Review: Eye-Fi Explore

By Gerry Blackwell

September 29, 2008

This wireless photo memory card enables users to upload images from digital cameras to Wi-Fi hotspots--and it even automatically geotags the photos--but it suffers from set up glitches, camera battery drain, and no PC access.

Eye-Fi Explore
www.eye.fi
Price: $129.99
Pros: Automatically geotags your photos; uploading from hotspots included in price
Cons: Set-up glitches; camera battery drain; only picture uploads from hotspots – no PC access

Eye-Fi, the wireless photo memory card that lets you automatically upload pictures from your camera to a computer or Web site over Wi-Fi networks, is such a cool idea. And the execution isn’t too shabby either, although we encountered a few bumps.

Eye-Fi, the company, sells three products ranging in price from $80 to $130. All are 2-Gigabyte SD (secure digital) memory cards with onboard Wi-Fi and software. Two, including the new Eye-Fi Explore (that we reviewed), are bundled with additional services and capabilities.

The Explore model adds unlimited geotagging of pictures using the Skyhook Wireless service and the ability to upload pictures from any of over 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots operated by Wayport Inc. or its partners. [More on that here.]

The Eye-Fi cards are the same form factor as ordinary SD cards, so they fit in any SD-compatible camera. With an adapter you can use them in cameras that take Compact Flash (CF) memory cards as well.

The basic Eye-Fi Home lets you upload pictures to a local computer. When you snap a picture and leave the camera on and in range of your wireless network, Eye-Fi automatically begins uploading the picture file to your computer. [More on that here.]

If you turn the camera off or move out of range, Eye-Fi obviously stops uploading. But, as soon as you’re in range again with the camera turned on, it starts sending from the point it left off.

The Wi-Fi Share ($100) adds the ability to automatically post pictures to a photo sharing site for which you have an account--or multiple sites. Eye-Fi works with most popular sites, including Flickr and Picasa.

We tested the top-of-the-line Explore model, which includes unlimited geotagging--where the Skyhook service is available, which is most places--and one year of free Wayport hotspot access.

To keep the Wayport account active after the first year, you pay just $20 annually. The account does not let you log in with a computer or handheld, however.

Eye-Fi was initially unwilling to send a unit to our testing site in Canada because the product isn’t currently sold outside the United States. But while Wayport and Skyhook coverage is not as dense in other places as it is in the U.S., there is no reason the product shouldn’t work anywhere. Indeed, part of the point of geotagging is that it will record where you take pictures when you’re traveling.

Whichever version of Eye-Fi you have, you can control settings and see a history of uploads on your PC or Mac, using the Eye-Fi Manager software, which installs from the card itself when you plug it into a computer using the included USB adapter.

Set up

The Eye-Fi is slickly packaged, with an easy fold-out quick-start guide. The set-up process went smoothly enough in the early going, but ran into one slight snag.

The process starts with plugging the Eye-Fi card, inserted in its USB card reader, into your computer and waiting for Windows to recognize it and install basic drivers. The browser-based Eye-Fi software then installed on our test computer, but when the program tried to launch at the end of the installation, Internet Explorer froze.

We had to shut Explorer down, relaunch it, then launch the Eye-Fi Manager from Windows All Programs. When we did that, a message popped up saying an update for the software was available. After installing the update, the software ran for the most part without problems.eye-fi_cards_explorergb.jpg

The set-up process continues, once Eye-Fi Manager launches in a browser. You can later change any of the settings configured in this first-time process by clicking Settings in the program’s main toolbar.

The first step is updating the firmware (if required) by going out to the Eye-Fi Web site to download and then install the code on the card--all managed by the software. The next step is to select a network or networks to connect to--starting with your own home or office network or the network wherever you currently are.

You also choose at this point whether you want to set up the card to automatically use Wayport hotspots and free open networks. There is an option on this screen to only connect to networks that you have specifically configured, which we would recommend using. Although Eye-Fi suggests that uploads over open networks are secure, we think it unlikely this will always be the case.

