Reserve Power: Field photo backup for the rest of us

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|08.17.10

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Ross Rubin
August 17, 2010 4:49 PM
Reserve Power: Field photo backup for the rest of us
Welcome to the inaugural Reserve Power on Engadget Alt. In contrast to Switched On -- the column Ross Rubin has written for nearly six years - this sporadic, gluten-free column will serve as a home for pieces that tend to be more personal, less polemical, and more like features than forensics.

You might consider them akin to an overengineered iPod classic, but they go by many names, including "multimedia photo viewer," "data storage unit," "portable digital photo manager" and "portable multimedia storage and player." Battery-powered portable photo backup devices have become an important tool in the bags of many advanced amateur and pro photographers. They allow for a speedy backup of multi-gigabyte memory cards on the go, providing an extra layer of data safety. And many of them have color screens that are 3.5" or larger, enabling them to be used for spot checks of photos. The niche has attracted a range of companies. With the exception of Epson, though, they are mostly unknown, particularly outside the world of photography enthusiasts -- Digital Foci, Jojo, and MemoryKick, Sanho and Wolverine.

With their large capacities and big screes, it is not uncommon for these products to cost $400 or more. That price, along with the devices' specialized features and bulkiness, have kept them in the realm of professionals. But the category could be opened to a much broader group of photo enthusiasts if they were designed to be more consumer-friendly. Consumers are just as likely (if not more so) than pros to lose or damage a memory card or to have one malfunction. And while losing photos may not cost consumers their income and reputation as it would for a pro, it could cost them some priceless memories. One could back up the card onto the device and then connect the device to the PC for uploading or further organization or basic retouching such as removing redeye. How would a consumer photo backup device differ from the ones the pros use? I have a few ideas.

Include only an SD slot - When Apple finally added SD memory card support to the MacBooks, it noted that Son--, er, the industry finally seemed to have coalesced around the standard. Taking out the other slots, especially the bulky Compact Flash slot, would save a lot of space, reduce cost, and simplify the product.

Base it on flash memory - The pro products use massive hard drives to accommodate multiple memory cards filled with space-consuming RAW images. But I've often found it paradoxical that field backup products back up theoretically more reliable flash media onto theoretically less reliable hard drives. In any case, consumers generally don't shoot in RAW format and so wouldn't need that much capacity. As we've seen in the MP3 player market, moving to flash memory also results in thinner form factors and better battery life. In fact, to save even more cost, the product might come with no storage at all and require that consumers supply a large SD card for backup similar to the new AirStash.

Button-free backup - Generally, the pro devices don't exactly have engaging or intuitive user interfaces. A consumer device for backing up memory cards in the field would need to be doorknob-simple. It should simply suck in all the photos off the card, or be smart enough to add only the new photos since the last backup. If a higher-end version had, say, a touch screen, it would be great to be able to specify that only photos taken after a certain date would need to be uploaded. This would be great for parties where different people are taking photos and you're looking for a way to aggregate them without having to rely later on a site such as Divvyshot or other options such as Flckr, Facebook or e-mail.

Integrated USB connector or Wi-Fi
- This one is a bit of the beaten path, but -- again, as with the AirStash -- it would be handy to be able to easily share a few photos with others at a party without having to hunt down a USB cable or card reader. Also, supporting Wi-Fi could facilitate collection or backup using an Eye-Fi card. In fact, the whole product concept seems like a natural fit for Eye-Fi. It could be the company's "Time Capsule."

HDMI - It's surprising how even many of the high-end pro products support only composite video out for display on the big screen. That's wasting a lot of resolution. It's time to move up to the prevalent HD connector. More cameras are coming with HDMI, but it's still a relatively high-end feature and it would add value to have the product double as a TV photo display device.

The resulting product would likely be about the same size as the MiFi. At $129 for the product without the touchscreen and HDMI, it still might not stand out as a "must-have" photo accessory, but it would become a lot nicer to have.
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