Accessory review: SanDisk Connect wireless media drives
Looking for an easy way to share your photos with nearby smartphone and tablet users? There are plenty of options, and SanDisk has a couple of their own in a new SanDisk Connect line of flash memory storage devices with built-in wireless that you can access from any device. We can't fault the name — Connect — but the system itself leaves much to be desired.
The basic idea is this: put your media on a SanDisk drive while at home or on the go, and others can connect to it using an app and view the photos or stream media without the need for an Internet connection. It definitely does that, but it does so in such a minimally functional way that it's hard to recommend for photographers.
There are two physical varieties of the device, each with two internal storage options.
First, there's a small, thumbdrive-sized Wireless Flash Drive with a built-in USB connector that comes in 16GB and 32GB options ($49.99 and $59.99 respectively). It has a MicroSD card slot for adding extra space.
Then there's the larger Wireless Media Drive, about the size of a smartphone folded in half, with a micro USB port for wired connections and a full-size SD card slot to add storage. In addition to offering up to 64GB ($99.99, or $79.99 for 32GB) of internal storage, this one allows for high-definition streaming, and to more concurrent users.
Both devices are tastefully designed and feel fairly well-built. I would feel no compunction tossing either into a crowded camera bag or back seat.
Basic operation works quite as advertised: by hitting the only button on the device, a wireless hotspot is created, to which you can connect your smartphone, tablet or PC. Then you'll need to launch SanDisk Connect, a free app for iOS and Android, which asks for a password (if you've set one) — and then boom, there's your media. You can upload new photos, view old ones or stream video and audio stored on the device.
If you're around a known Wi-Fi point, you can set up each device to automatically connect to the Internet through it, allowing basic sharing through email, Facebook and Picasa. It can't do that through your phone's cellular data plan, however.
... Almost too simple
Unfortunately, that's about the limit of the good news. The app itself is rather clunky, especially on iPad, where it routinely froze up or crashed while scanning for photos and failed to render previews for a couple hundred shots fresh off my DSLR. It also had trouble reconnecting to the drive sometimes and would have to be manually shut down and restarted.
Once you do connect, you can view photos and do some elementary edits (crop, rotate, "enhance") but beyond that your options are extremely limited. Incredibly, you can't even zoom in on iOS, and on Android it zooms but only into the preview image. I had thought it would be useful to share shots quickly with assistants or friends, but what's the point if they can't do anything but perform the most cursory examination and tasks?
Another potential use case would be as a quick backup for pictures you've taken recently. Being able to share the last 40 or 50 shots with friends nearby is a nice idea, and indeed the SanDisk drives do make that possible — assuming they have the app installed or an Internet connection to download it.
The problem there is that, bafflingly, there's no way to copy shots directly from a card to the media drive. You just can't! Your card is only available while it's slotted into the drive. Instead, you'll have to copy the shots to your tablet first, and then copy them from there over to the media drive. Why is such an obvious and useful functionality missing?
Raw files don't show up in the photo browser, and can't be sent to another program through the app; you have to copy them to your iPad first. Same with any unrecognized file format.
One situation that comes to mind is if you are frequently around the same set of people, all of whom want to view images or video on their own device. While that's not very common in photography (people do love to crowd a single LCD, but this seems too involved), it may occur elsewhere.
You can always use these drives for off-phone backup for your camera roll so you're covered in case of disaster. It's a little redundant with cloud backup, but could be good for a little extra peace of mind.
Portable media center?
What the devices may actually be useful for is the easy storage of several people's media for simultaneous consumption on smartphones and tablets. Copy all the media you think you'll need to the media drive, and everyone can connect to it during a road trip or when otherwise off the grid: Junior can catch up on Spongebob, you can play your driving playlist and your spouse can pipe a podcast to their headphones.
As long as the format is natively compatible with the device you're watching it on, that's not a problem. A few videos I'd downloaded from the web only worked partially, but iTunes, Amazon and Google videos ought to be fine.
The music part of the app was surprisingly decent, and I can see keeping a stash of tracks on this thing rather than on your phone to save space without using data-intensive streaming apps like Spotify.
One other thing to be aware of when streaming to a mobile phone: if you're not near a known Wi-Fi point, you won't be able to connect to the Internet via cellular data while using a Connect drive. A couple hours of music or a movie will disconnect you from email and other updates for the duration.
While these devices are easy to set up and work on a basic level as advertised, they don't do much more than that. Photographers will find little use for them versus something like an Eye-Fi Mobi or simple camera connection kit and ordinary photo editing apps.
Parents or people whose devices are already filled to the gills with shows, pictures, podcasts and so on might appreciate these drives as a portable local server, but even then the cases where it's more convenient to use the SanDisk drives are few and far between.
With things like Eye-Fi and AirDrop to transfer files, and the inclusion of automated backup like Google+ and DropBox, there just isn't much of a place for a device like this in a photographer's gear bag. If SanDisk ups the ante on the software (and fixes the bugs), that could change.