Review: Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit
Though it may seem like hyperbole to call Apple's just-released iPad Camera Connection Kit ($29) the most important Apple-branded pocket accessory release in years, it's true: what seems on the surface to be little more than a retread of the company's discontinued, five-year-old iPod Camera Connector actually turns out to be a very significant and worthwhile add-on for photographers, enabling the iPad to dramatically eclipse Apple's earlier devices as a portable photo storage and sharing device. Moreover, by including two separate pieces in the box -- the USB port-equipped Camera Connector and the SD Card Reader -- Apple actually enables the iPad to pull off feats that transcend simple photo transfers. All the details are in our full review, below.
Back in 2005, Apple’s original iPod Camera Connector assumed that a photographer would be willing not only to carry a USB cable around for camera-to-iPod photo transfers, but also to simultaneously drain the batteries of both iPod and camera as files were transferred—sometimes such a long process that both devices lost half of their power. For the iPad, Apple has learned a lot, and now provides two options: you can still use your own USB cable to transfer directly from camera to iPad—much faster than before—or instead, assuming your camera uses Secure Digital or MMC memory cards, pop the memory card out and into the new SD Card Reader, eliminating camera battery drain altogether. In either case, the impact on the iPad’s own battery is minimal: a sample 500MB transfer with 114 photos and a 244MB video ate 2% or less of the iPad’s battery, and took 2 minutes, 38 seconds, a little over 3MB per second. The iPad appears to take less time transferring files than it does creating small, instantly viewable versions of whatever it’s importing.
From a distance, the iPad Camera Connection Kit’s two included pieces look virtually identical to both each other and the earlier iPod Camera Connector: all three are made from white glossy plastic, with a metal Apple Dock Connector at one end and a hole at the other. Up close, the USB port-equipped iPad Camera Connector turns out to be just a tiny bit thinner than the earlier iPod Camera Connector, but it’s otherwise identical in height and width, adding 1.25” to the bottom of an iPad, while measuring roughly 1.2” wide and 0.38” thick. The SD Card Reader shaves off 1/16” in thickness but is a little taller and wider, measuring around 1.38” tall by 1.25” wide by 0.31” thick. With an SD memory card inside, it adds 1.75” of height to the iPad.
Apple marks the fronts of the accessories with two icons: the Camera Connector has a Dock Connector port icon on the top and a small camera icon at the bottom, while the SD Card Reader replaces the camera picture with the outline of an SD card. On the back are “Designed by Apple in California,” “Assembled in China,” model numbers, and certification logos—these markings are the most obvious distinguishing characteristics from the original iPod Camera Connector, which had only the first two items, and hid them on the Dock Connector edge of the accessory. Apple also bundles each of the attachments with a small, clear hard plastic Dock Connector cap that is easy to remove and almost as easy to lose; a way to keep them dangling nearby would have been appreciated.
The only real complaint that most people would raise regarding these accessories is the fact that they need to exist at all, jutting out from the bottom of the iPad rather than sitting flush in its sides, fully integrated, as the same ports do in the company’s MacBook Pro computers. During real-world testing of the iPad Camera Connection Kit, the biggest issue we dealt with was the fear of losing or breaking the parts, which aren’t so much fragile as they are small and easily misplaced. That said, they’re surely a better value for the $29 asking price than the iPod Camera Connector, which was merely the USB half of this kit with less functionality.
Using the iPad Camera Connection Kit With the iPad
Apple’s current-generation iPad system software (iPhone OS 3.2) is a little more heavy-handed than one might expect when either of the iPad Camera Connection Kit accessories is connected. If the iPad’s locked, plugging in the SD Card Reader or the iPad Camera Connector doesn’t do anything, but making the connection in the middle of running another application will abruptly quit that application and call up Photos, Apple’s photo management and now importation tool.
Photos deals with importation by creating a new tab called Camera, which for the first few seconds displays a screen full of empty dashed outlines, then fills each outline with a thumbnail image of a photo or a movie stored on the camera’s memory card. By default, a blue button labeled “Import All” appears in the upper right corner of the screen, with a red “Delete All” button at upper left. Should you select any thumbnail or number of thumbnails, blue checkmarks appear on the thumbnails, and the blue button instead becomes “Import,” providing the choice to “Import All” or “Import Selected” when you tap it.
