'Actual Formatted Capacity Less'

Today, I dipped my toes in an ongoing Twitter conversation regarding how Apple advertises hard drive capacity for its devices. The catalyst for this particular issue was that a brand new iPhone, advertised as a 64GB device, in actuality only has around 55GB of space available to the user out of the box. As a former Apple employee, I've heard this complaint before, as well as numerous claims that Apple is "falsely advertising" the capacity of its devices.

The problem with that statement is that Apple is not falsely advertising anything. In fact, all hardware manufacturers follow this same standard when advertising the hard drive space of their products. If Apple lists an iPhone as 64GB, then that phone does actually have a 64GB hard drive in there. However, there are a couple things to take into account:

  1. Apple, like all other companies, uses the hard drive manufacturer's decimal defintion: 1GB = 1 billion bytes (or 1,000MB). Software, however, uses the binary defintion: 1GB = 1,073,741,824 bytes (or 1,024MB). So in the case of a 64GB phone, the actual formatted capacity, according to the operating system, would be 62.5GB. (Update: Reader Adrian Godoy points out that my math is off, and that the actual formatted capacity would come out to 59.6GB.)

  2. Apple, like all other companies, includes an operating system and other software on their devices. All of the cool things that make an iPhone an iPhone (like 3D Touch, Siri, Apple Pay, live photos, not to mention the ability to send an iMessage or make a phone call) are software included in the operating system. Depending on their complexity, each feature requires a certain amount of space. Ultimately, the collection of everything that makes your iPhone more than just a $750 brick of aluminum and glass needs to be included on the device in one form or another. So Apple pre-installs this software on the 64GB hard drive in your phone so you can do things like pull it out of your pocket and say, "Hey, Siri, tweet @tim_cook: Why are you falsely advertising the storage space on your products?"

With these two things in mind, Apple knows full well that the space immediately available to the user will be significantly less than what is listed–for simplicity's sake–on their site, which is why they clearly state in the marketing materials for all of their devices:

 
 
 
 

Apple never claims for a second that what you're getting is a device with the full capacity of its hard drive made available to you. They're actually extremely forthcoming with this information. A lot of other companies do provide similar statements to stave off the occassional frivolous lawsuit, but it's typically buried in some support document somewhere, using obtuse legalese we've all grown accustomed to when reading terms and conditions. Not Apple, though. Their fine print is clearly listed on the same page as the device itself. They even offer a more in-depth explanation of storage capacities that is written in plain language. Easy to read.

(It's also important to take a moment and note that Apple is far more efficient with how much space their operating systems and included software take up compared to a lot of other companies'. When you look at the percentage of space available in a new Apple device versus, say, a new Microsoft Surface–which was famously advertised with 32GB of storage, only to have about 16GB of actual usable space (don't even get me started on the 500GB Xbox One only offerring 362 actual GBs on which for me to install 60+ GB games)–you start to appreciate the restraint from the folks in Cupertino.)

"Fine. I get all that, but the least Apple could do is clearly advertise the actual formatted space alongside the full capacity of the hard drive."

This is an argument I saw, and it seems like a reasonable enough expectation at first glance. But let's consider how unrealistic this would be in practice.

Each model of Apple device, depending on configuration, all sport different actual formatted capacities. The 64GB 6s will have a different amount of space than that of the 64GB 6s Plus, for example. Which means Apple would have to calculate and list each device's capacity individually.

"So what?"

Sure, probably not a big deal there. You know, aside from the aesthetically displeasing block of explanatory text that accompanies the capacity of every single product they sell. Apple could easily do this.

However, a much bigger problem arises when we start to consider when these devices are actually being sold. At launch, the iPhone 6s came pre-installed with iOS 9. Even though iOS 9 was officially replaced by iOS 9.0.1 a week after its initial launch, I assume the vast majority of iPhone 6s devices sold over this past weekend still only had iOS 9 installed. This is all due to the fact that QA, packaging, and shipping tens of millions of devices takes considerable time. They can't possibly keep them all up to date.

Now, off the top of my head, I don't know the difference in available storage capacity between devices with iOS 9 and those with its subsequent update. I'm sure it's negligible. Still something to take into account.

A better example would be the iPhone 6, which–if you bought one new in lieu of an iPhone 6s due to the lowered price–would most likely still be on iOS 8.4.1, because they were packaged and shipped before iOS 9's release. Depending on stock levels, you could potentially buy an iPhone 6 with 8.4.1 weeks after iOS 9 released. There's no guarantee that the phone you purchase will come pre-installed with the latest version of iOS.

At that point, how does Apple go about advertising the actual formatted capacity? After all, the space available could vary greatly between purchasing the device when it's on iOS 8.4.1 and when you ultimately upgrade to iOS 9.0.1. If you even upgrade at all.

If they go based on the actual formatted capacity of the device with the latest version of iOS it supports, Apple actually would be falsely advertising the out-of-the-box available capacity for phones that hadn't yet been upgraded before shipping. Accounting for these factors, It's wholly unreasonable to expect Apple, or any other company for that matter, to jump through ridiculous hoops to specify the exact amount of formatted storage capacity for a particular device they sell. With the plethora of configurations and the ongoing changes made with each software update, the feasability of precisely providing such information is slim to nil. In this case, it's actually more accurate for Apple to rely on the simple fine print: 1GB = 1 billion bytes. Actual formatted capacity less.

And we're just talking about how impossible it would be for them to keep this information accurate on the website. Apple provides the same fine print on the back of each box of every device they sell. I'll spare you the argument surrounding the logistical nightmare of keeping all of the stickers printed and up-to-date.

Companies put fine print in there for a reason, and it is expected that consumers make a reasonable attempt at reading such information. It's there to protect both parties. Apple's method is perfectly acceptable, and, truly, the more honest way of doing things. I'm not alone in thinking this. Apple has been sued before over this issue. For iPods and for iPhones. The courts have yet to disagree with their handling of the storage situation. Hell, even Microsoft was sued over the Surface's usable storage. That case was ultimately dismissed.

The fact is that, in this case, there's no false advertising whatsoever with regards to storage capacity of gadgets. The reality of the technological landscape today is that consumers are expected to understand that they're not just merely buying pocketable hard drives. These are fully-fledged computers that rely on software to provide amazing services. There's an intrinsic acceptance of this when you purchase them.

Demanding a company to conform to some unreasonable expectation that completely deviates from the previously established standards–standards that have been around for decades–is absurd, regardless of the logo on the back of the gadget.