Review: Sima Products Hitch USB Transfer Device for Music, Video & Photos
Pros: A smart transfer device that enables iPod-to-iPod music and data transfers at reasonable speeds, and with simple controls an average person can pick up in minutes. Includes an integrated, adequate rechargeable battery and wall charger. Overall build quality, menu design, and feature set are all good. Can also be used to connect iPods and non-iPod USB devices such as cameras to each other for file transfers.
Cons: Asking price is high for all but frequent file copying purposes. Doesn’t work with Mac-formatted iPods, requiring a user workaround. Odd iPod database synchronization issue prevented transferred music from being instantly playable unless a non-default setting was picked, again requiring a user workaround, or requiring post-transfer iTunes syncing to be handled manually by user. Photo transfer process can be very time-consuming, draining Hitch’s, iPod’s, and camera’s batteries in process; music transfer process is a little faster, but interrupted by need to go artist by artist or album by album.
When we first saw a prototype of Sima Products’ Hitch ($150) back in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we were instantly excited: the company had come up with an answer to one of the iPod world’s biggest questions - “how do I transfer my iPod’s music onto another iPod?” - and made it relatively easy to accomplish. Just now beginning to ship, Hitch is the first USB intermediary device to be marketed towards iPod owners, and is capable of copying virtually anything on any USB storage device to and from another USB storage device, no matter where you are. Besides its physical portability - it’s only a little larger than a 40GB or 60GB fourth-generation iPod, with slightly different curves and weight - it’s powered by a rechargeable internal battery good for around three hours of continuous transferring, and includes a wall charger, which can be connected at any time, even mid-transfer, to keep files moving. All you have to provide are the iPods and their USB cables.
Sima has designed Hitch to be as familiar to iPod users as possible. The unit has its own brightly backlit LCD screen, which is as readable as Apple’s old 3G black-and-white ones, but with slightly larger text. Simple controls are another benefit: there’s a rotary-style controller in the center, and three face buttons - “select” to select files, “<>" to toggle between the connected devices, and "send" to transfer selected files from the currently browsed device to the other one. You roll the rotary controller left or right to navigate menus and find files to transfer, use "select" just like Apple's center Action button on the iPod Click Wheel, and send to begin a transfer. A LED-lit panel above the screen lets you see with arrows which device is currently the sender. A fourth button, found on the unit's top, is the only other big one here - it turns the power on and off. On the unit's back, a pinpoint-sized reset button reboots the unit if anything gets hung up, but since the system runs on an upgrade-ready Linux kernel, it proved quite stable, and can be easily fixed if future bugs are found.
Once you learn two relatively small tricks, Hitch’s on-screen interface is very easy to use. Trick one: holding down (rather than simply tapping) the select button always brings up a menu that lets you safely disconnect devices and access a Settings sub-menu. Trick two: you’ll need this Settings sub-menu to switch between Hitch’s two modes, called Hitch Mode and Music Mode. In Hitch Mode, the device will be confusing to most iPod owners, transferring files such as music, digital pictures, or other data with a directory and filename structure that looks a lot like old-fashioned DOS, as shown below.
Files transferred in this way will appear on your receiving iPod in a folder called “hitch,” each block of transferred files inside of a new sub-folder called sav_00xx, with xx representing 01, 02, or the other transfer number.
Hitch Mode is virtually useless for transferring iPod music - Apple encodes the files with four-letter, bizarre filenames and puts them inside three-character folders - but Sima also notes that the device can connect two digital cameras to one another, or a digital camera to an iPod, or a non-iPod device (such as a flash drive) to an iPod for easy file transferring. In other words, Hitch can also replace Apple’s iPod Camera Connector and Belkin’s earlier Digital Camera Link transfer devices - if you care about that feature, and also don’t mind a couple of issues. First, your photos won’t be viewable on the iPod’s screen until you synchronize with a computer. Second, Hitch was surprisingly slow in a simple photo transfer test, requiring a shockingly long 21 minutes, 23 seconds to transfer what turned out to be 55 Megabytes of photos from a very new camera (Canon Powershot SD700IS) and SD memory card before the camera’s battery ran out of juice. With a Canon Digital Rebel XT, the process was much faster, taking 78 seconds for 9.4MB of files, or 8.3 seconds per Megabyte. However, these numbers weren’t great by comparison with the iPod Camera Connector, which transferred 30 Megabytes of photos from an earlier Canon Powershot in around 2 minutes, or 4 seconds per Megabyte, with a Nikon 8800 consuming under 3 seconds per Megabyte. For camera transfer purposes, we’d have just about every reason to pick the cheaper, batteryless Apple offering instead.
