The original 5GB iPod was released in 2001 with the tagline “1,000 songs in your pocket”. Fast-forward to 2015 and the iPod is now the iPhone, the storage capacity has been increased up to a maximum of 128GB, and apps have eclipsed songs as the digital currency of portable devices. So the question then becomes: In 2015, how many apps can you have in your pocket?
Theoretically, you can install as many applications on your iPhone as you have space for. A 128GB iPhone running iOS 9 starts out with 114GB of free space, and the research firm ABI conducted a survey back in 2012 and found that the average iPhone app size was 23MB. Divide the two numbers and you get 4,956, or about 5,000 apps. Of course, the average size of iPhone apps has likely increased since 2012, as storage capacity and bandwidth have increased, and Apple has raised the size limit for an app to be able to be downloaded over cellular. On the other hand, this average probably includes a lot of very large apps like games that can often be several GB in size each. If we’re picky about the apps we download, it’s easy to stay under 10MB (11,400 apps). The smallest apps I’ve seen come in at just under 1MB, which would mean that the absolute theoretical limit is 114,000 apps, but I highly suspect that there aren’t that many apps that tiny in the App Store.
In addition to taking up space in bytes, an app also has to occupy space on one of the home screens of your iPhone. On the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus a home screen is a grid with 6 rows and 4 columns, totaling 24 spaces. The system also limits the device to 15 home screens, totaling 360 spaces. Finally, the dock provides 4 additional spaces, bringing the total up to 364. That number seems somewhat low compared to the numbers in the thousands in the previous paragraph, but that’s because we haven’t talked about folders yet. In iOS 9 on the iPhone, a folder can hold up to 15 pages of apps in a 3 by 3 grid on each page, for a maximum of 135 per folder. Since a folder can occupy any and every space on a home screen, this means you can have a total of 49,140 apps (including the built-in ones) on the home screens of your iPhone. Much better!
For fun, I took my 128GB iPhone 6 with iOS 9.0 and tried to install as many apps as I could on it. I created a separate Apple ID so I didn’t junk up the purchased apps list of my primary account, and set about trying download as many free apps as I could.
As you might expect, iOS isn’t really designed for this sort of use case. I started with the Top Charts section in the App Store, going down the Free list and tapping “GET”, then “INSTALL” for each one. Doing this a bunch of times in a row caused major performance problems with the App Store app, where it would often respond late or not at all to some taps. There was also a weird issue where the “INSTALL” button would appear on a different app than the one I tapped “GET” on. Still, undeterred, I pushed through.
After several rounds of triggering a bunch of downloads, then letting them process, then triggering more, the number of apps installed grew above 1,000. When the system wasn’t busy downloading and installing it actually remained surprisingly responsive. You’d expect this, though, as an app that is installed but not running shouldn’t take up any resources, but it was good that Springboard was able to cope well with this large number of apps.
Unfortunately, with 1,507 apps installed, everything just… stopped. I cancelled all the pending downloads then retried them without success. I fired up the amazing iOS Console and saw that the containermanagerd process was continually crashing. Given the name, I suspect that this is the process that’s in charge of allocating all the container spaces for the apps I was installing. Because it wasn’t working, app installation wasn’t either. I tried upgrading to the iOS 9.1 Public Beta, but the problem was still there.
Since it was possible that something unique happened during the installation process, I reset the iPhone and tried again. This time, I triggered the installations from the Purchased tab for the Apple ID account I set up earlier. The App Store seemed to cooperate better with this approach, but I eventually ran into the containermanagerd crash again. It’s hard to say whether it was a specific app that was causing containermanagerd to crash or if it was just something that was bound to come up when installing thousands of apps one after another, but until this issue is fixed the limit seems to be around 1,500 apps.
Interestingly, I also started getting popups saying “Your Apple ID has been disabled.” I suspect that I must have reached some App Store abuse threshold for which my account was disabled. While I do understand that I was using lots of bandwidth (probably over 100GB) and other resources of the App Store downloading apps I had no intention of ever using, I didn’t break any rules, so having my account disabled is a bit unfair in my opinion.
What about iPad?
The calculations for the theoretical app limit for iPad are similar to that of the iPhone, but with different numbers. Interestingly, because iPad has fewer spaces on a given home screen, 20 compared to iPhone’s 24, it has fewer spaces overall, just 300 plus 6 in the dock for a total of 306. In iOS 9, though, a folder page on iPad can contain 16 apps instead of iPhone’s 9, for a total of 240 apps per folder, and a total of 73,440 for the entire device.
What happens when you fill up all your home screens?
Bad things, that’s what. Well, it won’t crash your system or anything, but it’s not really defined where an app goes if it can’t go anywhere. Sometimes it just doesn’t appear at all on one of your home screens, sometimes it pushes an app that is on your homescreen into the ether and takes its place. You can still use Spotlight to search for and launch all your apps, but given the seemingly random side effects, I’d caution against continuing to operate in this state.
This seems pretty pointless
Yeah, sort of. I think it would have been pretty cool if iOS cooperated and allowed me to install tens of thousands of apps on my iPhone, but as it stands this was kind of a dud. However, even though the limit is “only” 1,000 apps or so, that’s still way more than most people will ever need or want to have on their devices.