Friday, August 1, 2008

Portable image storage

Portable image backup devices have been around for a few years, and have gradually evolved to have more (and hopefully better) features.The basic features are: to run off batteries, read directly from camera flash cards, writing to an internal hard drive, and to be able to later read the files off to a computer. Examples include the Epson P-2000/etc, the Canon M80, the Jobo Giga Vu, Hyperdrive Colorspace, etc, etc.
While at one point these devices were simply referred to as Portable Storage Devices ("PSDs"), more and more features have been added to some models, and some recent models are referred to as Multimedia Storage Players. Not only can they backup cards, they can also play audio and video files, have internal FM radios, and even record video signals. Actually I'm not quite sure what the best moniker for this class of device is these days.

With some big trips coming up, it's time to overhaul my equipment...


Southbank on a wet morning

History

My first unit of this type was an early Vosonic X's-Drive unit (the VP300), and I was very unhappy with it. It didn't handle any "soft errors" well, immediately aborting all transfers. I think the drive I was using may have had a few bad blocks, and while a normal computer would remap the blocks and move on, the VP300 just gave up. A subsequent backup might work (presumably because the "bad block" was now allocated to an existing file).

Also while it slowly ticked over during a card backup, you couldn't leave it unattended. When it finished the backup (either because it finished successfully or it aborted due to a problem: e.g. the drive got upset because it was bumped) it would tell you the status, but if you were busy taking more photographs with another card, by the time you looked at the VP300 was likely to have powered off. When you turned it on again it gave no indication of whether the last backup had failed. With all the duplicate card backups, the battery ran down fairly quickly. I soon got rid of the VP300: it frustrated me a couple of times too many!

I then used a CompactDrive PD7X for a few years. This used rechargable AA batteries, and backed up cards at a reasonable speed.

I later got myself a Nexto ND2500 with an 80GB drive (see my notes on it). This unit has a CF slot but no SD slot. My DSLRs all use CF cards, but an SD->CF adapter worked well for the 1GB SD Ultra II cards we used in a Panasonic LX-1. The ND2500 backed up a full SanDisk Extreme III 2GB card in just over 3 minutes, which was a major step up in speed from everything else on the market.
Full 1GB Ultra II SD cards get backed up via the adapter in a couple of minutes. The ND2500 uses a 7.4V Li-Ion battery, which lasts a long time with short backups.

Like the VP300, the ND2500 will power itself off when left unattended after a backup, but when turned on again will tell you if the last backup succeeded/failed! Yay! The ND2500 connects to the computer via either Firewire 400 (charging the battery if unmounted) or USB2.0, and with Firewire ports on all Macs (ignoring the MacBook Air) this was very convenient.

These days I try to have enough card storage to last me through an outing (or a day if it's a multi-day outing) without having to re-use cards, but I still need to back up the cards as soon as possible. When travelling through East Africa in 2006, we backed up all our camera cards to the ND2500 as soon as they were full. We then had the option of re-using the cards if necessary, although if possible we left that until after the new files on the ND2500 had been copied to my 12" PowerBook's internal drive. This worked very well, and we brought back our files duplicated across the ND2500 and the PowerBook (carried in separate luggage of course to minimise the risk of losing any images).
Using the PowerBook we could review our photos, which is very useful when on long trips. This same gear also worked very well for our other expeditions around Australia.

Time to upgrade!

With some big upcoming trips in late 2008 and 2009, it was time to upgrade some of our equipment. With a range of newer devices available I settled on the mixture of the Nexto ND2700 and the Vosonic VP5700. Both of these devices use 2.5" SATA drives, and we happened to have some of these (120GB and 200GB) left over from laptop upgrades. Each unit cost a little over AU$200 (they're available prepacked with drives for a little more). The AC and car chargers for these units are compatible: you can mix-and-match between brands.

Nexto ND2700
The ND2700 is exactly the same size as the ND2500, and with a very similar operation interface (the LCD only gives status: no ability to view images). It doesn't have Firewire, but it has USB2 and ESATA (I'm only using the USB2 port at the moment). It has a CompactFlash slot that accepts Type I and Type II cards (the only difference being that Type II is thicker: the MicroDrives are examples) and a slot that accepts SDHC/MMC/MS/xD cards. With a mixture of CF, SD, and SDHC cards in our devices, this is a good match. Like the ND2500 it tells you if the previous backup succeeded/failed, and it's even faster at backups.

The ND2700 doesn't come with a case (other than a neoprene sleeve which you need to remove to access the SDHC slot) but I've found the Case Logic PHDC1 case (which I use for some USB drives also) works very well.

If you fit an unformatted drive into the unit (or even a formatted one) it is possible to go through the menus and format the drive without having to use a computer. Having the ability to buy, fit and format a replacement drive while in a remote location (as long as you can find a standard laptop hard drive) increases the utility of the drive. It's not a function that I expect to use much, but if a card is inserted which has been previously backed up, you can select to back up only the new files.

Vosonic VP5700


Vosonic have developed their devices a little since the VP300, and the current models that looked interesting were the VP5700 or the VP8860. Both of these have large colour LCDs for viewing photos, and will play videos and MP3s/etc. Audio/video playing isn't of interest to me as it will just use up the battery power that we need for card backups, but it doesn't hurt. They have slots that will read CF and SDHC cards (and more, but that's all I'm interested in). However, the CF slot wil only accept Type I cards. Luckily this works OK for me. The Vosonic units use a Li-Ion battery (compatible with the Fuji NP-100) and even come with a spare. I'm yet to work out how long the battery will last.

