BETTER THAN WIFI DIGICAMS
The Eye-Fi WiFi SD Card Evolves
By MIKE PASINI
The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter
Review Date: September 2008
Since our review of the Eye-Fi in the Feb. 29 issue of the newsletter, the company has been busy adding value to the small SD memory card that can transmit its contents wirelessly to your computer and over 20 photo sharing sites.
The original 2GB card morphed into three versions in May:
- The $79.99 Eye-Fi Home featuring uploads to just your own computer
- The $99.99 Eye-Fi Share that, like the original, uploads to your home computer or over 20 services
- The Eye-Fi Explore, which adds unlimited geotagging via nearby wireless routers and hotspot access (where the geotagging gets done) for one year plus upload notification via email and SMS text messaging
We suspect it also morphed into the Lexar Shoot-n-Sync WiFi Card last week, too, but we can't confirm it.
But at photokina, the company announced three more innovations:
- Faster wireless uploads and the ability to add services from the other cards like Web sharing ($9.99 annual fee), geotagging ($14.99 annual fee) and hotspot access $14.99 annual fee. Geotagging doesn't use the GPS system but nearby wireless routers to divine your location.
- Expansion of the product's distribution to Japan and Canada before the end of the year
- The same power management introduced with the Nikon D60 will be available in the Nikkon D90 dSLR. The D90 will also include an Eye-Fi menu to disable wireless transmission, for example, in a hospital or airplane
The company also announced new support for Apple's MobileMe and AdoramaPix. Eye-Fi has also added Best Buy as a vendor, joining Circuit City, Ritz Camera Centers and online sources.
In the grand scheme of things, the Eye-Fi has turned out to be all that we hoped early this year when we first saw it at PMA and awarded it two of our PMA Envy awards.
In fact, it has managed to provide more WiFi capability that current WiFi digicams from Nikon and Panasonic. And if your dSLR uses SD cards, an Eye-Fi can add sophisticated and trouble-free WiFi capability to even that class of camera.
Shortcomings. In our several months of use primarily in review cameras, the Eye-Fi's shortcomings have all been pretty minor.
One issue, though, is card speed. While we've been able to shoot movies to the Eye-Fi on some digicams, most require a faster card. The Eye-Fi, which is not an SDHC card, just isn't fast enough to keep up with most digicams' demands to clear the buffer. We just use another card to shoot video.
Another is that the card only transmits JPEG images, not audio, video or Raw files. Of course, it will store them, but you'll have to pop the card in the included reader to transfer them.
Transmissions must go through a router, not straight from your camera to your computer. So if you're on the road, you'll have to set up your computer as a connection point to transfer images wirelessly or configure a small router like the Apple Express.
And it can't manage camera power. The camera really doesn't know it's there or on or even transmitting images. If a transfer gets interrupted, however, it will pick up where it left off when you restart the camera.
Finally, the Eye-Fi can't retrieve your images from an online album for display on your camera like the Panasonic TZ50 does from Google Picasa. On the other hand, the TZ50 can only upload to Google Picasa, not to your computer or any other device. And Nikon's WiFi digicams have a similar limitation, transmitting solely to my Picturetown and not your computer.
Both Nikon and Google provide a small amount of free storage space as part of the deal, but you may have to resize images to make it worthwhile. The TZ50 offers to resize by default, shortening upload time (and battery drain) at the expense of leaving your full resolutions on the card to deal with later.
Only the Eye-Fi, among current offerings, allows you to transfer full resolution images wirelessly from your camera to your computer.
It's easy to focus on the card itself as the story, but the real action is in the software. After all, the camera doesn't know anything at all about the card. It can't display a menu on its LCD and prompt you to initiate a transfer, like a wireless Coolpix might.
And it can't manage battery power either, like a popup SD card on your PDA or an EasyShare One. Nope, the card's job is pretty much limited to staying awake. To that end Eye-Fi recommends turning off any power saving option on your camera so your images can be copied before your camera goes to sleep.
Managing the transfer is really the work of two applications: the Eye-Fi Manager software that runs in the background on your computer and the Eye-Fi Service that runs on the Web. They work together but independently, too. And much of what they do depends on how you've configured your card (as we'll explain later).
Let's just say you've set up the card so it copies your images both to a folder on your computer and to one of the 20 online sharing services Eye-Fi currently supports. And that your Eye-Fi card has been updated with the latest Smart Boost feature (a free firmware update).
With power on, when your camera comes within range of your router and your computer is on and running the Eye-Fi Manager software in the background, images are pulled off the card and copied to the folder on your computer that you selected when you configured the card.