For iPod music lovers, the meat of Hitch’s power is in Music Mode, which is capable of simplifying the process of copying music from iPod to iPod into a few button presses. In this mode, a connected PC-formatted iPod’s database is rendered in three ways - Artists, Albums, and Songs - with the rotary control allowing you to browse the iPod’s contents almost as if you were using the iPod itself. You find the content you like, make sure two devices are connected to Hitch, and press Send. A dual progress indicator bar comes up, with the current song’s progress on top and the complete transfer’s progress on bottom. Sima says that it takes roughly 5 seconds per 4 Megabyte song - 1 Megabyte every 1.25 seconds - but our transfer times took longer - 1 minute 38 seconds for 30.8 Megabytes, or about 3.2 seconds per Megabyte. This was faster than our camera transfer speeds, but not great. Then we discovered that the results of the transfer were a little bit odd.
As with Hitch Mode, Music Mode had created a new sav_0002 folder within the iPod’s “hitch” directory, and placed the indecipherably named music files inside. Despite the fact that they were non-DRMed, MP3-format songs, the receiving iPod showed no evidence of being able to access what we’d transferred, and we paged through the included instruction manual to try and figure out what was going on. One page suggested that, during synchronization, iTunes would automatically copy the files from the hitch folder to the iPod’s directory for playback. This didn’t happen. Further reading made us think that we needed to copy the folder manually into iTunes, then back over to the iPod. That worked just fine, but seemed bizarre, and not useful for people who wanted to transfer files and listen to them right away.
What wound up working properly was when we turned off a default Hitch feature that was supposed to be creating two copies of the first iPod’s music: one in the new iPod’s instantly-accessible database, and the other in the hitch folder on the hard disk. It wasn’t creating the instantly accessible files at all - a bug, we think - and changing the settings let us turn on creation of one type of file or the other. When we picked iPod-ready files, music became instantly playable, but we lost the ability to have duplicate copies to drop into our iTunes library at home. A temporary, but less than satisfying workaround: this iLounge tutorial on copying music from iPod to computer.
Hitch has another limitation that Mac users will need to know about: it works only with PC-formatted iPods, and may never work with Mac iPods, depending on whether Sima can update the firmware to recognize the Mac iPods’ HFS+ file system. Since Macs can read most PC-formatted iPods without a problem, Mac users can work around this by reformatting their iPods on PCs, but we doubt most people will be willing to do this just to use Hitch. The better solution would be for Sima to make Mac and PC iPod transfers seamless.
We had a few other small issues with Hitch. First, there’s no apparent way to copy one iPod’s entire music library directly over to another’s with one button press: you need to go artist by artist, or album by album to do bulk transfers. Additionally, the on-screen battery indicator isn’t terribly useful while the device is in normal use, and doesn’t indicate progress while the device is recharging - you just need to know to leave it connected to the wall adapter for 3 or 4 hours. Similarly, while the device’s main features are easy for average users to understand, some of the other settings are labelled less than obviously - as examples, “Install User File,” “Run User Program,” and “Horizontal Scroll” options aren’t hard to use, but could benefit from renaming: “Select new firmware,” “Update firmware,” and “Change scroll speed” could be easier.
Ultimately, the single biggest barrier to Hitch’s success is one you probably saw in the first sentence: the $150 asking price. Though we’ve been told to expect street prices in the $130 range, occasional iPod-to-iPod music transfers are not inherently worth that much to most people, especially as most of the computer-dependent workarounds available these days are free. There’s certainly some value in having a battery-powered device you can carry anywhere for photo, data, video, and music transfers between USB devices, but our feeling is that most iPod users would pass Hitch up above the $100 mark, and it would only really take off at a level lower than that. As of right now it’s a good idea and a fairly easy-to-use device, but we think further tweaks are necessary to make it appealing enough on price and performance to be generally recommendable to iLounge readers; gadget tinkerers and those needing portable non-iPod portable USB transfer functionality may find it more worthwhile.