The VP8860 has a large 4.3" LCD (the VP5700 is "only" 3.5") and will also record audio and video (and has an FM tuner in-built). The large screen (with more pixels, not just larger) sounded interesting, but the price jump from the VP5700 wasn't justified for me.
Since I've been using the VP5700 I'm not sure the higher-res LCD of the VP8860 would actually be that important anyway. While the device will let you browse through the folders and view photos, the image it displays is just the JPEG preview embedded in the RAW files (all my photos are in RAW format, and so far I've used it with EOS 40D, 5D and PowerShot G9 files). You can zoom in/out, but it doesn't take much zooming until you're running out of detail in the JPEG images.
It's useful to be able to review your images (and see EXIF data and histograms) but don't expect too much from it. For instance, you can't use it to judge critical focus in your photos as there's simply not enough detail in the JPEGs.

The manual for the VP5700 says that your hard drive needs to have already been formatted with a FAT partition. Although at the end of the manual it describes the menu function to format the drive without a PC I found this locked up the unit, requiring a pin to press the recessed reset button. I eventually formatted the drive via USB from my MacBook.
The VP5700 won't recognise previously-backed-up cards: simply offering to copy them again.

Conclusions

The main reason I've got two devices is that on some of our expeditions we will be travelling light: not carrying a laptop (e.g. several weeks in SE Asia). By using two backup devices we can backup each card to both devices, and as long as one of them has an LCD we'll be able to review/show photos from the earlier parts of the trip.
I've loved the ND2500, and the ND2700 just builds on it in terms of features. But to get the ability to view the photos I ended up with the VP5700 also. I could have got a pre-packaged unit such as from Jobo, Epson, or Canon, but issues such as limited drive size and high cost counted against those.

The VP5700 is noticeably slower than the ND2700, and after it auto-powers-off it won't tell you if the previous backup succeeded/failed, but I think I can live with it. For an indication of the speed difference, I tested the backup speed with several cards. The CF cards had just been filled with EOS 40D images, the SDHC card populated with some G9 images:

UnitExtreme IV 4GB CFExtreme III 4GB CFEagleTec 4GB SDHC
3992.6 MB3990.2 MB310.9 MB
ND27002m17s
29.1 MB/s
3m44s
17.8 MB/s

17.3 MB/s
VP57007m35s
8.8 MB/s
13m47s
4.8 MB/s

8.6 MB/s

As you can see, the speed difference between the units is dramatic! Note that this is not a comprehensive speed test, just an indication. But with the VP5700's colour LCD and the increased on-time to complete downloads, I expect the spare battery is going to be important!

Both units work well as USB drives. With several drives hooked up to my MacBook's USB ports there's not quite enough power to charge all of them, but they work fine relying on their batteries. On our longer expeditions where we'll have a laptop along, the units will be used mainly as USB drives for image backups, but the ability to survive without the laptop after a disaster makes for good peace of mind.
Continue reading "Portable image storage"...

SPOT Messenger

As someone who often travels alone to remote locations, for many years I've carried a personal EPIRB so that if I have an accident I can alert emergency services. This has given my family a bit of peace of mind when I've headed off into the outback on my own.

Changes to the EPIRB system mean that the old 121.5/243 MHz EPIRB beacons will be obsolete in February 2009. The newer digital EPIRBs and PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) offer lots of advantages, including faster signalling (the old units can take hours before the emergency services are deployed: the new units work within minutes) and better accuracy (units can have internal GPS receivers with accuracies down to 15m, versus 2km for the non-GPS units, and ~20km for the old analog units). They also have unique IDs, so when an alarm is activated they know who's having the problem and can call their nominated contacts immediately.

With all those advantages, upgrading an old EPIRB to a new PLB would be a sensible move even if the old system wasn't being retired. Of course, the fancy new technology is not cheap: a GME MT410 PLB costs ~AU$450, and the MT410G (with GPS) costs ~AU$600. If you can find a Kannad XS2 (no GPS) it costs ~AU$350. Every 5 years or so these units need to be sent in to have their internal batteries replaced (a procedure my old MT310 EPIRB has gone through in the past).

In looking around for something to replace my old EPIRB, I recently came across a different option: the SPOT Messenger. This has an internal GPS, and communicates via GlobalSat satellites. While it has an emergency alert function, that's not all it can do. It has three messages you can send:
  • Emergency alert ("911") which gets passed to emergency services.
  • "OK", which will send an email to a list of addresses you've configured via their website. The email basically says "I'm OK, and here's a Google Maps link to show you my current location".
  • "Help", which again will send an email to a list of addresses you've configured via their website. This can be configured to send a different email than OK (e.g. "Please help") without triggering a response from emergency services.

The SPOT uses field-replaceable AA batteries, and costs US$170 (plus US$108/year for service and US$100,000 of emergency response costs). It looks like a really attractive option! However, it's not perfect: it doesn't have quite the worldwide coverage of a PLB and it's run out of the USA instead of being hooked into international emergency response centres. But if it covers your area, the ability to send "I'm OK" messages to family is worth a lot!

According to the published coverage map the coverage of Australia and New Zealand is great. Unfortunately the coverage of many of the international locations I'll be travelling to in the next year is spotty or nonexistent which is a shame: it would be nice to be able to send status reports to the family while we're travelling.
But right now I'm seriously considering purchasing a SPOT. If you're a photographer who has one already (especially if you're in Australia) I'd appreciate hearing from you!
Continue reading "SPOT Messenger"...