Storage for the LONG Road: The Minds@Work Digital Wallet
Reviewer: Dave Etchells
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If I had a dollar for every email I've gotten from someone wondering how to store their digital photos on long trips, I probably could have retired by now! This is a crucial issue for digital photography, and an area where film-based cameras have it all over their digital counterparts. At a few dollars a roll, conventional film is a cheap, effective way to store images compactly while traveling. Sure, you need to guard against moisture, heat, and overzealous airport X-ray machines, but the combination of cost, size, and image quality is hard to beat.
Consider the options for the traveling digital photographer: Even at their best prices, memory cards still cost close to a dollar per megabyte, and even at half that cost would still be prohibitive for long-term storage: Despite the "digital film" moniker, CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards are way too expensive to use for any kind of extended picture storage. Combine this with the trend toward ever-increasing digicam resolution, and there's little hope that flash memory will be a viable image-storage option any time soon.
Most of us have resigned ourselves to lugging along a laptop computer for any really long duration picture-taking excursions, but that's a huge price to pay, both in terms of the cost of the equipment, and in the bulk it adds to already overcrowded luggage. Some folks have taken advantage of inexpensive older-generation sub-notebook computers, which can be found for as little as $500 on the used market. These units are much more compact than a conventional laptops, but still are usually bulkier than you'd like, and also leave you with the problem of how best to transfer your megabytes or gigabytes of images back to your main computer when you return.
Early this year, a company called Minds@Work announced a product that promised to solve the portable-storage problem once and for all. The Digital Wallet is intended as a general-purpose portable repository for all sorts of digital files, including the ubiquitous MP3 music files as well as JPEG or TIFF digital photos. Minds@Work had a unusually long gestation period for the new product, leading many in the internet photo community to suspect it was yet another "vaporware" product. We're happy to be able to tell our readers though, that this is emphatically not the case, as we've actually received and tested a shrink-wrapped retail unit of the Digital Wallet. It works entirely as advertised, and we think will be a real boon to traveling digital photographers. Read on below for the details!
Basic Specs and Design
The Digital Wallet incorporates a 2.5 inch 6 gigabyte hard drive, a PCMCIA slot to accept memory cards (with adapters), and a USB interface to connect to a host computer. It comes in either silver-gray or translucent blue plastic (for the iMac crowd). It's powered by an internal (but interchangeable) NiMH battery pack that provides power for roughly two hours of continuous operation. An onboard Motorola "ColdFire" processor makes it completely standalone, meaning you can operate it without a host computer. At 5.25" x 3.75" x 1.25", it's a bit smaller than a typical paperback book, and quite portable, at only13 oz. (370g) with batteries. Click here for the detailed specs on the unit.
In normal portable operation, you use the unit completely standalone, with just the main Wallet unit and whatever memory-card adapter you need to fit your particular media. To charge the batteries or connect to a host computer, you attach the "Carry Dock", which connects to the main unit via a socket/plug combination. When connected, it provides a USB socket and power jack for the included AC power adapter.
The total package for an extended trip is shown above, consisting of the Digital Wallet, Carry Dock, and AC Adapter with power cord. This is a pretty compact kit, much smaller than the previous alternative of laptop or micro notebook computer.
In case you hadn't stopped to add it up, 6 gigabytes is a LOT of capacity! At one megabyte per image, that's about 6,000 digital images. Even using 9 megabyte TIFF files from some of the latest 3.3 megapixel digicams, that's still over 660 full-resolution, uncompressed files. Any way you stack it, this is enough storage capacity for even the most voracious digicam user!
How it Works
Operation could hardly be simpler: The user interface consists of four buttons on the right hand side of the unit, which are used to navigate menu screens appearing on an 8-line alphanumeric LCD display on the front panel. The uppermost button turns the unit on, and it remains on with the drive spinning for 30 seconds after it finishes any operation, or you press any of other control buttons.
Menu navigation is accomplished by the lower three buttons on the side, with the top and bottom ones (right and left in the photo) moving a highlight cursor up or down the menu choices, and the center one confirming your selections.
