iPad Storage Hell

This is not a new problem, either for me or for any of you. At the same, rather than having a workaround, the problem only seems to have gotten worse.

I’m out of space. The bar graph shows some HALF of the 32GB as “System Data”.

Note that this is distinct from the ~20% burned by “iPadOS”. I don’t even bother to try to keep my Photos or Music on here. You can see the paltry yellow segment used by my apps which are, ostensibly, the ENTIRE reason I own this device. And yet even those I’ve been slashing to try to recover functionality of my iPad, since everything is broken with space being full. These lousy photos of my glary, smeary screen are because I can’t even perform a screen shot. And an iCloud Backup also failed, no doubt due to lack of local space, ironic as that is.

After jettisoning a bunch of apps, I got just enough functionality to do an iCloud Backup. But that just rewinded me to where I was 2 weeks back when I was in the same situation. I did the iCloud Backup because I was out of space, and my recollection was that the only way to recover the “System Data” space was to backup > erase > restore, which I did. As you can see, it didn’t help.

So now what? The biggest hitter now is Messages, at 6GB. So I really have to toss Messages in order to get the most conservative use of my iPad? Fine, I’ll do it. Oh shoot, it won’t let me delete the app! It’s one of those non-removable apps.

Well, if I enable iCloud on Messages, that should offload the media and less-recently-used messages to the Cloud, freeing up space on my device, right? Oh shoot, I have Messages already enabled in iCloud!

Well then maybe the logic is opposite? Maybe Messages is using MORE space by enabling iCloud. So let’s turn iCloud off for Messages. Oh shoot! It wants to download all messages before it will let me do that! Obviously I don’t have space for that.

Well, what in Messages is burning so much space? Let’s look in iPad Storage.

Looks like 5.4GB is burned by “videos”. Well, any videos I need, I have already saved. Let’s delete them all. Oh shoot! They’re already all gone! (The fact is, there were some in there; not nearly 5.4GB worth; but anyway, I deleted them all hours ago, and the space has not recovered).

So 5.4GB is being used by… nothing?? And the situation with Messages Photos isn’t much different.

I have also tried connecting iPad to iMac to backup the “full” style, but that fails because the iPad is full. There is also a 16.3.1(?) update pending for iPad that I tried to install, but that probably only made the space problem worse.

So dear friends, what the Finder am I supposed to do at this point??

The only thing I haven’t done is to erase and NOT restore from backup, but rather to reinstall all my apps from scratch. This is not without risk, because it turns out that not all apps are cloud-ready. You will see iGigBook and MobileSheets there, and neither stores their data in the cloud. The latter at least has ways to sync and do backups at the application level, so I’m not too worried about that. iGigBook I’m stuck copying files, plists, and databases from the “Files” tab in the Finder to my iMac, while connected via cable. The hope is that putting all these back after I erase and start over will get me back to where I was, but that’s a nerve-wracking uncertainty.

There’s even a fresh article at Macworld on this topic:

But it’s useless because a) my backup won’t succeed because I’m full, and b) I already tried it and the space was not freed by doing this.

I will add that I was able to free up a surprising amount of space (~6GB) by turning off all the Analytics & Improvements options under Privacy (and then rebooting). Enough space to update iPadOS, in fact. But somehow, it was gone within an hour.

So before I take the plunge doing a completely rebuild from scratch with no restore, does anyone have any suggestions?

Have you rebooted and then checked? Often garbage collection is done at those times.

By the way, if you have room, take a screenshot on the device; you can crop it before it is saved to photos. That way you get a clean picture.

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Unfortunately 32Gb is pretty small for iPad storage these days. It is irritating that Operating Systems have tended to take up more and more space over the years so that “old” devices are no longer viable.
Bizarrely this is one reason I moved from Windows PCs to Apple 20 years ago. Now the problem has caught up with me with Apple devices!
All I can offer is .,.Grrr!

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Fully appreciate what you’re dealing with, been there. I would look to move anything you can move off using iMazing or similar. But Michael is right, 32Gb is a constraint you will be constantly hitting off. You might need to focus its use, a reader/browser/email/messages for less hassles moving on.

