High Capacity Portable Storage and More
By Ron Eggers
Portable storage devices are becoming more sophisticated all the time. Recently, I've been playing with Digital Foci's Picture Porter Elite, an 80GB portable unit that can handle all the storage requirements of just about any high volume professional photographer. But it's more that just a portable storage devices, it's a full entertainment center and MP3 player, making it an indispensable carry-along item. I took it on a two-week trip to Europe, and was able to shoot as much as I wanted, without having to be concerned about how much storage space I have left. All the while I had the audio and video entertainment that I needed and wanted right in my camera bag.
This isn't my first portable storage device. Far from it. In fact, over the years, I've had a wide variety of portable storage solutions, starting with the 3- and 6GB Digital Wallets. That was in the days when SmartMedia cards were still popular and the highest capacity CompactFlash card I had was 256 MB.
Those early units had their problems. For one thing, they only had a monochrome LCD, which displayed the names of the copied folders, not the individual image file names. There was no way to tell if the files copied over or whether the copied files might be corrupted. At times the files became corrupted, so some images were lost. And, since they were USB 1.1, the process was very slow. The Digital Wallets were big and bulky and had their limitations, but having 6 gigs of portable storage was great.
After that I went to the 20- and 30GB Delkin PicturePads. They had a higher storage capacity and included a color LCD for image review. But the LCDs were small, and they supported a limited number of file formats. And they were really slow in displaying and transferring images. Still, all in all, they worked well. I used them for a number of years, and still occasionally use them as back-ups.
About 18 months or so ago, I switched to Epson's P-2000. That's not only a great little portable storage device, it, too, is an entertainment center and MP3 player. It supports various still, video and audio files. It can also be used to create interesting slide shows that can be displayed on TVs and projectors. Its bright 3.8-inch screen makes watching videos on the road a pleasure.
Like the other units, however, it has some shortcomings. It doesn't support RAW files and doesn't even display higher-resolution JPEG files. Also, it doesn't support some audio files, such as WAV files, which is the file format that some consumer digitals use when they're in the voice recorder mode. The P-2000 stores all those files, so nothing is lost. Those limitations aren't keeping me from using it, but it did prompt me to look around to see what else is available. (Watch Bonus Content for an upcoming review of the new Epson P-5000.)
The only reason that I'm going into such great detail with my portable storage experience is to illustrate just how long I've been thinking about what the perfect portable storage device might be. I think perfection is still a ways away, but it's getting closer all the time. The Picture Porter Elite has many of the features and capabilities that I've been looking for while minimizing the limitations and shortcomings that have plagued the other devices.
File format support is an important issue with me. The Elite supports a very wide range of image file formats, including JPEG, TIFF, GIF, BMP and various incarnations of RAW. At the latest count, it was able to work with 12 different types of RAW file formats, including most of the popular formats such as Canon, Nikon and Olympus, as well as from high-end cameras like the Phase One. Video file formats it supports include MPEG1, MPEG4, WMV9 and MJPEG (motion JPEG). Audio formats include the popular MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV, which means it can work with the audio files that many consumer digital cameras generate.
It has both a CompactFlash and a Secure Data card slot built in. Other types of removable media, such as Memory Stick, MS Pro and miniSD, are supported with adapters. Plugging a card into one of the slots automatically brings up three menu options: Full Backup, Photo Backup or No Action. Highlighting one of the first two choices starts the process. Images can also be viewed directly from the card, without first having to transfer them to the Elite. The transfer rate depends upon the resolution and compression of the images involved, but about a little less than a second per file for higher resolution images is a good gauge. Transferring 117 10-megapixel compressed JPEG images, totaling 470MB, for example, took about a minute and a half.
The large 3.6-inch LCD makes reviewing captured images a pleasure. It's bright and easily viewable, even from odd angles. Images load almost instantly, so it's possible to page through large numbers of files, even large image files, very quickly. Individual images can be rotated or zoomed in on for closer inspection. It's also possible to access a histogram of the image and view the metadata.
With the capacity to store up to 20,000 10-megapixel compressed JPEG files, if storing images were all it did, the unit would be well worth the money. But the Picture Porter Elite can do so much more. It can be used to create very impressive slide shows. It plays music and videos. It has a built-in FM tuner, and it includes a Tetris-like game called Matrix. It even lets you record video directly from any source and FM audio from the internal tuner. With its integrated scheduling option, it can be set to record specific times and durations, just like you would set a VCR.
There is a small built-in speaker, but, as might be expected, it's a little tinny. It works fine for listing to narrations or the audio portion of recorded (non-music) videos. It's not ideal for music. With headphones, however, the audio quality is excellent. It supports stereo output through dual RCA plugs when displaying slide shows, videos or other contents to a TV that's capable of stereo sound. Music can also be played in the background when images are being viewed.
Besides the 80GB Elite, there are also 40GB and 100GB models available. With this type of device, the higher the capacity the better. Capacity is not only a factor for storing images, it is also important when using the unit as an entertainment center. Individually, audio MP3 files don't take up a lot of room, but if you have hundreds, even thousands, of songs, narrations or Podcasts, they can take up a lot of disk space. Working with video files, such as recordings off of the TV or from videotape, fills up a hard drive even faster.
The way I did it for the European trip was to load the Elite up with MP3, video and Podcast files before leaving. Keeping the songs for continued listening, I erased the video and Podcasts after I watched and listened to them, to make room for the images that I was taking. With such a high capacity hard drive, there really wasn't any time where I wound up having to erase anything to make room for more images. That approach worked very well.
Something that I haven't seen with other units is text file support. The Elite can display the content of text files. Since it can work with text, it would be nice if it were possible to add or modify metadata directly within the unit.
When configuring the Elite, accessing the Options icon in the Menu brings up three menus, the System menu, the Display menu and the Version menu. The System menu sets things like time and date, shutdown and sleep timing and copy speeds. The Display menu lets you change screen appearance and video output (NTSC or PAL), among other things. One handy option in the Version menu is the Load Default Settings, to easily bring the unit back to its factory settings.
Luckily most of the USB problems that devices have had in the past have been worked out. Like most newer USB devices, the Elite is plug-and-play hot-swappable, meaning that it can be connected and disconnected to a host computer without having to reboot or doing damage to the remote storage unit's file structure. When connected to a computer, its hard drive comes up as an external drive while the two slots come up as removable media. That makes it possible to access files on the cards directly from the computer, without having to transfer them first. With USB 2.0, file transfer is very fast.
Since it is a removable hard drive, manage it and optimize it like one. Occasionally defrag the drive and run utilities on it to ensure hard drive integrity and optimum performance.
Being PictBridge compliant, it's also possible to print directly from the Elite, just as you would from a digital camera that includes PictBridge capabilities. The System menu includes a USB Mode setting that switches the unit from bring a Mass Storage Device to being a PictBridge/Media Player. But direct PictBridge printing only works with JPEG images. Being both Mac and Windows compatible, the Elite can serve as an easy data bridge between the two types of systems.
The Picture Porter Elite still isn't quite the perfect unit that I've envisioned, but it's getting a lot closer. If the company were able to add WiFi (or at least provide software support for a Secure Data or CompactFlash WiFi card), expand its text handling capabilities with a simple word processor and the ability to plug in a USB keyboard, and it offered a small TV tuner that connects through the video port as an option, I think it might just be my ideal multi-media portable storage device, at least for the time being.
The 80GB Picture Porter Elite has a suggested retail price of $469. That's only $70 more for twice the storage capacity of the 40GB model. If you really want to go all the way, the 100GB Elite is priced at $549. (www.digitalfoci.com)
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