5 quick ways to recover storage space on an overstuffed iPhone or iPad

Find a few gigs of breathing room by taming bloated apps, culling podcasts, trimming attachments, and more.

5 quick ways to recover storage space on an overstuffed iPhone or iPad
Credit: Ben Patterson

Sure, 16GB of storage sounded like plenty when you first bought your iPhone, but you probably regretted your decision to go with Apple’s cheapest option when those pesky “low storage” warnings started popping up.

Indeed, you’d be surprised by how quickly your iPhone or iPad can chew through storage, particularly the tiny 16GB model. Even worse, your iOS device may refuse to install updates or snap any more photos if your handset’s storage is bursting at the seams.

One remedy for a jam-packed iPhone or iPad is to, say, simply delete all your songs (which you can always re-sync via iTunes or redownload from the iTunes Store) or trash large swaths or photos and videos. But there are also easier, more painless ways to find a few gigs of breathing room.

Delete and reinstall your social apps

One of the easiest ways to clear out the storage on an iPhone or iPad is by looking for space-hogging iOS apps—you can do so by tapping Settings > General > Storage & iCloud Usage, then tap Manage Storage under the Storage heading.

Delete and reinstall your social apps Ben Patterson

Deleting and reinstalling bloated social apps is an easy way to recover iPhone and iPad storage space.

When you do, you may be surprised to find Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social apps among your biggest storage hogs. The reason: While your social apps themselves aren’t all that large, they tend to get bloated with cached images and videos as your browse your various feeds. The Facebook app, for example, can swell from about 50MB or so to close to 500MB. If you’re a social maven, your social apps may be hogging several gigs of your precious iPhone storage.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to purge a file’s “Documents & data” cache from the main iOS settings, and while some specific social apps may have options for cleaning out their junk files, most don’t.

So, here’s the plan: just delete ‘em and reinstall them. When you log back into Facebook, Instagram, and the like from your iPhone, you’ll find that their respective iOS apps have shrunk dramatically, freeing up (hopefully) tons of storage in the process. Your social apps will, of course, eventually grow in size again, so may need to repeat the process the next time you run low on storage.

Trim text message attachments, and set iMessages to auto-delete

Text messages are tiny in terms of storage, but the same can’t be said of the photos and videos that are often attached to them.

Trim text message attachments, and set iMessages to auto-delete Ben Patterson

Open a Messages thread and tap Details to see all the photos, video clips and other attachments stored in the conversation.

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy for the data cache of iOS’s Messages app to grow to hundreds of megabytes in size, with most of the junk being image and video attachments

To see the attachments from a particularly long Messages thread, just open the app, tap a thread, tap Details, then scroll down to the Attachments section. Next, tap and hold an attachment, tap More, then start tapping any photos, videos, or other attachments you’d like to delete. (Nope, there’s no Select All button, nor is there a way to select a bunch of attachments at once.) Once you’re done selecting, tap Save Image (or Save Attachment) or tap the Trash button to delete. 

To quickly trash a bunch of message attachments while at the same time keeping Messages data from getting out of control, you can set the Messages app to auto-delete messages as it goes.

Tap Settings > Messages > Keep Messages, then pick a setting: Forever (the default), one year, or 30 days. Just make sure to save any must-keep attachments before changing the Keep Messages setting, because once you do, any messages that fall outside the new “keep” window will instantly be deleted.

Keep an eye on podcasts

If you got caught up in the Serial hype but haven’t checked your podcast app in a few months, watch out—you might have dozens of automatically queued episodes sitting on your iOS device.

Keep an eye on podcasts Ben Patterson

You can—and should—limit the number of episodes your favorite podcast app can keep.

You can, of course, quickly free up space by deleting all those storage-hogging podcast episodes—after all, you can always just re-download them—but a smarter move is to set your favorite podcast app to keep only a few unplayed episodes at a time.

For the iOS Podcast app, tap Settings > Podcasts > Limit Episodes, then pick an option—anything from a month to just the most recent episode.

Toss out old digital magazines

Just as old podcast episodes can start to pile up, so can issues from your digital magazine subscriptions, to the tune of hundreds of megabytes or more.

Toss out old digital magazines Ben Patterson

Some digital magazine apps boast an “auto-delete” option that’ll toss out old issues automatically.

If you see any magazine apps in the iOS Manage Storage screen that are taking up more than their fair share of storage, just open the culprits and clear out those old issues—which, as with podcasts, you’ll be able to download again.

Also, see if your magazine apps have an option for deleting old issues automatically. In the New Yorker app, for example, you can tap the Library tab, tap the Settings button, tap the Preferences tab, then enable the Auto Remove setting.

Turn iCloud Photo Library off and then on again

iCloud Photo Library sure sounds like a great idea on paper: All of your photos and videos, all stored on iCloud, and available on all your iOS devices.

Turn iCloud Photo Library off and then on again Ben Patterson

Make sure to back up your images before you turn iCloud Photo Library off and on again on your device.

But even though iOS is supposed to “optimize” your photo storage with iCloud Photo Library turned on, the cache of pictures and videos on your device may still swell to several gigs, easily filling a huge chunk of your precious storage. And no, you can’t simply delete photos and clips from the Camera Roll, because doing so will delete them from your iCloud Photo Library, too.

If you’re using iCloud Photo Library and you’re continually running low on iPhone or iPad storage, try this: turn iCloud Library off and then on again. Doing so seems to give iOS a much-needed kick in the pants when it comes to optimizing your photo storage.

First, though, you’ll want to make sure all those snapshots and videos in iCloud Photo Library are backed up somewhere. (Yes, they should already be safe up in iCloud storage, but better safe than sorry.)

If you have a Mac, launch the Photos app, click Photos > Preferences, make sure iCloud Photo Library is checked, then select the “Download Originals to this Mac” setting.

For Windows, you’ll need to log in to iCloud.com from a web browser, click the Photos icon, browser to the All Photos folder, and then... well, you’ll need to select all your snapshots and click Download, meaning each picture will download to your hard drive one file at a time. Absurd, I know, but that’s the deal.

Back on your iPhone or iPad, tap Settings > Photos & Camera, then switch off the iCloud Photo Library setting. A pop-up will ask if you want to download all the photo originals in iCloud to your iPhone; go ahead and tap Remove Originals—a safe option, given that you just backed up your originals to your Mac or PC. Within a few minutes, most of the snapshots in the Photos app should be gone, although a few stragglers will probably remain.

Once your iOS device is done unsyncing itself from iCloud Photo Library, turn it back on again. You’ll have to wait while your iPhone or iPad uploads any remaining images in the Photos app up to iCloud, after which all your Photo Library images will reappear—and with any luck, your iOS photo collection will take up a lot less room.

Have any other storage tricks? Let us know in the comments below. 

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