If your computer is off or the Manager software isn't running, the images are sent to the Eye-Fi Service on the Web which routes them to your online sharing services and copies them back to your computer when it next runs the Manager again.
Only JPEG images are transmitted. No movies, no audio files, no Raw files.
Uploading images to the Web isn't as fast as transferring them from the card to your computer. This is particularly true of cable broadband connections, but DSL connections typically aren't very fast uploaders either. So performance is much improved when your computer is on and images can be pulled off the card to the computer first.
The Eye-Fi Manager software also configures your card when you attach it with the included USB card reader. You can add networks, change destinations and adjust other settings. We'll look at that right after a brief look at the technical specifications, system requirements and camera compatibility.
The technical specifications are:
- Wi-Fi Security: Static WEP 40/104/128, WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK
- Range: 90 feet outdoors and 45 feet indoors
- Storage Capacity: 2GB (1.0-GB is defined as 10^9 Bytes)
- Power: advanced power management optimizes use of camera power
- Card Dimensions: SD standard 32mm x 24mm x 2.1mm
- Card Weight: 0.1 oz.
The card itself is based on Atheros Communications' AR6001GL Radio-on-a-Chip with automatic power save deliver and Atheros' proprietary, low-power sleep mode to extend battery life.
System requirements include:
- Eye-Fi Card works with 802.11g, 802.11b and backwards-compatible 802.11n wireless networks; it is a Wireless G device, supporting up to 54 Mbps.
- Eye-Fi software runs on Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac OS X (10.3, 10.4 and 10.5)
- Eye-Fi software works with Internet Explorer 6 and 7 (Windows only), Firefox 2 and 3 (Windows and OS X) and Safari 3 ( OS X 10.4-10.5)
- Eye-Fi Card requires Internet connection for set-up and a wireless router with DHCP enabled for wireless transfers
- Eye-Fi Card works with virtually all digital cameras accepting SD memory cards
While the SD format would seem to promise widespread compatibility, Eye-Fi does maintain a list of compatible cameras. Some manufacturers present no problem, like Canon, Casio, Fujifilm, Nikon, Panasonic and Samsung. Others, like HP, Kodak, Pentax and Polariod, have the odd exception.
So the next question is what about cameras that use CompactFlash cards? Can you slip the Eye-Fi card into an SD-to-CF adapter and put that in your camera?
Eye-Fi demurs that they neither support nor test such arrangements, but they do provide a little advice nonetheless. They suggest using an SD/SDHC CF adapter like the Synchrotech CFMulti rather than the more common SD/MMC CF adapter, especially if you're trying this in a Canon 20D, 30D or 40D.
Formatting the Eye-Fi card in an adapter "has caused the Eye-Fi card to fail," the company also notes.
And finally, the company observes that the wireless range of the card is "noticeably reduced." That stands to reason. You are, after all, shielding the card in a metal jacket.
Some experimenters have reported the card adapters damaged their cameras, bending the CF pins in the camera card slot. That required a repair that cost up to $200 on average.
Step One, according to the included Guide, is to connect the card reader to your computer. The EyeFi card is shipped inside the reader. We tried to connect through an unpowered hub, but we had to pull the hub and connect directly.
Step Two is to install the software located on the card. The actual procedure varies depending on whether you're using a Mac or a PC.
The software is distributed on the card itself but you can also go to the Eye-Fi site to download it. It's a quick download, 2.3-MB for the Mac version and just 1.2-MB for the Windows executable.
Once you've found the Eye-Fi Manager application, you copy it to your hard drive and launch it.
Step Three is to configure your card. Configuration starts by testing your firewall settings so the card and software can talk to each other. Sounds hairy, but it was a piece of cake. In three quick steps, the software tested our firewall by listening for incoming connections, testing them and testing outgoing connections. We passed, the Manager loaded in our menu bar and took us to a Web page to create an Eye-Fi Account.
You need an online account to be able to activate your card and actually upload photos. Eye-Fi only needs to know your email address, your first and last names and your password. The page charmingly warns you to make sure you have your camera with you because you're just seconds away from uploading your first image.
As soon as we did that, the site informed us we had to update our card's firmware. We clicked the "Update" button. The page told us not to pull the card until it's been updated and gave us an estimate of the time remaining (which was just a few seconds). We've updated it again since then with no issues.
Once that was done, we confirmed we wanted our card named Mike's Eye-Fi Card, as the Web page suggested. Then we selected a wireless network.
The software actually found our network (and our neighbor's, too -- hi, guys!). When we selected our network from the popup menu, our password manager popped our password in, too. We then clicked "Connect Card to Network" and waited while the wireless network connection was tested. It connected, confirmed the password, received a network address and contacted the Eye-Fi server.
