Review: Belkin Digital Camera Link
Pros: Small device, relatively fast transfers of digital media cards onto the iPod from certain digital cameras.
Cons: Only compatible with certain digital cameras, drains power of camera, iPod and itself in process. Limited for use with newer iPod photo hardware.
Last October, we were reasonably impressed by Belkin’s Media Reader, an iPod accessory that enabled traveling digital photographers to copy off and wipe clean the contents of their Compact Flash, Memory Stick and other media cards using the iPod as a storage vault. Back then, the Media Reader’s $100 pricetag and merely acceptable transfer speed didn’t bother us that much, given that the closest alternatives were to buy a $300 dedicated photo storage device or a larger collection of pricey media cards.
But as digital media prices have fallen, cheap portable photo CD burners have become available, and powerful cameras have become more popular, the Media Reader has come under increased price and performance pressure. Gadget-loving photographers routinely push the limits of cameras and media cards by saving up to eight megapixel images and huge RAW format files, demanding all the while fast transfer speeds from their storage devices.
That’s where the Belkin Digital Camera Link is supposed to come in. Cheaper at an $80 retail price and smaller than the company’s previous media reader, the DCL also remedies the biggest complaint about the Media Reader levied by the niche professional photographers’ market: speed. But it also introduces some new problems, namely battery and compatibility issues, which cripple what could otherwise have been a universally well-received new product.
The white plastic Digital Camera Link is virtually identical to the iPod in size - actually a hint smaller - and connects to the iPod with a short Dock Connector cable that wraps around the Link’s bottom. Two AA batteries provide the DCL with power for around 3GB of data transfers, but as was the case with the Media Reader, your iPod is far more likely to run out of juice than the accessory, given that the hard disk access considerably saps battery strength. Again, external power is not an option for the DCL, or for the iPod while the DCL is connected to its Dock Connector port.
Unlike the Media Reader, the DCL includes no ports for memory cards and thereby might be considered format agnostic; instead it relies on a single standard USB port, one button, and an array of three LED lights behind a frosted clear plastic panel. Once the iPod is turned on, you plug your camera into the DCL with your standard USB cable, turn your camera on to its data transmission mode, and press the DCL’s button.
If all goes well, the lights will flash green and cycle to indicate that the data is transferring. A double flashing red light tells you that your camera’s incompatible with the DCL, while a single flashing red light indicates that the iPod’s full. An cycling amber light indicates that the DCL is verifying the transfer of data, which you can opt to do with a second button press once a transfer has ended.
Overall, the DCL was designed quite well, with a small catch or two. Besides the power consumption issues, which are more the iPod’s problem than any accessory’s, our only gripe with the design of the DCL is its frosted clear plastic panel, which was exceedingly hard to see under direct sunlight. We were surprised outdoors not to realize that the unit was even turned on, and we couldn’t see any of the indicator colors without cupping our hands, hood-like over the panel. This did become an issue for us at one point, but you’ll have to skip a section to understand why.
Like the Media Reader, the Digital Camera Link transfers digital photos easily onto the iPod, but as mentioned above, the DCL’s transfers take place with a single button press. That’s an ease-of-use improvement on the Media Reader’s already simple user interface.
Apple’s release of iPod 2.1 system software included a new tool called Photo Import, which came on-screen when the Media Reader was attached in order to coordinate file transfers between the Reader and the iPod. Photo Import never appears on screen when you connect the DCL - instead, the iPod shifts into “Do Not Disconnect” mode after you’ve pushed the DCL’s button to initiate a file transfer, and returns to its normal menus as soon as the transfer’s over. All status indications are handled through the DCL’s frosted LED panel, and a list of the LEDs’ meanings is printed on the back of the device.
Files are saved on the iPod just as they were described in our review of the Media Reader. Photo Import can see and delete the folders, tell you the number of files inside, and note the space they consume. Your computer will see the files almost exactly as they would have appeared on your memory card, except their folders will be renamed “Apple” in place of the camera manufacturer’s name. It’s a cute touch we still enjoy seeing.
