Why Microsoft Deserves to be Sued Over Surface RT Tablet Storage

A California attorney is suing Microsoft because the 32GB Surface RT tablet he purchased actually has closer to 16GB of available storage. CIO.com blogger James A. Martin, who also owns a Surface tablet, says the lawyer is right to sue Microsoft. Here's why.

A California attorney is suing Microsoft because the Surface RT tablet he bought only gives him 16GB of storage instead of the advertised 32GB, according to news reports in USA Today and other outlets.

Microsoft Surface tablet

Microsoft’s response? In a statement sent to USA Today, the company said the suit is without merit. "Customers understand the operating system and pre-installed applications reside on the device's internal storage thereby reducing the total free space," Microsoft said. The statement also noted that consumers can add storage using the microSD slot and USB port.

The fact that’s there’s a gap between the storage promised and actually delivered is hardly breaking news. Those of us who have bought tablets, computers and smartphones for years are accustomed to being shortchanged. In fact, I never expect to get the promised storage capacity—or the battery life, for that matter.

And yet, I was truly surprised when, a day or so after buying a 33GB Surface RT tablet last week, I discovered only 16GB of its storage was actually available to me. Seriously? Only half?

Microsoft’s Surface RT specs page states the tablet is available in 32GB and 64GB capacities, and that “formatted storage capacity may be less.” You must visit this Surface disk space FAQ page to get the whole story, which states that the 32GB gives users “approximately 16GB free hard disk space” while those who buy the 64GB Surface will actually get about 45GB of space to use.

To its credit, Microsoft details on the FAQ page what happened to the MIA storage. For example, for the 32GB Surface RT, the total disk size as reported by Windows is 29GB. Microsoft goes on to explain this in a footnote: “The advertised local disk size is shown using the decimal system, while Windows displays the disk size using the binary system. As a result, 1GB (in decimal) appears as about 0.93GB (in binary). The storage capacity is the same, it's just shown differently depending on the how you measure a GB (decimal or binary).”

That certainly clears everything up, doesn’t it?

The Surface RT disk space page goes on to explain that 5GB are reserved for Windows recovery tools. Built-in apps (including Windows RT and Microsoft Office) consume another 8GB. That brings the grand total to 16GB of free space. 

At least Microsoft is going further than some other vendors to explain the storage discrepancy, even if you have to dig for the information. Apple’s iPad and iPad mini specs pages state in footnotes that “actual formatted capacity less” for the 16GB, 32GB and 64GB tablets.  I looked but didn’t find a more detailed breakdown on Apple’s website.

Similarly, Google’s Nexus 7 tablet specs page offers only this: “16GB or 32GB internal storage (actual formatted capacity will be less).”

And if you scroll toward the bottom of Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 7-inch tablet product page, you’ll find its technical details. For storage, Amazon specifies that you have two options: “16GB internal storage (approximately 12.6GB available for user content) or 32GB internal storage (approximately 26.9GB available for user content).” Kudos to Amazon for being so specific right on the product page.

Unfortunately, most vendors are not completely transparent about the storage space consumers actually get. Should they be? Absolutely. They should be more specific on the product page, without forcing consumers to dig into support FAQ pages. Vendors should be more explicit about actual available storage on product packaging, too. My 32GB iPad (third generation) box simply states in a tiny footnote “formatted capacity less,” while my 32GB Surface RT tablet’s box has a larger, more legibile footnote: “formatted storage capacity less.” Would it have been that challenging for Apple or Microsoft to state instead the approximate user-available storage capacity?

A difference of 1 or 2GBs between what you expect to get and what’s actually available doesn’t feel like a huge deal. But getting only 16GB when you paid for a 32GB tablet? That’s another matter entirely—one I’m glad the California attorney has raised. After all, if vendors aren’t taken to task for this practice through a class-action lawsuit, government mandates or the pressure of a consumer advocacy group, they’ll likely continue to give us, in storage if not in other specs, less than what we were promised. 

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