I would be wary of any iPad below 256Gb.

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Thanks! Yes, I tried rebooting.

Regarding the ugly images, they serve to indicate two things: 1) that screenshots are failing, due to being out of space, and that 2) the entire process is so exasperating that I have no patience to go to great lengths to make the photos pretty. It would feel like putting on makeup during a mud run ;-)

Update: Slash and Burn

Since I decided to throw everything out and start from scratch, I figured I might as well use the opportunity to see if anything drastic helps. So I deleted practically every app, turned off iCloud services, removed Internet Accounts, disabled Analytics… everything I could think of, til I got down to this:

Even then, most of the space did not free up:

(but enough freed up to get pretty pictures :-D )

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Update: Clean Install

So, next step was to do a full erase, clean install, and NOT restore from backup. I wanted to proceed slowly to see what causes the space to get chewed up. As such, I selected the “manual” option during the setup process… which made me surprised to see that, by default, it enabled basically every iCloud service!

The real shocker was that it had iCloud Photo Library enabled! Apple knows that I have a 1.6TB library, and that even the Optimized version would never fit on this iPad! So why would it even try? I should be shocked, but the more I do here, the less surprised I am at how poorly this software works. So this screen shot reflects me having turned that off, thank you!

Anyway, about an hour after a clean install, this is what the storage looks like:

“System Data” is about 2.6GB, already close to 10% of my total space, but it appears to be in a steady-state.

When time permits, I’ll start installing apps and enabling and see what happens…


Yea, agreed. I could never get a 32GB iPhone again for that reason. I just figured my iPad use was much more lightweight. And frankly, it has worked fine for a long time. This does have me looking at what changed recently.

I started to also wonder if they could be virtual memory swap files, because I’ve seen those silently burn up tons of disk space on the Mac when apps go rogue. But those patterns always reset after a reboot, when the kernel deletes those files, and no such recovery happens here after reboot.

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Are you sure that Messages is not an app you can remove? It seems to be, but I’m not going to remove it myself to confirm. :)

There is nothing that makes a customer more angry than losing their photos, so it makes sense to me that ICloud Photos is turned on by default.

I seem to recall the option to move it to the App Library, and not seeing the Delete option. That seems consistent with this list:

Agreed! Until the alternative is filling up your iPad with photos that don’t fit, causing you to lose functionality of your iPad and possibly lose data, and then force you to start all over and turn that off, overriding Apple. So it doesn’t make sense to me :-)

Minor update:

I discovered that another app I had on the iPad, iReal Pro, was storing all its data locally. So I had to restore from backup again to get it back.

Fortunately that app offers a true iCloud sync feature. I enabled it, did a sync, confirmed the playlists appeared on my other devices, and then erased iPad once again.

Now to go back and reinstall all the key apps… again…

You can take the screenshot, crop, send via AirDrop, and delete it before it ever gets near Photos. But I’m not sure what iOS version that was introduced in. Same goes for deleting Messages app.

I think as soon as you reactivate iCloud Messages the space will be eaten up again. I think it counts those as System space.

Thanks. I’m aware of this, and I think I tried it. I don’t think the thumbnail ever forms, but I don’t recall right now. It’s entirely possible that it writes the screenshot to a temp area (on “disk”) before you decide what to do with it. That would be consistent with the fact that if you don’t annotate or share the thumbnail (and just walk away), the file is persisted to storage; but it’s possible it’s only in RAM for the first stage. Remember, just forking another process (to handle the screenshot) requires memory; and if virtual memory is full, then the fork will fail.

But I’d have to fill up my iPad again to reproduce it. How about if I leave that as an exercise to the student! :-)

So this part intrigues me. I have never understood iCloud Messages. What I EXPECT is that, by enabling iCloud, that space on the device would be freed up, since attachments, etc, can be stored in the Cloud. In fact, I thought I read this as a “feature” when this was first rolled out. But in practice, I feel like enabling iCloud causes the device to consume MORE (local) space. And you seem to be saying that’s the case, too, right? Does this make any sense to you?

