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.

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