You insert your memory cards into the Digital Wallet via a Type II PCMCIA card slot, also on the right side of the unit. The Digital Wallet is intended to work with essentially any memory device that can be fitted with a PCMCIA card adapter. Supported types include Compact Flash cards, both Type I and Type II (including the IBM MicroDrive), SmartMedia cards, Sony Memory Sticks, MultiMedia cards, or Intel StrataFlash cards. Additionally, full-length type I or II flash memory cards should work just fine as well.
To dump the contents of a card into the Digital Wallet, simply insert the card into the appropriate PCMCIA adapter, insert the adapter in the side of the Wallet, select "Download Content" from the main menu screen, then "Start Download" from the screen that next appears. The unit will tell you it's downloading data, and signal when its finished. You can also check the last download performed, to be sure it came down OK. (Click here for a look at a number of the Digital Wallet's menu screens.)
The Digital Wallet always transfers the entire contents of a memory card to a folder on its hard drive: You can't pick and choose which files you want to copy. Likewise, when uploading files back up to a memory card, it always moves an entire directory of files at once. Note too, that the Digital Wallet never erases files from the cards it copies from: All transfers are nondestructive of your original data.
If there isn't enough room on the Digital Wallet's hard drive to receive a download (unlikely), or there's not enough room on a memory card to receive an upload, the Wallet will tell you so and not copy any files at all. It will also refuse to upload files if it finds a directory on the memory card with the same name as the one it's trying to copy. For digital camera users, this will generally mean that you must have a freshly-formatted card in order to restore images to the camera: Cameras' "delete all" function usually leaves the root folder on the card, which would trick the Digital Wallet into thinking that the files it was trying to copy were already present.
Downloading files to your computer
The Digital Wallet has a USB interface on a separate "Carry Dock/Charger" unit, that plugs into the bottom of its housing. The Wallet can connect to computers running either Windows (Windows 98, 98SE, 2000, or ME) or Macintosh (OS8.6 or higher) operating systems. On Windows machines, you'll need to load driver software from the furnished software CD. Mac users can just plug the Wallet into their USB port and it'll show up on the desktop as a disk drive icon. Once connected, it functions just like any other disk drive, so you can drag and drop files to your heart's content. You can also rename folders on the Wallet, or rearrange the directory structure to your heart's content. (Note though, that most cameras and other devices expect their files to be located in folders with specific names, and specific locations: Moving things around could mean that your camera wouldn't be able to find the photos after you'd uploaded them back again.)
The Digital Wallet was quite speedy in our tests, both in copying data to or from a memory card, and in its interface to host computers. We tested it with SmartMedia and CompactFlash memory cards, as well as with a 340MB IBM Microdrive. The internal card interface is quite a bit faster than the external USB connection (as you'd expect), but both were quite speedy. We were also interested to note that the USB interface was noticeably faster reading than writing, and that our Mac was slightly faster than our PC. Different memory cards also produced somewhat different speeds, although all of the transfers were easily fast enough so as to pose no inconvenience to the user. (That is, we didn't feel that results with different cards were so greatly different as to justify buying one card over another.) The table below shows our timing results:
|IBM 340 MB MicroDrive Download||325||262||1.240|
|Generic 20 MB CompactFlash Download||17.8||28.5||0.625|
|Lexar 32 MB 4x CompactFlash Download||28.6||25.09||1.140|
|Generic 32 MB SmartMedia Download||27.0||23.3||1.159|
|Windows 98 USB Download||325||8'10"||0.663|
|Windows 98 USB Upload||325||11'01"||0.492|
|Mac OS 9.0.4 USB Download||325||7'44"||0.700|
|Mac OS 9.0.4 USB Upload||325||10'14"||0.529|
The Digital Wallet ships with a nice assortment of photo-related software from ArcSoft that runs on both Mac and Windows, and a file backup utility for Windows. The Arcsoft applications includes PhotoFantasy 2000 (creative image manipulation), PhotoMontage 2000 (turns your images into montages made up of thousands of tiny pictures), PhotoBase (organizer/database application), and PhotoPrinter 2000 (lets you print multiple photos on a single page). As noted, versions of these applications are provided for both Mac and Windows platforms.