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Update: Clean Install Take 2

So now that I got the iReal Pro data off the iPad, I did another clean install. Then I installed:

Basic essentials:

  • 1Password
  • Dropbox

Basic user apps (hey, this iPad is for gigging!)

  • iReal Pro
  • iGigBook Pro
  • MobileSheets

I then deleted a number of built-in apps I don’t need. Below, you can see System Data is very small still (1.2GB). And this is a few hours in.

Interestingly, I have not had to turn off any iCloud services (iCloud Photo Library is off though).

I guess I’m going to have to watch consumption closely as I add other apps or change anything with iCloud.

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I don’t sync my messages. Also, 64gb is the bare minimum for an iOS device, I prefer 128gb. My iphone is 64gb and it is half full already. I barely use my phone as I have sn ipad and mac. I also have the minimum free icloud account.

Just skimmed this thread. Isn’t your time worth anything? As several said, 32 GB is small. Do a complete clean, buy a new one, say 128 GB at least, try other sources if you’re tight on money, like used, and sell the 32 GB for cheap, or just resign it as a remote camera or monitor. Eliminate a lot of stress. You’ll never look back. I have postponed upgrading many times, and when I finally took the plunge it was so peaceful, enjoyable, and I wondered why I waited.

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Thanks for your note :slightly_smiling_face:

I guess what I value is helping the community and improving the product over just fixing my personal situation and walking away. This is a problem that affects millions or even billions of devices, and which Apple has done nothing about for ages. And like I said, I have tons of Apple devices. Upgrading all of them all the time is not something I can afford.

And I guess, as an engineer, I’m curious and look for answers. I prefer using smarts rather than brute force. Professionally, on large carrier platforms, solving memory problems with “more memory” can be cost prohibitive. So I put a lot of effort into proper tuning.

And as you can see from my current status, the problem appears to be resolved, at least for now.

I’m not sure it’s worth my time except if I feel it helps the product or the community in some way.


It would make more sense if the OS queried you about storage choices that exceeded the available space. ‘Leaving iCloud Photos on would exceed your available storage. Would you like to disable it?’

To answer your question (and to satisfy my curiosity :sweat_smile:) the below screen shots show my experience trying to delete Messages on iPad. It leaves it in the App Library. If you do go to the App Library and try to delete it there, even fewer options are presented.

So it looks like we’re stuck with it (and its poorly managed disk consumption).


Dave K,
I can’t argue with anything you said, and often I am saying what you said. But note I did also suggest to use it as a remote video camera, there’s many apps to do that or a motion sensor, recorder, and notifier, or as a second (third) monitor screen for your Mac. I didn’t say just throw it away. Note I still have my II si (upgraded to 6040 and better video board), PB 160 (upgraded to PB 180 specs and FPU, all but active matrix screen), B&W G3 updated to G4, G5 tower, Ti PB G4 (*2), MPB 2008 *2, MBP 2011, and DIL’s MBP 2012 still trying to get photos off crashed HD, and my Daily Driver MBP mid 2015 gotten in 2019 to avoid the butterfly keyboard debacle and upgraded SSD to 1 TB. This 2015 MBP I got off e-Bay, and used it to reformat the DIL’s 2012 MBP’s new SSD and installed Catalina. When initializing this newly installed Catalina in the DIL 2012 MBP, it stopped as soon as it had the WiFi password and I guess called home, it said it has been locked and to call HULU IT Department. I asked DIL about this, she said she bought at the Apple Store. So it was my 2015 MBP bought off eBay that was hot! So after giving LAPD all the info I had on seller from my e-Bay account, I got to keep it, and it was unlocked. I was sweating it out for a while, will they take it back, will I be out the money I sent? That 2011 MBP was bought used off Craig’s list, and I think hot too. We meet in a dark parking lot, cash only, I had a friend near by. One Ti G4 PB and the G5 tower were both bought from Circuit City as demo units, soon after the next generation was released. The G5 came with about $20,000 of top level program (disks included) as they were used to demo the power of the G5. So there are ways to save buying Macs, but some you do have to be careful.