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How to survive an iPhone with only 16GB of storage

Whether you couldn't afford a pricier model or just misjudged how much storage you'd need, these tips can help you get by.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
6 min read

Good news: There are no more 16GB iPhones in Apple's lineup. Even the lowest-end iPhone SE and iPhone 6s SKUs come with 32GB, which, let's face it, is the bare minimum you need these days.

Of course, maybe you've already got an older model with just 16GB of space. Or you decided to hop on a blazingly good refurbished-iPhone deal (I recently saw an iPhone 6 for just $149) and now have to contend with that limited amount of storage.

Whatever the case, it's still possible to lead a normal and productive iPhone life. You'll just need to make a few adjustments, and maybe throw a few bucks at the problem.

1. Know your space hogs

With space at a premium, it's crucial you learn what's consuming the most of it so you can act accordingly. Here are the biggest offenders:

  • Photos and videos
  • Music and podcasts
  • Games

Needless to say, the more unnecessary apps and media you can delete, the more space you'll have for the stuff you do want. To get a precise snapshot of your iPhone's space hogs, tap the Settings app and then choose General > iPhone Storage. In a moment you'll see the likes of this:


iOS 11 offers a few new ways to free up space, including the option of offloading apps you don't use regularly.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Lara Croft Go takes 1.15GB?! And I hardly ever play it? Sorry, Lara -- you gotta, well, go. I can always download you again when the mood strikes. And that's a good thing to remember: You can install games and other apps on an as-needed basis; not everything requires permanent residence.

In fact, thanks to a new feature in iOS 11 , you can enable Offload Unused Apps to immediately free up space (when you're low on storage). Don't worry, your phone will keep any related documents and data for when you reinstall those apps.

On this same screen, iOS also lets you Review Large Attachments, a great way to quickly zero in on large photos, videos and email attachments. (If you find some you're willing to jettison, tap Edit, then choose the ones you want to delete.)

Finally, consider web-based alternatives to space-hogging apps. On my iPhone, for example, Facebook puts me in the hole by a little over 500MB. It's also a major battery hog, so deleting the app in favor of the browser version will help me on two fronts.

2. Consider your pixels

With every new iPhone, Apple touts higher-resolution sensors for capturing photos and videos. That's good news for quality, bad news for storage: More pixels means larger files.

The irony is that most of our photos get viewed on our phones or shared via Facebook or Instagram, where mammoth megapixel counts aren't necessary. Heck, even 1080p video is overkill for viewing on a phone or tablet; your mini-movies would look nearly as good (and consume less space) at 720p.


Downshifting your video-recording settings just a bit could save you a lot of space.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

To that end, consider venturing into Settings > Camera and tapping the Record Video option. If you were shooting at 4K or 1080p/60fps, try downshifting to 1080p/30fps or even 720p. Chances are good you won't notice much difference, but you will save a lot of storage.

Unfortunately, Apple's Camera app doesn't let you take lower-resolution photos. For that, look to third-party camera apps like perennial favorite Camera+.

3. Put the cloud to work

As noted above, photos and videos will fill up your 16GB faster than Taylor Swift fills a stadium. Fortunately, iOS can help: its Optimize iPhone Storage feature offloads your photos to your iCloud account, keeping "optimized" (read: lower-resolution) versions on your phone while storing the full-resolution originals online.

To enable this feature (which, in slightly vague terms, kicks in only "if your iPhone is low on space"), tap the Settings app, then your name and finally iCloud > Photos. Make sure your iCloud Photo Library is toggled on, then choose Optimize iPhone Storage. It may take some time before this optimization is complete, and it's hard to say what it'll net you, space-wise, but this is a helpful feature when you're out of room and desperately need to snap some photos.


Enabling Optimize iPhone Storage can free up a lot of space.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

One consideration, though: The free 5GB iCloud account Apple gives you will probably prove insufficient to house all your media. Fortunately, it's not expensive to expand that storage, with Apple charging 99 cents, 79p or AU$1.49 monthly for a tenfold increase (50GB).

Of course, if you're already paying for cloud storage elsewhere, apps such as Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive can sync your photos to your cloud account, allowing you to delete them outright from your iPhone. In fact, Flickr gives you a whopping 1TB of free storage for your iPhone Camera Roll.

When you deploy one of these apps, however, make sure you enable the "background upload" setting (which is usually disabled by default) so that photos get synced even when you're doing other things. Unfortunately, this option may require location services to be enabled for that app, which can impact battery life.

4. Try a magic trick

If you're so low on space you can barely even snap a photo, let alone install a new app or update iOS, there's a weird trick that might help you reclaim hundreds of megabytes, or even a few gigabytes.

In a nutshell, it works like this: You're going to try renting (and downloading) a movie that your phone doesn't have space for. Then you're going to try it again, and perhaps even a few more times. As evidenced by the reader comments in my original post, to say nothing of my own experience, this really works.

Why? Call it an oddity of iOS. A space oddity, if you will. (See what I did there?)

5. Add external storage


The SanDisk iXpand can add as much as 256GB of plug-in media storage to your space-strapped iPhone.


If only Apple would endow iPhones with memory-card slots. Fat chance of that ever happening! So if you want to offload space-hogging videos or carry around a large library of music and/or movies, you're sunk. Right?

Wrong. You can indeed add extra storage to an iPhone (or iPad ) -- it just has to be external. This can take the form of a plug-in drive (not unlike a USB flash drive) or a wireless media hub. Each has its own pros and cons.

Take the SanDisk iXpand, which plugs into your iPhone's Lightning port and wraps around the rear. It offers a fixed amount of storage -- anywhere from 16 to 256GB -- and features automated photo-backup, support for popular video formats and a USB 3.0 connector at the other end for fast transfers to or from your PC.

At press time, the 16GB model was selling for $30 (AU$39, £22) direct from SanDisk, though it was listed as out of stock. Fortunately, the 32GB model costs just $6 more, meaning you're effectively tripling your iPhone's total media storage for only $36.


The RavPower FileHub Plus is not just a wireless media hub, but also a travel router and mobile charger.


Of course, the iXpand (and products like it) leave a plug sticking out of your phone. If you don't want that added bulk, consider a wireless media hub: same idea, but with a Wi-Fi rather than Lightning connection.

For example, the Connect Wireless Stick (also from SanDisk) looks like a slightly overgrown flash drive, but doesn't need to plug into your iPhone. Rather, it connects via Wi-Fi, and in fact can connect to up to three devices simultaneously. Like the iXpand, it's available in capacities as large as 256GB -- and also plugs into a standard USB port for data transfers. Prices start at $22.99 (AU$30, £17) for the 16GB model.

You may also want to consider a multifunction solution like the RavPower FileHub Plus, a wireless SD-card and USB-drive reader that sells for $40 (AU$51, £30) on Amazon. It's not only a media-streamer, but also a travel router and 6,000mAh mobile charger.

It's important to take note of a key limitation with all these options: You can't use external storage for apps, and you can't play DRM-protected music or videos, of the kind you might purchase from iTunes or download from Spotify. External storage works only with your own, DRM-free, media.

If you've found any other ways to survive a 16GB iPhone, share them in the comments!

Editors' note: This post was originally published on April 4, 2016, and has since been updated.