / File Sharing

It is possible to access your local network computer’s shared folders using a Samba compatible file manager like File Expert, ES File Explorer and others (see my breakdown of file managers compared here. These file managers allow you to read and write files across the network to a computer with proper sharing. Many home network storage solutions such as the Seagate GoFlex have file sharing built in.

The biggest issue people have with this is that most media players will NOT stream video, music, etc. across SMB shares.  Unfortunately, this is what a lot of people really want to do; play large media files across wifi on their device.

OTG (read only)

You can use On The Go (OTG) technology with most Nexus devices. This allows you to plug in a compatible OTG cable with a USB reader that will allow you to access files on a removable media storage device such as SD, microSD, etc. Without a rooted device, you are limited to read only access (you cannot write files to the removable drive). Check out Nexus Media Importer if you just need read only. If you’re rooted, see below. For more information on OTG, see the second point in this article.

Root Methods

If you’re a rooted device owner, rejoice.  Part of the reason you rooted your device was to get freedom and enhanced features from your device.  It is about to pay off.


With a cheap OTG cable and a USB card reader (or even a USB flash drive), you have just solved your external storage issue. With a little program called Stickmount you can read and write just as you would expect to. The external storage gets added directly to the file system so you can use your favorite Android file manager to copy files to and from the device. Since the device is part of the file system proper (not some network resource like an “Air” share or SMB connection) you can use any app to access data – including streaming video and music from the device. This is a big deal, since most apps will NOT stream media from SMB shares or other “network access” methods. Of course, you have to carry the little dongle and card around with you, but if you get a short cable, tiny USB reader and use a microSD card? It almost looks like a little antenna sticking out and not a big added on rig up to the device.  (see a picture of my tiny cable, reader and microSD card)

If you’re on the go a lot and away from a friendly network most of the time – this is the single best solution.

CIFS Mounting

I’ve written an entire article on this, so I won’t go into great detail – but this is really the best overall solution if you spend most of your time near your own network. This allows you to take a network shared folder and MOUNT IT to the Android file system. Instead of being a “SMB share”, the device thinks it’s part of the file system proper. This means almost any app will happily work with the videos and other media. If you’re familiar with Windows drive mapping – it’s just like it. For more details – check out the article. It isn’t the easiest process, but you only have to do it once.

When people ask me, “What do YOU use?” – CIFS is my answer, with File Expert’s FTP sharing as a backup – and I obviously have an OTG cable solution on standby as well.

Of course, you’re strapped to the network to use this. If you’re out at the local coffee shop, wifi or not – you’re not going to be able to get access to your shares. Rule of thumb; if you’re home a lot, this is a great solution. If you’re on the go a lot, use the OTG cable solution above.

See?  It isn’t so bad!

When I got my Galaxy Nexus phone, I whined and complained as much as the next “fandroid” about the lack of an SD card; but I’ve never filled up the entire 32GB.  When the Nexus 7 was announced, I was also livid when there was no microSD card slot (and only 16GB?  Forget it.) – but honestly?  Thanks to these solutions – I’m quite content with not having a removable media slot anymore.  My reliance on ecosystems hasn’t increased, I have nearly unlimited, cheap  storage available pretty much anywhere I go and I haven’t had to sacrifice anything.

For those that spend most of their time with music playback and streaming, I suggest you take a look at my article on Subsonic.  Quite the solution for music on the go – and you have complete control.

Enjoy your new found freedom!

About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+

13 thoughts on “Nexus: Learning to Live Without an SD Card”

  1. Fabulous … they finally got the Nexus 4 back on the Play store; I was seriously thinking about it, but it turns out the N4 doesn’t support OTG! so it’s 8/16 GB AND NO MORE, thanksverymuch.

  2. Not good enough.

    1.If you have etc the Nexus 10 tablet(new model) it has a very good high res display… Putting 350mb low res video files on that thing would be a waste of good hardware. Bigger screen res sets higher requirement for storage. Low res material dosnt look good on high res displays – its better the other way around.

    2.Some might keep the 16gb tablet for more than a year…storage needs are known to go up as time passes

    3.Having some a usb cable hanging from the beautiful Nexus looks old fasioned and silly. Its like driving a Kawasaki Ninja in a cow boy outfit.

    4. All the stuff about “air” storage and having things mounted on drives and so on….its fine when ur at home or under constant wifi…Many people use tablet on the go as a travel mate, that obviously means they will not have wifi coverage all the time..Not good enough.

    On a phone 16gb should be more than enough for most. On a high res tablet ? No way, not even close.

    1. 1. With the latest H264 codecs? You can have full movies in well under a GB and look breathtaking. I stream them with Plex and it looks amazing.
      2. That’s why it makes more sense.
      3. That’s so 2012. Take a look at this. It LOOKS Ninja.

      Boss OTG

      4. Again, that picture you see above affords me an additional 32GB on top of my 16GB. Once I moved my backups, game roms and other bulky items to the SD? I have plenty of free space.

      I completely agree that 16GB isn’t enough for heavy media consumption. But I have a workable fix now 🙂

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