Gadgets used to be regarded as non-essential luxuries. These days, they are indispensable. The £500+ cost of the latest iPhone or iPad may place it firmly in the luxury category, but smartphones now work hard to earn their keep.
Tablets, too, have become extremely useful companion devices as well as making great photo displays. Both now routinely store hundreds - if not thousands - of photos, plus video and music collections, as well as the files associated with their all-important apps.
The one drawback of these portable devices is that their storage capacities are far smaller than a laptop or PC. The latest devices can also capture high-resolution photos and HD video, too, creating a lot of content that needs to be stored.
Add to this books, newspapers and magazines, and there's often not enough room to store it all.
Whether you already have a tablet or smartphone, or are planning on buying a shiny new item of electronica, it’s important to considering how to make efficient use of its internal storage.
Here, we look at ways to manage your media, trim down your collection so you can claw back space and also how to add storage to devices such as iPads and iPhones.
More storage; fewer locations
We all have a different approach to our media. Some of us like to have it all on our iPod, regardless of how infrequently the bulk of it gets played.
Others take a scattergun approach and have photos, music, video clips and supposedly important documents strewn across several PCs, laptops, USB drives, SD cards and media players.
Storing it all in one place and deleting duplicates and duds is a good first step. You can then populate your tablet or smartphone with the tracks or images you really want. PC users can download the File Duplicate Finder to excise multiple copies of files. On Android devices, try the free Search Duplicate File app.
Local sharing options
If you’ve got a home network (all you need is a wireless router), you can stream content to any Wi-Fi-enabled device. A network hard disk (NAS) or some other form of storage connected to your router - perhaps one that has its own iTunes server - can sort out your wish to have ready access to your complete photo and music library.
The HomeGroup feature in Windows 7 and 8 will push media content to PCs, laptops and Windows smartphones and tablets. If you’ve got devices of every stripe, look for DNLA compliance when choosing streaming hardware.
There are apps to control content streaming on an iDevice or Android. Home Sharing in iTunes allows you to make your entire media collection available to your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, wirelessly without synching anything.
Try DoubleTwist from www.doubletwist.com (and the associated Twonky server) to stream to and from almost any portable device.
Of course, these are all options that work within your Wi-Fi network. For external access, you’ll need to make that central media server accessible via the web - or use the web itself.
Storing media files online - aka ‘in the cloud’ - is a great option. Some such services can stream your music and photos over Wi-Fi too. Online storage pricing and limits vary a lot, so check the service is adequate for your needs without quickly jumping up in price.
For iPhone and iPad users, the obvious choice is Apple's own iCloud. The service lets you store and synchronise 5GB for free, after which you’ll need to buy into a storage plan. Apple has recently added 3G support for iCloud so you aren’t restricted to using it where there’s Wi-Fi, but you will need to watch how much data this is using to avoid using up your monthly allowance.
Microsoft SkyDrive also has a similar free limit (7GB) for all Windows users. There’s a SkyDrive app for Windows Phone, Android and iOS through which you can view and delete your photos and other files.
For serious amounts of online storage, try Box.net, Dropbox or Mozy. You can earn extra storage by installing these on several devices - there are Android and iOS apps for each - and by sharing folders with friends. We got 30GB of free storage this way.
Dropbox on Android and iOS can be used to auto-archive your photos. You can also use these services with OpenPhoto, which lets you view and manage your photos online.
Don’t forget Flickr. You can upload up to 300MB of photos for free per month, while a $25 annual subscription offers unlimited photo and video uploads (with some file size restrictions). You can then view and stream them via the web or through an Android, iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry app.
Amazon and Google allow you to store several gigabytes of photos and other files at their online repositories. Signing up to Google Drive gets you 5GB of space.
Next page: Streaming music and video services, Wi-Fi hard drives and shrinking files
Stream what you own
Amazon has just launched its Cloud Player service in the UK. This lets you store and play all the tracks you’ve bought from the AmazonMP3 Store plus up to 2,000 others you bought elsewhere. Hopefully, Google will soon announce a UK launch for its Music by Google Play. Since November 2011, US residents have been able to stream up to 20,000 tracks as well as purchase more for playback on their Android devices.
iTunes Match is Apple’s music streaming service. It lets you stream whatever you’ve bought through iTunes to your device. It’s a useful storage limit-buster for those with extensive music collections. You have to pay £22 per year to stream tracks you didn’t buy through iTunes, but it automatically replaces your music with top-quality DRM-free versions.
Rent, not rip
Music and video rental services take the pressure off your gadget’s already cramped storage, and they can work out cheaper than buying albums digitally.
Spotify and Napster’s music subscription services start £5 per month for unlimited streaming over Wi-Fi and £10 if you want to enjoy offline listening and download to your mobile device.
Smartphone users need to buy the Premium (£10 per month) version of Napster to enjoy the app anyway, while Spotify is ad-free on a PC for £5 but also requires the Premium app to serve up its streaming library on Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows or Symbian phones.
You can import your own music collection to Spotify, but the only real benefit is the convenience of having one program to manage all your music.
Portable Wi-Fi hard drives
Several hard drive manufacturers have hit upon the cunning ploy of adding Wi-Fi and battery power to their hardware, allowing whatever’s stored on them to be streamed to an iPhone or iPad. These drives connect directly to your gadgets and are controlled via an associated app, so you can use them on the move.
Products such as the 32GB Kingston Wi-Drive add significant amounts of storage yet are small enough to take out and about with you. The Wi-Drive works with an iPad, an iPhone and an iPod (it has a three-device limit for simultaneous streaming).
Seagate's GoFlex Satellite is similar. It has an eight-device limit and also works with Windows laptops and Android tablets.
Archiving items to save space makes sense on a PC. On a tablet or smartphone, you need to shrink or compress the files instead so they take up less storage space. The smaller versions should load faster too.
No tablet or smartphone can display more than a 3Mp photo without scaling it down to fit the screen. Storing 8Mp images, therefore, is a waste of space if you merely want to view them on screen.
Use an image organiser or editor such as Photoshop Elements to batch convert the photos, reducing their resolution to be the same as your device's screen (or lower if you don't mind a drop in quality). You can also choose a medium amount of compression, without noticing any degradation in quality. Each photo should end up less than 1MB.
Make sure you save the originals to your backup drive and the low-res copies to your laptop or tablet.
Repeat the process for photos you’ve taken on your smartphone or tablet as well, making sure you don't lose the originals.
Shrink your music files by re-encoding them at a lower bitrate. Advances in music encoding software mean that albums you ripped years ago may now be ripped again using the latest tools with no discernible audio loss but significantly smaller files. See our How To on converting audio tracks.
Similar principles apply to video. Use a free video encoder such as Any Video Converter, Freemake or HandBrake and export your video files for the device on which you wish to view it - iPhone, iPad, Android or BlackBerry smartphone or even PSP. Note that this is a time-consuming exercise on most computers, however.