Belkin makes no assurance that many digital cameras will be compatible with the DCL: its manual specifies only that “[d]igital cameras supported will be those using either the PIMA 15740 PTP protocol or the FAT 12/16/32 mass storage format. These devices must also use either Bulk Only or Control/Bulk or Control/Bulk/Interrupt USB protocols.” (It’s specifically not compatible with Microdrives, at least according to the manual.) The in-box list of supported cameras include two to three cameras from each major manufacturer’s line, except for Fuji and Minolta which have only one listed product each; however, Belkin appears to have updated the list considerably, suggesting that many cameras now work with the device.
It was with some surprise that we discovered that the DCL worked with the test camera we didn’t expect to see supported, but didn’t work with the one that would benefit most from its features. Neither camera was on either of Belkin’s printed or online lists of cameras. We first plugged in our Canon Powershot S400, a four-megapixel camera which records only JPEG-format images. The DCL interfaced properly with the Powershot and transferred photos directly and properly onto the iPod’s hard drive with only one button press.
Directly and properly is perhaps an understatement. In our first test, the Digital Camera Link transferred 28.8 megabytes of photos from our S400 in 76 seconds, a rate of 2.64 seconds per megabyte. The card inside was a Lexar 8X card. This represented a dramatic improvement over our previous Media Reader transfer speed, which transferred 50 megabytes in 200 seconds, a rate of 4 seconds per megabyte.
We were pleased by the improvement, and figured that our second test camera - Canon’s 10D digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) - might outdo it. Designed for professionals and high-end “prosumers,” the $1500 10D is the sort of camera owned by people who complain about slow Media Reader transfer rates. With a 6.3 megapixel imager and the ability to write gigantic RAW format image files, the 10D screams for fast, high-capacity media, and owners typically buy Microdrives, single or multi-gigabyte memory cards, or portable storage devices, if not all three.
We tried the Canon 10D outside with a 12X Lexar memory card packed full of 5 megabyte RAW images. First, we couldn’t see the indications on the Digital Card Link’s screen, and didn’t know why it wasn’t transferring. Then we came to realize that the red lights were flashing to indicate that the camera was incompatible with the DCL, a major blow.
For kicks, we tossed the 12X card into our S400 and tried to see if the DCL would successfully transfer all the RAW files onto the iPod regardless of the fact that the camera did not support the RAW format. Lo and behold, the files transferred directly and properly, and again, that was an understatement. This time, the DCL transferred 245.4 megabytes of images in 503 seconds, a rate of 1.98 seconds per megabyte.
Because of the discrepancy in our speed tests, we did one more test just to see how the DCL would do with an 8X card with RAW images on board - 152.9 megs of files were successfully transferred in 305 seconds, a rate of 1.99 seconds per megabyte. But interestingly, on our first attempt to run this test, we managed to cause a 30-minute lock up of the iPod and DCL. During the lock up, the DCL indicated that it was transferring, the camera’s transfer light flashed busy, and the iPod’s hard drive spun. But when we checked the iPod, no files had been transferred. The same card, unchanged, copied fine on our next attempt.
As a general rule, it seems fair to say that when the Digital Camera Link is performing properly, it performs well - arguably better than the Media Reader at its prime. But it has two limitations that will likely reduce its appeal to serious photographers, namely its compatibility, and the fact that it drains three batteries while it transfers - the iPod’s, the camera’s, and its own. One uninterrupted lock-up can drain the iPod and camera to the point of uselessness. Conceptually, the Media Reader was a somewhat smarter idea from these standpoints, with the tradeoff of a slower execution.
While many people liked Belkin’s Media Reader, hard core photographers scoffed at its transfer speeds; the Digital Camera Link improves dramatically upon that issue, but introduces new issues of compatibility and camera battery drain in the process. So a significant part of Belkin’s target audience will be put off by the device’s limitations, a factor which weighs against an “excited” rating for this project.