Importing images and videos from your camera is as easy as selecting one of those options, watching as each blue check on a thumbnail becomes a spinning progress wheel, and then a green check, moving on to the next image—generally but not always in sequence. JPEG-format images are typically imported without any issues, as are certain .MOV-format videos, specifically 640x480 and smaller files that come off of many but not all point-and-shoot cameras. (More details on compatibility are discussed in the next section of this review.) During the import process, Photos creates “Last Import” and “All Imported” albums, enabling you to quickly see your most recently transferred files and all of the transferred files. When you individually look at the pictures, a new Rotate button lets you change the orientation in 90-degree steps to make sure that pictures from cameras without orientation sensors—or with occasionally faulty ones—appear correctly on your iPad’s screen.
Rotation can also prepare them for proper e-mailing. Once you’ve imported a photo and displayed it on your screen, you can press a button to e-mail it, send it to a MobileMe account, assign it to a contact, use it as wallpaper, or copy it. Up to five pictures can be e-mailed at once with relative ease. If you’re worried that you’ll only be able to send out low-quality photos from your iPad, there’s some mostly good news to share. Rather than chopping JPEG pictures down to 800x600 as is done with iPhone photos, the iPad defaults at e-mailing images out at roughly 3-Megapixel resolution: 2048x1536 for typical 4:3 point-and-shoot images, or 2048x1364 for 3:2 DSLR images. Pro photographers mightn’t like the rescaling, or that the EXIF data is stripped for re-sized images, but most users won’t care: the resized images look fantastic, and are perfect for sharing via e-mail. There’s also a workaround for users who need superior image quality: if you select an image manually using the Copy button and Paste it into an e-mail, you can send the full-resolution version out instead, complete with EXIF data. We had only one issue with this trick, discussed in the compatibility section below.
The iPad Camera Connection Kit can also import videos from digital cameras. Supported movies use the video playback and editing interface introduced for the iPhone 3GS, which places a timeline at the top of the screen, and changes the sharing features to “Email Video,” “Send to MobileMe,” “Send to YouTube,” and “Copy Video.” E-mailed video clips appear to be capped at 5MB in size in H.264 format, with the iPad automatically reducing their resolution to 480x320 and providing you with editing tools to select a snippet that you want to share; we were given 54 seconds worth of video to share from our 3 minute, 3 second sample clip. File sizes and video lengths differ based on where you’re exporting them, as well as the quality they started at.
Like iPhoto on Mac computers, Photos finishes the import process by asking whether you’d like to keep or delete the transferred photos and videos on your camera. Once the photos have been transferred to the iPad, you can use Apple’s standard Dock Connector to USB cable to transfer them back to your computer, at which point they’ll appear in your photo library with their full EXIF data and their original resolutions intact.
This isn’t a huge surprise, but it’s good to know that transferring photos to the iPad doesn’t appear to hurt them before they’re transferred back to your computer; the only difference is that importing photos that were transferred to an iPad takes longer than doing so directly from a camera or memory card. Note also that iTunes isn’t involved in any way in the process of transferring photos from an iPad back to your computer; iTunes doesn’t appear to have any new dialog boxes for handling the import of photos synchronized to the iPad. This could change in the future.
Compatibility + Compatibility Issues
There’s far more good news than bad news to report on the iPad Camera Connection Kit compatibility front, and that’s due in part to some previously unknown features Apple has included in the current iPad system software. It turns out that the USB port-equipped iPad Camera Connector is capable of connecting to devices other than digital cameras—though Apple neither advertises this additional functionality nor makes any promises regarding which specific USB devices will work if you plug them into the iPad. Officially, it has posted a support document called Using iPad Camera Connector with unsupported USB devices, and notes that “USB printers with built-in SD card readers are not supported;” for the time being, printers, external hard disks, and numerous other Mac/PC accessories are off-limits. But USB headsets for Skype work—like headsets that plug into the iPad’s headphone port—as do USB keyboards, and certain other USB-based audio devices. For the time being, these non-camera peripherals are little more than bonuses for iPad users, but developers could use the Connector as a trojan horse to add additional devices to the iPad; it may well turn out to be a truly great item for non-photographic purposes, as well. On the flip side, it should be noted that the iPad Camera Connection Kit only works with the iPad; at this moment, there’s no sign that it will work with iPhone or iPod touch models. Once again, this could change in the future.
