How To Manage the SD Card on Android Phones Like a Pro

By Ryan Whitwam

Treat your SD card to a Spring cleaning.

Android provides a lot of freedom with regards to file system access and storage. We definitely love having this kind of control, but it’s not just the user that gets this access. Any app that includes the modify/delete SD card contents permission has the same access to your storage card that you do. It goes without saying that you should only install apps you trust when they can access your files.

More than that, these apps can go around making folders, leaving files strewn about, and just generally messing the place up. In the short term a few apps won’t be a problem. But if you install a lot of apps, it’s going to get messy. Let’s go over some best practices for managing your SD card and keeping the file system neat and tidy.

Use .nomedia files to hide content from apps

Before we get going, you’re going to need a file browser. Some phones come with an app for this, but in most cases you’re on your own. We suggest Astro for most users. It’s fast, feature rich, and updated regularly. The paid version of Astro is $4, and the free version works the same, but with ads. We also like AntTek File Explorer. It’s not quite as fast, but it is free.

So, one thing that Android’s open file system allows is for an app to place its resource files and cached content in a folder. Most developers are good mobile citizens about this, but at times, whether through neglect or ignorance, they fail to properly hide their files from the system. You will notice this has happened when random videos, pictures, and music from apps start popping up in your Gallery or music players.

It’s annoying to have to look at content you have no interest opening while in an app, but if you delete it, the app is just going to break, or re-download the files. The way Android (and the developers) usually handle this is with a .nomedia file. If the app has not placed this file in its folder, you can do so manually.

If you’re not near a computer, try searching your SD card with the file manger for a .nomedia file. Odds are that at least one app has added one properly. When you find it, copy it to the offending folder, and restart your Gallery app. On some phones, a full restart may be required. This also applies to any subfolders. The unwanted content should be skipped by the system indexing process, but will still work in the original app.

If you are unable to find a .nomedia file and have a PC handy, just pop open your favorite plain text editor. Save a blank document and call it .nomedia (just that, no other file extension). Move that file to your SD card, and place it in the folder you need excluded from indexing. Note that some apps accomplish the same task by adding a ‘dot’ at the beginning of the folder name in the root directory. Doing this to a folder manually will change the file path, so don’t do it.

Hunt down big files to save space

Another consequence of letting apps go crazy on your SD card is the inevitable build up of cruft. Apps sometimes cache a large amount of content on the SD card. Many games also have large additional data downloads of resource files. Unfortunately, when you remove these apps, this data doesn’t automatically go with them. So it’s totally possible to forget about this data while it just takes up space.

You can get at the root of the problem and reclaim your storage space with a really great, free app called DiskUsage. Launch this app and select storage card to get a birds eye view of what’s using all that flash memory. The app shows you a series of nested blocks representing folders. Their size is proportional to the amount of space they take up.

You can tap to center and expand on a folder. If this substantially changes the view, subfolders, and large files will be visible. When you tap to select any file or folder, you can hit Menu > Show to open it the applicable app. This is very helpful for determining if it can go. If you want to remove something, there is a delete command in the menu as well.

Manage folders smarter and avoid accidental data loss

There are times when searching for large files has taken you as far as it can, and you just need to get rid of some of those folders. You don’t want to scroll through screen after screen of mostly empty data folders from apps you uninstalled ages ago. You should occasionally page through your SD card and manually ditch folders for apps you don’t use anymore.

Most of them will be empty, or might just have a log file in them. They don’t take up much storage space, but they do take up just as much UI space as any other folder when you scroll by. Although, there are a few apps, like Twitter clients for instance, that cache a few megabytes of data in these folders. They won’t show up on DiskUsage, so you’ll have to have the occasional look around.

The freedom to place your files anyplace can be liberating, but also contributes to haphazard storage practices. It is important to avoid accidentally deleting your personal files when cleaning out the SD card. We suggest you create a folder that will house all your personal content rather than place multiple folders in the root directory.

Make the folder name unique. Don’t just call it ‘Data’ or ‘Android’. What if you do that? An app that was going to create a folder called Data (and a lot of them use this directory name) will just skip it and use the one you’ve already made. So you could end up with a chunk of app data cluttering your personal files, and making it harder to clean up later.

Users that don’t run a lot of apps might be able to get along without paying much attention to the state of the SD card. But if you really use your phone, and especially if you have taken the same SD card with you from phone to phone, you should give it the occasional once over. Do you have any SD card management secrets? Let us know in the comments.