Review: Belkin Media Reader
Pros: Digital photograph card reader device with good build quality and stable functionality.
Cons: Other media (music, movies, text) not officially supported for transfer off of memory cards, and iPod’s battery life limits device’s usefulness for heavy music listeners.
Not Just for Audio Any More
Flash backwards several weeks to Apple’s release of iPod Software 2.1 for the iPod. At the time, the iPod was widely understood to be little more than a digital music player - one that people only suspected might be used for other purposes, as its ever-larger hard drive sizes began to suggest.
But 2.1 changed that, enabling iPods to record audio - for the time being, voice - and most pertinently to serve as digital photo transfer and storage devices. Belkin’s Media Reader for iPod is the first (and currently only) device to serve the latter purpose, and thankfully it does its job quite well - for typical users, at the very least.
Stealing Some Thunder
Digital photograph storage is fertile ground for portable device developers, as several prior devices (including Nixvue’s excellent Vista, Archos’ handhelds, and others) have already enabled photographers to move the contents of CompactFlash and other media cards onto hard disks. For the uninitiated, such dedicated devices enable photographers on the go to free up valuable media card space for shooting more photos, which during vacations is much easier than either owning gigabytes of media cards or dragging a full computer along everywhere for the same purpose.
At this point, it is important to emphasize the meaning of the word “media” as Belkin uses it, specifically as the ability to read from multiple forms of storage card hardware: the Media Reader locates and copies pictures from CompactFlash Type I and II, SmartMedia, Memory Stick, MMC, and SD cards. “Media” does not mean that the device necessarily reads content formats such as music, movies, or text. Belkin specifically disclaims the Media Reader’s ability to copy files other than still photographs, such as digital camera movies, though we found that the Media Reader did copy AVI format files we tested without complaint. (Additionally, though it is not an officially supported feature, we were able to transfer a MP3 from a media card to the iPod - but only into one of its data folders, and not the broader music library.)
Properly understood, then, the Media Reader for iPod is a self-powered peripheral that connects to the 3G iPod’s dock connector port and simply serves to transfer the photographic contents of media cards onto the iPod’s hard drive. Photos can then be transferred from iPod to computer via FireWire or USB 2.0 connection.
Simple Menus, Thanks to Apple
Like Belkin’s Voice Recorder, the Media Reader is helped considerably by Apple’s new iPod 2.1 system software, which contains native support for the peripheral via an easy-to-use menu system. Adding the Media Reader creates an Extras option called Photo Import, which leads to a menu with an Import Photos command and lists of already-imported photos to choose from.
Plug the Media Reader into the iPod and the screen will instantly describe the status of the Reader’s card ports, either detecting an inserted card or finding none (“No card inserted”). Within a few seconds of finding an inserted card, the iPod gives the user a description of what’s plugged in, the number of photos found, and the space used on the storage device. The user has the option to transfer the card’s contents (“Import”) or cancel.
Importing brings up a progress bar (“Importing”) with options to “Stop and Save” or “Cancel” mid way through. At the end of the import process, a conclusion screen says the type of device it tried to transfer from - “Media Card,” the number of pictures imported, and the storage space free on the card. Users can either choose “Done” and remove the card, or “Erase Card” to clean it entirely. Erasing has a safe confirmation screen and is accomplished fairly quickly, slowing based only on the number of files previously stored on the media card.
[Files are saved on the iPod in a series of numbered folders starting at 100APPLE and continuing in sequence from 101APPLE on. Each folder contains the original photographs (and perhaps movie files) found on a media card, along with a new folder called IPOD containing DATE, ROLL, and ORIGNAME.TXT data.]
Canceling at any point switches to the iPod’s existing Photos folder (the previously noted contents of the Photo Import menu), which contains “Rolls” of pictures, numbered sequentially by order of transfer and listing the number of photos per Roll. Clicking on a Roll lists the type of contents, the date and time of transfer, the number of photos and the space consumed, with an option to delete the entire Roll or cancel. No per-photo deleting or display is supported - an implicit limit of the Media Reader that contrasts with devices such as Nixvue’s more sophisticated Vista series. Based on the iPod’s screen and other technical limitations, we didn’t expect a photo view feature, but we get the sense that Apple has bigger plans for Media Reading in the future, both with future devices and the current iPod.
Smart Design - For Today
Like other quality iPod peripherals, Belkin’s Media Reader is made from shiny white plastic that matches the face of the iPod, with the exception of a retracting gray and white dock connector cable and a sliding gray panel that protects its media card slots. The unit also contains a single green LED that flashes to indicate transferring activity.
The total footprint of the Media Reader is only slightly larger than the iPod itself, and its heft is slight enough not to add any discernable weight to a bag. Notably, and unlike some comparable devices, the Media Reader actually contains all of the card slots for formats it supports, meaning that users do not need to use a PC Card adapter or other interface between the Media Reader and their media cards. On the strongly positive side, the Media Reader is therefore an all-in-one device that is entirely self contained in a small, clean package. On the slightly negative side, if a physically new media standard emerges, the current incarnation of the Media Reader won’t likely support it.