We were familiar with the ArcSoft applications, so didn't bother loading them (they work well for what they do, and we in fact are working on reviews of some of them as we write this article). We did try installing the Windows backup utility though, SmartBack jr, by Rutulis. This looks like a pretty capable little backup utility, perhaps useful for automatically updating a copy of the Digital Wallet's contents onto your hard drive, or possibly going the other direction, to keep a set of photos from your computer backed up on the Wallet. Unfortunately, the "jr" (Junior) application of the application provided insisted that it was only intended for use with the Digital Wallet, and then refused to recognize that the Wallet was connected. Presumably this problem will be cleared up at some point with an update on Minds@Work's web site, in which case the application could prove useful.
Operation Report: Card Downloads
As noted above, we tested our evalution unit with three types of memory cards: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, and the 340MB IBM Microdrive. All three types worked well with our Wallet. The only problem we encountered with file downloads to the Digital Wallet was with cards we'd copied random files onto from the PC. It turned out that some of these had bad file names on them, which resulted in the Wallet refusing to copy them. When it did so, it gave an error message on the screen, spent some time "cleaning up" from the aborted transfer, seemed to go to sleep for 30 seconds or so (eg, just sat there with a message on the screen saying "press any button to cancel", but not responding to any of the controls), and then resumed normal operation. In all our tests with cards formatted and loaded directly from digicams though, the Wallet performed flawlessly.
In comparing notes with other imaging sites testing the unit, at least one (Phil Askey of DPReview) reported difficulties using the Wallet with Sony Memory Sticks. Since we didn't have a PCMCIA adapter for Memory Sticks here, we weren't able to test that card format.
We did encounter one other quirk with the Wallet that affected card downloads, although in fairness, we suspect this may be more a reflection of Dave's manic product-testing tendencies than an issue of real concern for the typical user. As part of our battery-life testing, we loaded up a 32 meg CF memory card with images, and then continuously downloaded it to the Wallet over and over again. (And we mean *over* and *over* again!) After about a hundred or so downloads of this card (that's about 3 gigabytes of data, in 32 meg chunks), we found that the Wallet simply refused to accept any more downloads, even though there was plenty of space left on its disk drive. It appears there's a file-count limit on the root directory (or any lower-level directories?) of something like 119 files/folders. Deleting one of the existing files let the Wallet download another cardful of data, but once we hit that ~119 folder limit, that was it.
Now, 110 or so folders of information is a LOT of pictures! Even with one of the puny 8 MB memory cards that ship with many digicams, this would be something like 800 megabytes of photo files, enough to keep even a very avid snapper busy for quite some time. Note too, that it appears to be a file count limit, not a file size limit: We could easily go beyond the roughly 3 gigabytes of capacity limit we hit with the 32 megabyte card if we just used a bigger card in the first place.
As we said, probably not a huge problem for the typical user, but for those 1% of you out there that it would affect, we wanted you to know about it.
One last "quirk" note, also first observed by Phil of DPReview: The Wallet truncates long file names downloaded from memory cards to the 8.3 DOS format (8 characters plus 3 character extension). No problem if you're dealing with standard digicam files, which are all 8.3 names anyway, but if you have files that have been renamed in PIE or other software, their names will be changed to the general form of "filen~nn.jpg". (Eg, 5 characters, a tilde symbol, and two digits) This could be a significant issue for MP3 users. It doesn't appear to affect the Wallet's usefulness for moving files between computers (via the USB port), as it only seems to come into play when downloading files from memory cards.
Operation Report: Windows 98
We had somewhat different experiences using the Digital Wallet on Mac and Windows systems, so will report on the two separately. On the Windows platform, we found the Digital Wallet to be very robust, behaving in all respects just like a USB-connected disk drive. In our extensive fiddling, Dave's unique ability to generate technical problems rose to the fore, in the form of some bad files he managed to copy onto a couple of memory cards to use in testing the Wallet. It turned out that the bad DOS file names on these test files caused problems for the Digital Wallet's operating system, to the point that we couldn't delete them from its hard drive via the control panel. Initially not knowing what the problem was, we were concerned that we'd somehow trashed the Wallet's hard drive. The saving grace here proved to be the Wallet's excellent emulation of a USB disk drive, which allowed us to run Windows' Scandisk disk-repair application on it while the unit was attached to the PC. This correctly found and reported the bad DOS names, and let us delete the problematic files. (Scandisk also helped fix some problems that apparently originated on the Mac side of things, more on that below.)
