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Will Verizon ever sell a Samsung Galaxy S4 with more storage?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers insight on the storage constraints of the Samsung Galaxy S4, and explains why there's no legal recourse against a carrier who refuses to unlock a phone -- even when it's out of contract.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is sure to be one of the hottest selling smartphones of the season. And it's great news for consumers that it's available on all four major wireless operators. But unfortunately, every operator isn't selling all versions of the phone.

That's right, even though Samsung announced three versions of the Samsung Galaxy S4, with three different amounts of internal storage, some carriers are offering only one option. Is 16GB of on-device storage enough? In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice to a reader deciding if she should buy the only version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 available on Verizon or if she should wait. I also help another reader understand why even if he pays the full cost of his phone, his wireless carrier is still under no obligation to unlock it for him.

Getting the scoop on Verizon's Galaxy S4 offer

Dear Maggie,
Do you have an inside scoop on whether or not Verizon Wireless will offer the Galaxy S4 32GB? They only have the 16GB version for pre-order. It ships May 30. But there has been ZERO news on whether it'll be offered in the 32GB or 64GB. I saw one place online which said that Verizon "confirmed" it will not offer anything but the 16GB. But I have a hard time believing this. For one, Verizon never seems to confirm anything. And the second thing is a customer representative told me they might offer the bigger versions. Have you heard any info on this?


Dear Brea,
As you indicated in your question, Verizon Wireless has announced only the 16GB version of the Samsung Galaxy S4. I spoke with a company representative, who told me he doesn't have any news to share on whether the company will carry other versions of the product.

Does this mean Verizon won't add other versions of the device in the future? Well, the rep didn't say that. But if you're in the market for a new phone right now, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Verizon to offer anything other than the 16GB. And that's for the foreseeable future.

So far none of the U.S. carriers has indicated that it will support the 64GB version of the Galaxy S4. And right now the only major U.S. carrier I know of that is offering the 32GB version is AT&T. The company is charging $250 for the 32GB version of the phone with a two year contract, which is $50 more than the 16GB version.

Again this doesn't mean U.S. carriers won't eventually offer bigger storage versions of the Galaxy S4. Some people have suggested this is a result of a supply issue with Samsung. But as I said above, I wouldn't put off getting a new phone in the hope that carriers will offer bigger versions sometime soon.

Still, Verizon and other carriers have emphasized that all versions of the Galaxy S4 come with a microSD card slot so that additional memory can be added. The device can accommodate memory cards up to 64GB. The devices can also connect to Google Cloud storage.

But to be perfectly honest, I still see this as a potential issue for some wireless subscribers. While it's true that you can add storage to a device via a memory card slot, the reality is that not all storage is created equal. Some apps simply can't be downloaded onto a microSD card. And depending on how many apps or games you use that can't be stored on a microSD, you could run out of memory rather quickly.

If you're in a bind, you can store some of your digital media in the cloud and stream it or access it when you like, but remember that you must have a data connection to do so. And if you're on one of Verizon's new data plans, you're restricted each month as to how much data you can use before you're charged extra. (Remember that if you had an unlimited-data plan from Verizon and you buy your new phone with a device subsidy, you forfeit that unlimited-data plan.) In order to make sure you don't exceed your monthly data cap, you may have to restrict your music and movie streaming to Wi-Fi.

There is one other thing you need to keep in mind if you're concerned about storage on the Galaxy S4. This device is packed full of some very cool features. But you have to remember that there's a trade-off when you add more features to the operating system: those software features must be stored somewhere.

Unfortunately, for Galaxy S4 customers that means they'll have even less internal storage than they thought. Of course, there's always a discrepancy between the advertised internal storage capability of a device and what's actually really available to users. But the Galaxy S4 has even more features than other Android devices like the Nexus 4 or even previous versions of the Galaxy product line. And as a result, there's a greater discrepancy between how much storage Samsung advertises is available on the device and how much can actually be used by consumers. In fact, some experts say that all of the Galaxy S4's bells and whistles use up almost twice as much storage as previous versions of the smartphone.

How much storage will you get with the 16GB version of the Galaxy S4? Once you account for the factory software, which includes the Android Jelly Bean operating system, the system cache, and so on, you're left with about half the internal storage you started with. So that means there's only about 8GB of storage on the device for your own movies, music, apps, and games.

The bottom line
So what should you do? The Samsung Galaxy S4 is still a great device. And depending on what apps you're downloading onto your phone, the 16GB version with an external SD card may be enough storage for your needs. But if it's not, you'll have to be careful about the apps and media you store on your phone. You may be forced to rely on cloud services more than perhaps you have with other smartphones. In order to prevent a storage shortage, you can proactively make sure you're storing as much of your music, videos, photos, and movies on your SD card as you can to free up space on your device for these other bits of digital content that can't be stored externally.

But you may also want to consider either switching carriers to get a Galaxy S4 with more storage capacity, or perhaps purchasing a different device on Verizon's network. As I mentioned before, AT&T offers the 32GB version of the Galaxy S4 right now. And the iPhone 5, which is available on Verizon, comes in 32GB and 64GB models without any SD card to expand the storage. There's also a rumor that the new HTC One, which also comes in 32GB or 64GB storage versions, may soon land at Verizon. Like the iPhone, the HTC One does not have a microSD slot. Verizon doesn't currently offer this phone, but there's some speculation the company might announce it as part of its lineup in the coming weeks.

I hope this advice is helpful. And good luck!

Can a carrier refuse to unlock a cell phone?

Dear Maggie,
If a network provider refuses to unlock my paid-for phone, are there legal remedies?


Dear Bill,
Unfortunately, the short answer to your question is no.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

Let me explain: The wireless industry claims that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is supposed to prevent people from pirating digital content by making it illegal to disable digital rights management, or DRM, software, applies to the device locks carriers put on cell phones to prevent those devices from being used on other carrier networks.

As part of the statute, the Library of Congress is tasked with reviewing the DMCA every three years. During this process, it spells out explicit exemptions. In previous reviews, the Librarian of Congress -- who, as you may've guessed, heads up the Library of Congress -- exempted cell phone unlocking, which meant that the portion of the law that may have been interpreted to prevent cell phone users from unlocking their devices without permission from their wireless carriers was not a violation of the DMCA.

But this year when the law was up for review, the Librarian of Congress rejected petitions asking for the exemption of cell phones as part of the DMCA.

What this means is that technically, wireless operators are able to lock devices, and they have the option of never allowing their users to ever unlock those devices.

Most wireless operators say they won't do this. And they have explicitly stated that if the device is fully paid for and the customer meets other conditions, such as being in good standing, then the carrier will provide the unlock code to the customer.

But there is nothing legally that can be done to force a carrier to provide the unlock code at any time.

This may change. There have been a couple of bills introduced in Congress that would decriminalize cell phone unlocking. And the White House has also spoken out against criminalizing phone unlocking.

For example, there was a House of Representatives bill introduced just this week called HR 1892, or the Unlocking Technology Act, that would redefine the meaning of DRM "circumvention" in the DMCA to cover only those exploits that specifically allow copyright infringement. For example, it would still be illegal to pirate a movie or a video game, but removing the software lock from a legally acquired device would not be illegal.

The bill also calls for a permanent DMCA exemption for carrier locked phones, regardless of whether the carrier has approved the unlocking. It also would decriminalize any tools that are used to unlock phones.

Again, neither this bill nor any other will force carriers to unlock devices for their customers even after the phones have been paid for in full. But if this legislation is passed, it would no longer be illegal for people to unlock their device with or without a carrier's permission.

I hope this helps clear things up for you.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.