Android and the SD card

A weird history of love, hate, convenience and profit margins.

If you’ve ever ventured into the deeps of the comments of youtube, twitter, reddit or wherever people discuss wether Android phones are better or worse than the iPhone, chances are you’ve read about the advantages of having SD cards in your phone.

SD cards are used in two ways, for the most part: storing and transferring multimedia files, and piracy.

They’re cheap, convenient, and an alternative to “the cloud” whenever privacy, security, connectivity, price or a combination thereof is a concern.

Google’s push for no SD cards on their Nexus line made many believe, myself included, that external storage was on their way out on Android devices, if not on Google’s Android altogether, sooner or later. Amazon’s Kindle Fire phone and tablets have no SD either. Turns out, despite whatever Google’s plans for the future Android actually are, that’s not the case. Let’s look at the data.

SD card presence by year

As we can observe, the SD cards where going away, until a rebound in 2013. What if is a tier thing? Lets look at it by end-user price.

Is it the price?

First, a clarification: I defined “Low tier” devices as free and unlocked that are sold at less than the equivalent of 200$, “Mid tier” goes from there to ~400$, and “High tier” from there up.

So, having the data, we see that there’s a trend, SD cards are almost ubiquitous on the low-tier, drops to 9 of 10 in the mid-tier, and to 7 of 10 in the high-tier.

Why is that? Low tier devices, both tablets and phones, are sold worldwide, but make the most in countries with worse connectivity, more multimedia piracy, and those users prefer SD cards on them.

SD cards are cheaper (but slower) than main storage, so the OEM can sold the device at a lower price point when assuming that most of the customers will already have a SD, and also, will prefer the SD card method for external storage. This is a win-win situation for customers and manufacturers.

Just the tablets?

Most low-cost tablets sold around the world are just an overkill OS (Android) with the simplest specs inside that allow for multimedia consumption. Turns out, those “Portable Media Players” of 10 years ago where just too expensive and too small.

Having that in mind, it’s no surprise that almost all low/mid-cost tablets have SD cards in them, despite only a quarter of the high-tier tablets released in the last 18 months have external storage.

Windows Phone

For a comparison, another licensed OS, we see the same trends. 87,4% of the devices released in the last 18 months with Windows Phone released, only high-tier models lacked SD card. They’re so few we can name it all: Lumia Icon/930, Lumia 1020, Lumia 925 and Lumia 928.


Looking by brands takes us to the final point.


External storage in an Android phones mainly follow a mixed price/policy strategy. The “manufacturers” having the most to lose from outside media consumption and app-piracy (Amazon & Google) have banished the option on their devices, but most of the low-cost-only manufacturers as Karbonn or Micromax have gone all in with external storage.

About the author

Alex Barredo analyses the mobile industry at @somospostpc.

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