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How does Windows RT gobble up 13GB of storage on the Microsoft Surface?

Surface tablet storage microsoft surface windows rtLast week, information about the Surface RT tablet’s usable space (or lack of it) was brought to the public’s attention through the FAQ published to Microsoft’s website. Contained in the page are two controversial pieces of information. First is the gap between advertised storage space and actual space available to the user. Second  - and most alarming – is the amount of space occupied by the Windows RT operating system, Office apps, and recovery sector. To further explore both issues we decided to compare the logistics of Microsoft’s Surface RT to its contemporaries, the Nexus 7 from Google and Apple’s iPad. 

Advertised storage versus usable storage

Let’s start with the difference between perceived storage size and actual usable storage. Though the advertised disk space for the two versions of Surface RT is 32GB and 64GB, respectively, the formatted space is a little less. In the case of the 32GB version, the actual disk space is closer to 29GB. Microsoft explains this disparity in storage size in the FAQ:

“The advertised local disk size is shown using the decimal system, while Windows displays the disk size using the binary system. As a result, 1 GB (in decimal) appears as about 0.93 GB (in binary). The storage capacity is the same, it’s just shown differently depending on the how you measure a GB (decimal or binary).”

This also means the 64GB Surface RT tablet actually clocks in at 58GB. However, this difference in quoted storage and actual storage isn’t exclusive to Microsoft products. Apple’s mobile devices like the iPad have similar differences. Apple offers this disclaimer on its iPad product page, “1GB = 1 billion bytes; actual formatted capacity less.”

As you may have guessed already, Android devices are not exempt from this either. The purchase page for Google’s Nexus 7 states that “actual formatted capacity will be less.” Neither Google nor Apple delve into the details behind this with the same depth as Microsoft — something the company should be respected for — but it’s worth noting that all three companies do acknowledge the gaps. 

Space reserved for operating systems

Then there is the Surface RT’s rather large chunk of storage spoken for by RT and Office. The official numbers, as posted by Microsoft, have 5GB used for recovery tools and 8GB reserved for Office applications and Windows RT. Together that’s a total of 13GB out of the box. This leaves only 16GB for user storage, since the true capacity of a 32GB Surface tablet is actually 29GB — a stipulation we’ll get to later.  

It’s true that the Surface RT offers more functionality and potential for productivity than a tablet running iOS or Android, but those operating systems are still incredibly svelte in contrast. For instance, the iPad has less than 3GB taken up by iOS out of the box. Android takes up roughly the same amount of space. This means that buying an iOS or Android device with 32GB of storage translates to approximately 29GB of free space. 

It does not really matter that you can install up to 64GB of additional storage to the Surface via microSD or attach an external hard drive to offload large files. It may make the pill easier to swallow, but it’s not a replacement for saving files to the device’s built-in solid state drive. Both iOS and Android are able to pack system files into extremely small packages and Microsoft needs to make Windows RT competitive in that respect. It might be a lot to ask, especially with the added functionality like file hierarchies and support for hundreds of USB peripherals, but Microsoft could start by cutting ties to the nearly useless desktop environment. 

Windows RT’s size is anything but typical

Now that we have a more complete picture of how storage space is handled by each of technology’s giants, it’s hard to feel anything but confusion over Microsoft’s humongous Windows RT installation. Compared to iOS and Android’s relatively pint-sized operating systems, Windows RT and Office consuming almost half of the total storage on the Surface tablet is a big problem. 

It’s true that the Surface’s 32GB version – actually closer to 16GB – is priced identically to the 16GB iPad with Wi-Fi, but it still feels wrong to mislead customers in that way. If approximately 16GB is available for user storage then that should be the number advertised. Our hope is that Microsoft can drastically trim down Windows RT or Office (or both) through further optimization and future updates. Otherwise, it may be time to change the official marketing to reflect actual facts.