We did find that the Digital Wallet was rather particular about when and how you connect it to the Windows host computer: The accepted procedure seems to be to have both the computer and Wallet powered up before you connect the two. If we left the Wallet connected to our computer while it booted, the computer would refuse to see it, and the Wallet would sometimes lock up in the "USB connected" mode until we unplugged it and let it time out to shut itself down. Repowering the unit and then plugging back into the host computer resulted in normal operation
Other than the balky SmartBack jr software application and the finicky protocol for connecting it (both computer and wallet powered-on at the time of connection), we found the Digital Wallet to work very well on our Windows 98-equipped PC. More importantly, when we managed to cause problems that weren't the fault of the Wallet, standard Windows disk-repair tools were able to fix the problems with no trouble.
Late-breaking note: Minds@Work checked into the SmartBack jr problem, and discovered that it was a minor version-change issue. They'll have a downloadable copy of the correct version on their website for any users affected.
Operation Report: Mac OS 9.4
On the Mac, we felt the Digital Wallet suffered a little due to the differences and compatibility issues between the DOS directory structure used by Windows and the Mac's own unique disk organization. We experienced some problems early on that weren't repeated later, but didn't have the time to devote to going back and figuring out how to cause them again. The most severe problem occurred at one point when we left our iMac copying a huge block of files (325 megabytes worth) up to the wallet. We came back some time later to discover the Mac and Wallet locked in a death embrace, with both frozen up hard. Restoring order required resetting the Mac and pulling the battery plug on the Wallet. Yikes, you say, that's pretty bad! Well, it was, but you should also consider what else was going on at the time. It turns out that the Mac involved had file sharing running, although it wasn't actively transferring data at the time. (It's drive was mounted on another Mac, but nobody was moving files between the two.) The iMac also had the Seti@Home screensaver installed, and we think that this went off during the file transfer. Certainly, there were ample reasons to expect something to go awry!
The bad part of the Mac problems though, was that the failed file upload left the Wallet's directory trashed in a way that the Mac couldn't seem to recover from: Whenever we tried to plug the Wallet into the Mac's USB bus, we got into an endless loop of the Mac telling us that the disk had problems, with a "disk not ready" error endlessly reappearing on the Mac's screen. This was where the Windows 98 PC came to the rescue, in that the "injured" Wallet mounted fine on the PC, and we could run Scandisk to see what was wrong. It turned out there were a number of files with cross-linked allocation clusters, and/or incorrect FAT entries. Once again, Scandisk fixed everything up just fine, and the Wallet was restored to full working order. The problem as we saw it though, is that there was no purely Mac solution to the problem: We had to go to the PC to fix it.
In fairness, once we turned off file sharing and the screen saver, the Mac/Wallet connection settled down pretty nicely. We did encounter one further issue though: We discovered that we needed to observe a specific procedure in unmounting the Wallet from the Mac's desktop. It turns out that the Wallet wants to immediately remount itself whenever it is unmounted or "Put Away" from the Mac's desktop. If you put away the drive, either via the file menu, or by dragging its icon to the trash, and then immediately disconnect the USB cable, the Mac complains that the drive has gone away, but everything remains working as it should. (Although the Wallet also complains of a "disk not ready" error.) Likewise, we found we could simply unplug the USB connection at any time the Wallet wasn't actually moving data, and everything was OK other than the "you took away my disk" complaint from the Mac. (In this situation, the Wallet didn't display the "disk not ready" error.) If we unmounted the disk though, and waited a little while before unplugging the USB connection, the Mac could apparently get lost in the process of trying to remount the Wallet on its desktop. When this occurred, we invariably froze the Mac, requiring a hard reset.
The net of this is that the Wallet appears to work fine with the Mac OS, but does require some care in following procedures. (And the procedure that seemed to work best was one that generally isn't recommended for Mac disks: That of simply unplugging the disk when you want to disconnect it, rather than "putting it away" first.) The most serious issue on the Mac is that it appears you need a Windows PC available to bail you out if anything really untoward happens.