We note that the improved speeds - several minutes for a typical user’s memory card - are apparently capped at the outer edge of the USB standard, and as such won’t compare with the transfer speeds one might get from carrying a laptop or dedicated digital storage device around. However, this is an $80 add-on to an existing investment rather than a brand new $250-1500 investment, another factor we kept in mind when rating the product.
There were small things that took away from our overall satisfaction with the Digital Camera Link as a product, specifically its outdoors-unfriendly LED panel and the one lock-up we experienced. However, to be fair to the device, we did put it under unusual strain by using RAW files taken by another camera, and tested it with a camera not listed on Belkin’s official supported camera lists. That’s not entirely our fault, of course, since Belkin chose to guarantee limited support for its product, but since we’re arguably outside of the target market, it’s a final factor we took into account.
For people whose cameras are supported, the Digital Camera Link is a good product: for a cheaper price than the Media Reader (its only current competition), it offers a much faster way to transfer images onto the iPod than ever before, and is therefore a viable option for the casual photographer. But since it accomplishes its performance at the cost of iPod and camera battery life, we think that it’s only “happy”-class recommendable for the user who can access a power outlet or additional rechargeable batteries (yet not a full-fledged computer). Depending on your camera and your needs, you may not need extra batteries, they may be cheap, and you may have on-the-road iPod recharging capability. If so, you’re definitely in the right potential buyer category for this accessory.
Since we’re not part of that audience, the Digital Camera Link scores a weak “happy” overall; for those outside of the target market, it’s merely an okay product. But it’s one that we hope Belkin and Apple will continue to improve upon with inventions to come.
April 2005 Update: iPod photo Compatibility
Since our initial review of this accessory, Belkin has released an updated revision of the product that guarantees full compatibility with Apple’s iPod photo and fourth-generation iPod hardware. The difference between the two peripherals is an additional “01” mark on the rear of newer DCL units; older ones have only CE, FCC, and C-Tick marks.
You can tell the difference between old and new units by a black dot that appears only on revision 2 boxes; these boxes have been in stores since October 2004, according to Belkin, and older versions should not be sold as new product. Therefore, if you’re buying a Digital Camera Link from a small retailer or used via eBay, make sure that it at least has the 01 mark on its casing, and hopefully also the black dot on its box, before you make a purchase to use with your iPod photo or 4G iPod.
Having tested the updated Digital Camera Link with our own iPod photo hardware, we found that it took 12 minutes, 51 seconds to transfer 412MB of photos from a Nikon Coolpix 8800 with an 80X Pro Lexar card inside - 1.87 seconds per Megabyte, the fastest rate of any of the iPod photo transfer accessories we’ve tested.
However, unlike both Belkin’s Media Reader and Apple’s own iPod Camera Connector, the Digital Camera Link does not display any progress indicator on the iPod’s screen when it transfers, does not let you preview or view photos on the iPod photo’s screen, and tucks the photos into directories (shown above as 001APPLE) that the iPod photo can’t even detect are there; it only notices the directories that start with 1xxAPPLE. Consequently, you have to trust that the photos were properly transferred - which they likely will be, if the DCL’s built-in lights indicate that they were - and wait until you connect to a computer to view them. Given superior options, most iPod photo users would never want to live with this limitation, but 3G and 4G iPod users mightn’t mind.
While we won’t re-grade the DCL in light of these iPod photo-specific limitations relative to its competitors, or its speed advantage relative to them, we do note that Apple’s cheaper iPod Camera Connector is far more likely to satisfy the needs of most iPod photo users. The Digital Camera Link remains an acceptable option for 4G iPods - assuming you have a revision 2 unit that’s fully compatible - and for all 3G iPod owners.
Updated February 23, 2007: Belkin has discontinued the Digital Camera Link and no longer offers compatibility updates for more recent iPod models.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.