What's Eating Your iPhone Storage Space?

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Kelly Heffner Wilkerson

Categories: iPhone, iTunes | View Comments

The big news this week is a class-action lawsuit against Apple for misrepresenting the storage capacity for 8GB and 16GB iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches. As someone who has written and discarded a handful of "disk cleaner" type programs, this pokes me in the right spot to want to talk about the current state of iOS disk space issues, and of course, help you (as best I can) do something about them. So without further ado...

What is all of this "Other" space?

Great question! On my shiny new iPhone 6+, I currently have 3.45GB used in the "Other" category.

The best way I can categorize the "other" space is settings files and various cached files. From my own research on ballooning other space since iOS8 (which my son's iPad suffers from), I believe that most of the problem lies in cached files that don't get cleaned up properly, such as partially downloaded apps from the App Store1. I'm fairly positive that the references to these files are lost by the programs that need to clean them up, in fact.

So how do you free up all of this other space? The only way I currently know of is to make a backup, wipe your iPhone, and then restore your backup2. I also know that iOS backups can be buggy and broken so I want to add some advice/instructions for this!

  • Don't get impatient while iTunes is backing up and hit cancel buttons, force quit iTunes, or anything like that.

  • Don't decide that this is a great moment to change your backup password. (If you cannot help yourself, delete the existing backup and make a whole new one fresh.)

  • If you can, enable iCloud backup (and make one) as well, just so you have two backups.

  • If you want to have your email and wifi passwords saved in the backup, it needs to be an encrypted backup. Do not check the encryption check box while iTunes is already backing up your device; wait until the current backup finishes. Also see above comment about not hitting cancel anywhere.

  • If iTunes asks if you want to back up apps, say yes! (This is how iTunes installs the apps back onto the device in that first sync after the restore.)

I drink my own Kool-Aid, so to speak, so while I was writing all of the above I made a backup, wiped my iPhone (using Settings -> Reset -> Erase all Contents and Settings), and then restored my fresh encrypted backup. I now have 2.81 GB used under the "Other" category, and I should note that the figures didn't adjust in iTunes until after that first sync after the restore completed, so be patient and let that sync happen.

How much space do I really have available?

On a 64GB iPhone at the time I wrote this (January 2014) iOS reserves about 7-8GB of storage space for system files, leaving me with a device capacity of 55.70GB listed in iTunes. My one comment on this so far is that hardware needs an operating system to run software, this has always been true, and that operating system usually resides on the primary storage of the computer. I will immediately also add that I could see how losing half of your storage to iOS8 is irritating and excessive. When you combine the issues above (especially the cache purging other-space issue) with the shortage of space, it really gets irritating.

Settings -> Usage Says I have A Lot of Data Used in Text Messages, But I Erased Them All!

If you're like me, your current iPhone is rocking data you've been backing up and transferring to new devices since iOS3. Up until sometime in 2014, there was a bug in the text message app that (most of the time) didn't delete the picture/video/attachment files when you deleted texts. You likely still have files sitting there taking up space that you can't see and can't delete. If you're interested in finding out how much space you have in undeleted text-message attachments, shoot us an email. I have a little program that will evaluate this in your backups. I'm trying to decide if it's worth releasing a program to clean it (and stuff like it) up, and knowing that this problem affects a lot of people certainly helps us prioritize our projects!

But Wait, There's More!

I just realized I have a lot more to write about this topic, so I'll be making a few more posts over the coming days. If you have questions, especially about your own disk space issues, write us a note in the comments so we can address them!

  1. I think I'd bore most readers going through the details of this, like automatic app syncing overflowing the hard drive and then ballooning the other space, but if someone at Apple wants to talk to me about it, just shoot us an email! 

  2. Given how many broken backups I've seen, telling anyone to wipe their phone makes me a little queasy.