Myron Kassaraba's weblog about digital photography on the web

Friday, November 16, 2007

Eye-Fi Review: Almost Great

I have now been using the Eye-Fi card, from Eye-Fi, Inc. for a few weeks and though it does some things very well there are several major issues that keep it from being a "gotta have" product.

The Good: I must complement the company on their packaging and user experience. Installation was very smooth and easy and their Eye-Fi Manager control panel and web interface is clean and easy to use with excellent online help. Their email support was prompt and knowledgeable. At $99 for a 2 Mb SD card, it is approachable for photo enthusiasts.

When the Eye-Fi is paired to a wireless (Wi-Fi) network and inserted into the SD slot of your digital camera. It automatically uploads pictures from your card through the network to the Eye-Fi servers which in turn send the files to one of many photo sites supported by the service (like Facebook. Flickr, Picasa Web, etc.) and/or to a folder you specify on your desktop. You configure these destination options using the web-based Eye-Fi Manger. In my tests using several Nikon Coolpix models, this worked flawlessly. If you have taken pictures while out of range of a wireless network you are paired to, the card is smart enough to queue those files to upload when you are connected.

The Eye-Fi card is an ambitious project and a clever implementation. Trying to get a card to communicate with a wireless network and run a program to manage uploads over that network in a device that doesn't know that all this is happening is no small feat unto itself. On that score the Eye-Fi card does a great job - though this lack of communication with the camera creates some major limitations on how the card can be used.

The Bad: The first limitation has to do with how the card is paired with a wireless network. To do this you remove the card from your camera and put it into the supplied USB reader which needs to be plugged-in to a PC or laptop. The card then sniffs out the available networks and allows you to add a network profile for that network. Network pairing can only be configured from the PC/laptop. Network-based security keys are supported but services requiring a login (like a T-Mobile hotspot where you need a username and password) are not. This means you need to take your laptop with the card to every location that you will want to pair the card to a network. For me this was great for my home network or the one at the office but it eliminates one of the visions where you could hop on any Wi-Fi network or go to Starbucks to upload your photos.

The second limitation is the inability to select if a specific photo is to be sent to the network or not and as importantly, the ability to select where it should be sent. In a single photo-taking outing there may be pictures I want to send to a public service like Flickr and others that I just want moved to my PC.

Conclusion: It is too bad that the Eye-Fi card has to operate "blindly" when inserted in your camera. I totally understand why they had to do this. Digital cameras are not "open" devices where Eye-Fi could make use of the UI and screen of the camera. Hopefully they will be able to continue to be clever and come up with a work-around for pairing to a network like T-Mobile's hotspots without actually connecting to that specific network. That will still be hard since once the card is in your camera, you have no UI or way to get feedback on how the Wi-Fi part of the card is working. If you want to always send all of your photos to the same destination sites, you don't like messing with cables or docking stations and you are often in places that have a Wi-Fi network that you can use your laptop to pair with then the Eye-Fi is for you. For what it does, it is a well executed product. Just make sure you think through if you can live with the limitations.

One might see digital camera vendors adapting their in-camera software and UI to be Eye-fi aware so that if the card is detected in the slot, the is access to some basic UI. That will take time to get that type of integration and the camera vendors may go directly to adding Wi-Fi to their bill-of-materials (along with GPS chips we hope!).
This is where camera phones like the Nokia N95 what have built-in WiFi have a distinct advantage for mobile photo takers - the Wi-Fi is integrated with the phone's UI so you can select and configure Wi-Fi network access on the device and if Wi-Fi is not available, you always have the cellular network. If you really want to need to upload photos in real-time from almost anywhere, an N-series Nokia (N73, N81, N93, N95) or SONY Ericsson Cybershot camera phone today is a better option.



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