Another positive is the unit’s energy self-sufficiency. Powered by four AAA batteries, rather than a proprietary rechargeable cell, a Media reader doesn’t drain off of the iPod’s battery, per se. But importantly, the 3G iPods are not as battery friendly as Apple claims, drawing heavily upon their batteries to power any hard drive access. So although each transfer from the Media Reader is powered by the AAA batteries, the actual storage of those photos requires the iPod to spin up its hard drive for minutes of sustained activity. Judging by version 2.1’s apparently improved battery meter readings, the iPod’s internal battery takes a slight but noticeable hit after every significant transfer. Practically speaking, therefore, the Media Reader will be limited by the iPod’s battery life rather than the other way around, and serious traveling photographers should consider limiting their use of the iPod so as not to wear down its battery.
Survives Hard Testing
Our positive opinion of the Media Reader is informed by our past experiences with similar storage devices, which are similarly imperfect but generally more expensive tools that store digital photos. Each device has its own issues - expense, reliability, and battery consumption among them - but for the Media Reader’s price, we like what it does.
Following up on an early complaint from a user that his memory cards had problems with Media Reader transfers, we put the device through rather thorough tests to ascertain its safety as a temporary storage option for what we view as precious pictures. Prior to and during a sightseeing tour of Japan, we tested multiple memory card formats, reading the cards, copying their contents, then using the iPod to erase the cards, and repeating this process after taking more pictures. In each case, the cards and Media Reader had no problems of any sort, as photographs we retransferred intact and the cards continued to function properly. (We note that we have lost photographs using badly tested previous media devices, including Dazzle’s Memory Stick reader, and are still comfortable concluding that the Media Reader performs properly and safely.) We could find no evidence that the Media Reader’s built-in erase feature formats cards in a manner that even older cameras might find unreadable, however, users who are concerned about such a problem should consider re-formatting their memory cards upon camera insertion, if that is an option.
Transfer times from cards to the iPod are acceptable. Belkin claims a 300Kbps transfer rate, and we found that the Media Reader transferred data from our Lexar 8X CompactFlash cards at a rate of approximately 4 seconds per megabyte, which means a 50 megabyte transfer takes a bit over three minutes to complete. Some have raised questions about these transfer speeds, though they do compare reasonably with other devices such as Nixvue’s more expensive Digital Album and Vista series devices, and it should also be noted that the iPod and Media reader combination offers export support for both FireWire and USB 2.0 - something some other devices do not.
The simple fact is that the Media Reader can accomplish in minutes what would otherwise be expensive or impossible - the production of a completely usable blank memory card of equal size to one’s current card, with storage of its prior photographic contents. Though there are other devices that do the same thing, and some of them are fuller featured, Belkin’s solution is good for what it does.
And that’s really the most important thing to remember about the Media Reader. Though it is limited in purpose, it achieves that purpose quite well, and at a price (MSRP under $110) that is entirely reasonable given the current prices of comparable options. (Just to mention a few, single gigabyte memory cards (currently $150+), photo storage devices (currently $300+) and full-fledged notebook computers with PC Card adapters are all more expensive than turning the iPod into a temporary storage place for photos.)
We would not hesitate to recommend the Media Reader to a typical digital photographer who is short on space and extra cash, though we would also recommend cautious monitoring and recharging of the iPod’s built-in battery. It’s the only weak link in an otherwise strong chain of quality hardware and easy-to-use software. Power users may chafe at some of the device’s designed-in limitations, but even they might come to concede that the Media Reader cheaply leverages extra iPod disk space into a useful alternative to buying extra media cards.
April 5, 2005 Update: iPod photo Compatibility
Apple introduced the color-screened iPod photo in late 2004, but until recently, the new iPod was not able to automatically display photographs that had been transferred to its hard disk by the Media Reader. Specifically, up until Apple’s introduction of version 1.1 of the iPod photo firmware, there was no major difference between the Media Reader’s performance with an iPod photo and that of a standard iPod: a transferring screen came up indicating file transferring progress, and your digital photos appeared in a folder that could only be opened and viewed on a computer.
Version 1.1 of the iPod photo’s firmware changes that. Now a more sophisticated version of the photo import menu appears, with the ability to visually preview pictures as they are imported, and view them on the iPod as full-screen images when they have been saved. Full-resolution versions are stored on the hard drive for later transfer to and viewing on your computer. For more details on the new transfer mode, you can read our review of Apple’s iPod Camera Connector.
We ran a brief set of tests to see how the Media Reader performed by comparison with Apple’s product, and found the speeds very comparable. Using the same Lexar 80X Pro memory card and 335 Megabytes of photos in each of three tests, we saw that the Media Reader transferred in 12 minutes, 43 seconds on version 1.1 of the firmware - 2.28 seconds per Meg; 11 minutes, 56 seconds on version 1.0 (without picture previewing) - 2.14 seconds per Meg; and 12 minutes, 59 seconds with Apple’s iPod Camera Connector connected to a Nikon 8800 camera - 2.33 seconds per Meg. We’d characterize these differences (particularly the first and last ones) as almost meaningless, and we’ve seen even more variation in the transfer speed when the same card, same camera, and same device (iPod Camera Connector) were tested earlier with different photos.
A year and a half after its introduction, the Media Reader remains a viable alternative for transferring digital photos to your iPod. Though it is more expensive than Apple’s $29 iPod Camera Connector, it is at least as fast, and has the distinct advantages of including its own card reader and not draining the power of an attached camera as it works. If you own memory cards that are compatible with its older collection of slots, and don’t mind the price, you’ll find that it works quite well for non-professional applications.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.