Just how bloated are iOS apps optimized for the iPads’ Retina displays? A lot, and iOS app bloat getting worse at an alarming rate. When the first Retina iPads were rolled out with the third-generation model in early 2012, it was noted at the time that apps would become bigger with optimization for the ultra high resolution panels. However, just how much bigger sunk in for me last week when I did a global backup of my iPad to my MacBook Air prior to installing the iOS 7.1.1 update and discovered that of the 13.62GB usable capacity on the nominally 16GB flash drive, 10.9 GB (80.03%) has been used up, leaving only 2.72GB (19.97%) available.
That was an unexpected reality check, since it had taken nearly 2-1/2 years to half–fill the drive, and as recently as six months ago I still had around 7GB of free capacity left. This means that somehow another 5GB has been mysteriously eaten up, and according to the iTunes backup graphic, most of it is attributable to apps and documents.
I should’ve been paying more attention to what’s been going on. Back in 2012, Cult of Mac’s Charlie Sorrel reported that bitmap images optimized for the iPad Retina displays would double, triple, or even quadruple in size in order to look their best on the ultra high resolution panels, citing, for example, the then-current build of iMovie for iOS which had swollen from an already large large 70MB to a “terrifying” 404MB. “That 16GB iPad is starting to look a little small, right?” Sorrel observed.
Later that same year, TGDaily’s Trent Nouveau cited ABI research confirming that iPad optimized iOS games—the average app size being 60 megabytes—effectively translated into an increase of 42% over the six months after the iPad 3 was released. Mr. Nouveau quoted ABI Research analyst Aapo Markkanen, who noted that Apple’s decision in March  to increase the maximum size of 3G/4G-downloadable apps from 20MBs to 50MBs had clearly had an unleashing effect on developers, and that the downside of Retina-optimized file-sizes is that the internal storage of smartphones and tablets was becoming a scarcer resource. “Especially the consumers with 16GB devices are likely to become more conscious about what apps to keep and what to uninstall, so the developers’ bar to impress will be getting even higher than it is now. This could also speed up the adoption of the mobile cloud as a storage remedy quite significantly.”
I don’t have a large music collection, and I have no games, movies or videos at all stored on the iPad. For me, it’s largely a work machine. I also haven’t gone on a binge of installing new applications over the past few months (Microsoft OneNote being a notable exception), and indeed I’ve been culling out apps that had been just taking up space. Consequently, my best guess is that the principal culprit in accelerating free capacity shrinkage is Retina optimization in recent app updates.
This has thrown a curve into my iPad upgrade plans. Based on my experience of the iPad 2 prior to this latest revelation, I had been planning to go with another 16GB drive model on the assumption that my app acquisition rate would not be nearly as high in the future. However, I’m now obliged to rethink that, and deduce that it would be imprudent to go with less than 32GB drive capacity. That rules out the $400 re-released iPad fourth-generation (a.k.a. “iPad With Retina Display”), since it only comes in the 16 GB Wi-Fi basic configuration.
The least expensive 32GB option is the Retina iPad mini 2 at CAN$519.99 here in Canada. It also makes an Apple Certified Refurbished iPad 4 with 64GB capacity sound intriguing as a potential tide-me-over machine with more than ample storage capacity for CAN$500 at the Apple Canada online store.
The iPad 4 is, of course, less than half as fast on paper as the A7 SoC powered mini 2, but it’s still twice is fast as my iPad 2, which might be usably fast enough to keep me satisfied for a couple of years, and it wouldn’t obsolete my iPad 2 cases and stands.
The takeaway here is that unless your iPad usage is extremely rudimentary, the day of 16GB iPads is pretty much over in practical terms.