Quibbles, Quirks, and Improvement Opportunities
As much as we liked the Digital Wallet, there were a few items we'd like to suggest to Minds@Work for improvement in the next version of the product. None of these represent major issues, but all would contribute to an improved user experience.
1) Tougher case. We'll make no claims to being industrial engineers, but as far as we know plastic is pretty cheap to buy and use. We'd like to see Minds@Work use a little more of it on the Digital Wallet, to produce a heftier case. This is obviously a product that will be carried around a lot, and therefore is likely to be bumped, knocked, and probably even dropped fairly often. A really heavy plastic case would make a lot of difference in how the Wallet feels, and we'd like to see one that feels downright bulletproof. Likewise, the doors on the unit that cover the battery compartment and PCMCIA slot feel a little flimsy. The design of the unit is such that either could easily be replaced if needed, but again we'd like to see a little more heft in a portable product.
2) Ability to navigate folder structures on the hard drive, and to organize files in groups thereby. This is a bit of a difficult call, as part of the appeal of the Digital Wallet is it's exceptional (dare we say "brainless") ease of use. You stick your card in, push a couple of buttons, and you're done. Back home, it's just a plug/drag/drop experience to copy files into your computer. If you needed to manage files on a fairly full Wallet while in the field however (MP3 mavens?), your only choice is to scroll through what could become a very long list of folder names. Particularly for folks using their wallet to lug along MP3 collections, it would be nice to be able to organize things into folders and subfolders. (For photographers, we could see wanting to recall files from earlier in the trip, to dump onto a memory card to view on the camera's LCD screen.) That said, we have to admit that trying to jam that much functionality into three buttons and an LCD panel would be problematic at best. Maybe best to leave well enough alone?
3) "Stickier" card-eject button. Test maven Russ noticed this one: The card-eject button on our eval unit slid in and out very easily. So easily in fact, that it was prone to hanging out the side of the unit if you tilted it sideways. (As shown at right.) This struck us as an accident waiting to happen, as we could easily see the button catching on a shirt or coat pocket, or hanging up as you stuffed the Wallet into a camera bag. Easy to fix, we'd think: Just a little tighter fit, or some friction material added to the channel the button slides in.
4) More robust firmware. While many of the problems we managed to induce with the Digital Wallet weren't strictly its fault, (caused by bad file names, Mac USB problems, etc), we'd like to see it be a lot more reliable in the face of such occurrences. The current design worked fine for us as long as we stuck to the straight and narrow in our usage of it. Any deviation from this "golden path" resulted in frustration. Not a problem for "standard usage", but with computer gadgets, you *always* end up running into the non-standard sooner or later.
5) File-count limit. As we said, not a big deal, but we'd like to see the limit of roughly 110 file folders fixed. (And Minds@Work have assured us they're working on a firmware patch that will accomplish this.)
6) Long file names. Not much of an issue for digicam owners, as the cameras all adhere to the DOS 8.3 filename convention, but MP3 users will really want the unit to support full 32-character filenames.
As noted at the beginning, our distinct impression based on email we receive is that there are a lot of people out there who are looking for something like the Digital Wallet. The combination of small size, huge storage capacity, dead-trivial user interface, and high data transfer speeds make it a near-ideal solution for digital photographers on extended trips. At an initial list price of $499 it isn't cheap, but when compared to the cost of multiple memory cards, it's a real bargain. If our past email has been any indication, we expect it will enjoy great success in the digicam marketplace. Given the problems we had with the Mac interface and (admittedly corrupted) memory cards, we have to give the unit a qualified recommendation: In our tests, it was 100% reliable as long as we used it strictly to move data from memory cards to a host computer, and were careful to observe certain protocols, such always having both the computer and Wallet booted up when we connected the two. (The usage that will most interest our readers.) It did seem a little prone to problems when we were moving data in the other direction, or when we used it to copy data from memory cards that had been written to by a PC, but appeared to work fine in the mode most of our readers would be using it in.
For More Info:
Visit the Minds@Work home page.
Visit the MindsGear page to buy a Digital Wallet.
The other major imaging websites have also reviewed the Digital Wallet, check the links below to read their findings:
Read DP Review's review
Read Steves-Digicams review