That last step took a while as some 233 items were being copied before we got an error message. "Unable to connect to Eye-Fi server. This will occur if network redirects your browser to a splash screen when first connecting. Otherwise, please move closer to the preferred Wireless Router and Retry."
That was when we remembered reading that Eye-Fi doesn't support Safari (although the company does claim it now supports Safari 3.0). We had a similar problem with Safari and HTML forms when we tried to configure a DSL modem recently. We had entered the modem code from the bottom of the modem into a field on a Safari page but the server kept telling us it wasn't the right code. Of course it was. So we entered it in Opera and it worked. Something fishy about Safari, apparently. Or the character set encoding. Anyway, we copied the URL into Firefox and recreated our account. This time, we connected to the Eye-Fi server in the blink of an eye.
You can add more networks, but you have to be within their range and mount the card in the USB drive to do it with the Eye-Fi Manager software. You can't do it from the camera. So if you were at a friend's house and wanted to push the images up to his drive, you could install the software (or bring your laptop), mount the card and add your friend's network. A bit cumbersome but you only have to do it once.
The next step was to select an online photo service. "Upload Photos to the Web?" the page asked. Well, OK. The choices now include BlueString, Costco.com, dotphoto, facebook, flickr, Fotki, Gallery2, Kodak Gallery, phanfare, photobucket, Picasa, RitzPix, Sharpcast, Shutterfly, SmugMug, snapfish, TypePad, VOX, Wal-Mart, webshots, Windows Live, MobileMe and AdoramaPix.
We have accounts at three of those, so we picked one at random (after updating all their local clients, grumble). We entered the user name and password for one service (you can always add more but images are sent to every service you add) and then continued to the next step.
That was to select a local destination. We don't use iPhoto (or we could have just had the photos sent to iPhoto). So we created a special temporary folder for Eye-Fi transmissions and pointed to that. Another piece of cake.
Then the online manager told us we were ready to Upload Your First Photo! To do that, you remove your card from the reader and put it in your camera. We slipped it into a Coolpix S510 we were reviewing.
Then we turned on the camera, took our picture (that was what it said to do) and watched in horror as the camera buzzed and our picture showed up as a thumbnail with a progress bar in a little window below the menu bar on our laptop. Then, seconds later, it was uploaded to our online service. The Eye-Fi Web page for our account showed us it was uploading our image and, indeed, when we visited our service, it was there.
There was just one more step, the page told us. Turn off power management on your camera so uploads can complete.
Our image was indeed stored locally in our Eye-Fi temp folder in a folder with the day's date, a nice touch (and optional). The Eye-Fi Web page took us right to our folder, provided an upload history, settings for the card or our online accounts and links to more help.
Pretty nicely designed software, we thought.
Since then, we turn to the Eye-Fi as our card of choice when working with any review camera. The convenience of wirelessly sending test shots to the computer can't be beat.
When we have to shoot movies, we use a SanDisk SD/USB card which, when removed from the camera, can be folded in half to reveal a USB plug. And you should hear us complain that we have to do that much to transfer the videos.
Eye-Fi uses an unconventional scheme to geocode images on the Eye-Fi Explore card (or with its geotagging service). Most geocoding devices find out where they are by communicating via microwave with the Global Positioning System, a set of 24 medium-Earth-orbit satellites. The Eye-Fi uses information from nearby wireless (and presumably public) routers to plot just the latitude and longitude (but no altitude unlike the GPS system) of the camera's location.
Skyhook Wireless has mapped the coordinates of "millions of wireless access points around the world," Eye-Fi claims. Using their data, latitude and longitude are added to the Exif header of your JPEGs.
This is nowhere near as comprehensive as a GPS-based solution and, given the short range of wireless routers, hard to believe. Caveat emptor.
We may have fallen in love with the idea when we first saw Eye-Fi but after using one for several months, we're no less smitten. Both the online software and the background software are well designed and well integrated. The setup and configuration process was very easy, even if it isn't possible to set up the card for networks you aren't connected to.
Performance, whether transferring images from the card to our computer or to an online service, was efficient. Transfers to our computer were pretty quick in fact.
Best of all is that we can indeed move images from an SD camera to our computer wirelessly. We don't have to upload them to an online service (as Nikon obliges you to do with my Picturetown), bypassing our computer. But you can also upload to an online service. Any of a number of them, in fact.
So while it may be a limited WiFi experience, the Eye-Fi does do exactly what it promises. Which, it turns out, is more than most promise these days. And around here that makes it the product of the year.