You also tell Eye-Fi where you want uploaded pictures stored on your computer, which, if any, online services you want to use, and whether you want to enable geotagging using the Skyhook service.

Uploads

Once set-up was complete, we ran into a basic, but solvable, when first using the product. Our test camera is a Nikon D40X digital SLR. It’s one that requires special configuration to prevent the camera automatically turning power off--as a battery conservation measure--and preventing the card completing its uploads.

Eye-Fi provides instructions on how to navigate the camera menus to do this. The instructions posted at the site at the time of writing leave out a couple of necessary steps, however. Without them, the camera reverts to the default settings under which it turns off after only a few seconds if there is no activity.

Also, this reconfiguration does mean you’ll run the camera battery down faster. We noticed the effect almost immediately.

We encountered one other basic but, again, solvable problem. If you shoot anything other than JPEG files--Raw files or any camera-specific format--Eye-Fi can’t upload those pictures. It can only handle JPEGs.

Solution: if you want to shoot Raw files and the option is available, choose to save both a Raw image and a basic JPEG version of the image at the same time. This worked with our Nikon D40X test camera.

You will still have to manually upload the RAW files to your computer, of course. And storing the additional JPEG file means you’ll fill up the card faster than you would if just storing RAW files.

In our tests of basic functionality, the card performed admirably. Uploading over a Wi-Fi network to a local PC happens very quickly, and range was good--up to 60 feet through walls in our testing.

But, with a high-megapixel camera such as the test unit (10 megapixels), it can take over 30 seconds to upload even a basic-quality picture to a photo sharing site, such as Flickr. And the upload to the Web is directly from the camera card, rather than from the copy stored on your hard drive. This means the process draws camera battery power and turning off the camera will interrupt it.

The geotagging feature is great in theory, but did not work particularly well in our tests. This probably had more to do with where we tested--a mid-size city in central Canada--than with any failure of the product.

While Skyhook coverage maps show that the area is well covered, geotagging was frequently only accurate to within a couple of miles. This is not so surprising given the way Skyhook works.

To achieve positioning accuracy anywhere, indoors or out, which the company boasts as its big differentiator, Skyhook uses a combination of techniques, reading signals from GPS satellites, plus cell phone towers and Wi-Fi access points. It has mapped locations for and continually adds to and updates data on thousands of cell towers and millions of access points around the world. [For more on that, click here.]

With Eye-Fi, it can only use the signals from wireless access points to triangulate your position. This is probably the least reliable method in Skyhook’s arsenal because the company depends largely on users for mapping APs.

Users can key in the position and MAC address of their access point at the company’s Web site. And any Skyhook-enabled Wi-Fi device will detect signals from unmapped APs, and automatically send this information to the database as part of the positioning process.

Bottom line

Despite the set-up glitches, we can recommend the Eye-Fi Home. That functionality works as advertised. The additional functionality of the Eye-Fi Share--automatic uploading to a photo sharing site--also worked well, but you need to think about whether you want every shot you take sent to your sharing site.

If not, you can cull pictures before you let the camera start uploading, deleting the duds. But with only the camera’s LCD monitor to use to evaluate pictures, this could be risky.

The Wayport access provided with Eye-Fi Explore means that you could upload pictures to a sharing site from hotspots when you’re traveling, then delete them from the card to make room for more pictures.

Be aware, however, that some sharing sites will charge you to download the original file back to your computer when you get home, and may do some processing of image files that degrades quality.

If you leave your PC or Mac on all the time--which we don’t recommend: we should be thinking green--you can also upload from a hotspot directly to your computer over the Net. This capability is automatically set-up during initial configuration of geotagging.

Also, consider that you’ll have to pay for Wayport access after the first year.

We take it on trust that geotagging works better in more densely populated areas--though wonder, given how it works, if it’s ever likely to be perfect.

Still, it’s a very cool feature. It might be enough to make the Explore version worth the extra $30, even if you don’t intend to keep the Wayport access active after the first year.

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist based in London, Ontario.



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