Real-world testing also revealed some surprising details regarding the Kit’s camera-specific compatibility and file format support. On a positive note, the SD Card Reader worked perfectly to grab the photo contents of the majority of Secure Digital memory cards we tested, but put up an odd complaint when we tried to insert an Eye-Fi Geo card with a Wi-Fi chip inside: “The attached USB device is not supported.” Photos wouldn’t read the Eye-Fi Geo’s contents at all, and we also had the same message come up repeatedly as a bug when the SD Card Reader was connected to an iPad left with its screen off. Apple’s official compatibility details are found in a support document that says the “iPad SD Card Reader supports SD standards up to SDHC, miniSD and microSD with adapters, and MMC. SDXC is not supported.”
Similarly, the iPad Camera Connector is capable of connecting to most USB-compatible digital cameras via a male USB plug and/or cable—except when it’s not. Some older, pre-2005 digital cameras may experience issues if they don’t support the popular Mass Storage Device or Picture Transfer Protocol connectivity standards. Additionally, when we plugged in a Flip Ultra HD camera, the iPad initially said “Accessory Unavailable - The attached accessory uses too much power.” Yet the iPad was able to read and transfer the Flip’s contents anyway; the problem appeared to be the Flip’s desire to recharge its own battery while transferring files. We had no electronic problems connecting other digital cameras, including everything from pocket point-and-shoots to a Canon 5D Mark II, though what happened with their contents varied somewhat.
JPEG photo file transfers from cameras or cards to the iPad generally worked without problems, but there were hiccups. The iPad had no issue bringing in a huge group of 10-Megapixel photos from a Canon Powershot S90 camera, but repeatedly choked mid-stream when trying to import a bunch of 21-Megapixel JPEG images from the Canon 5D Mark II. Some of the 5D Mark II pictures transferred without an issue, but the import process typically stopped abruptly after fewer than 10 images—an apparent bug; Apple’s support document seems to acknowledge this by telling users to keep re-trying the transfer process if it fails, a less than impressive solution mitigated only by the iPad’s ability to remember where it left off in any successful or failed transfer process, skipping images that are already in its Photos library. In other words, if the transfer has a hiccup, you can try again and it’ll probably get further next time.
Any JPEG image it imported was available instantly for e-mailing and inspection within Photos, which is entirely positive and once again yielded beautiful results. But RAW images and various types of videos were less predictable: the iPad sometimes crashed when trying to e-mail test RAW images, and couldn’t play back, edit, or share videos created with either the Flip Ultra HD or the Canon 5D Mark II—at any resolution, including 640x480. The problems with RAW files were particularly odd in that the iPad had actually successfully created JPEG-format preview images that could be viewed using Photos—images that could individually be cut and pasted into emails without a problem—yet it choked when trying to directly export them on its own. Video issues come down to questions over specific file formats and resolutions that the iPad is capable of handling; the best guidance we can offer at this stage is to note that regardless of whether the iPad is capable of playing, sharing, or editing a given photo or video, it will at least transfer that video for storage and later synchronization with your computer.
Are the incompatibilities disappointing? Somewhat, and there’s no doubt that certain professional photographers might not bother with the iPad Camera Connection Kit due to its current bugs and compatibility questions. But the vast majority of digital camera users—particularly those who shoot in JPEG and create videos that are at or below 640x480 resolution—will have no issues with the USB and SD accessories in their current form. Moreover, these issues don’t appear to have anything to do with the hardware, and Apple will most likely fix the current software bugs in a future iPad system software update.
For right now, the iPad Camera Connection Kit is a great accessory—the single most worthwhile purchase currently available for iPad users who enjoy photography, and a neat toy for others who are interested in tinkering with additional, unofficially compatible USB devices. Used purely for importing digital images and videos, the Kit enables iPad owners to share and store considerably higher-quality content than any past iPhone or iPod could handle, and does so with enough speed and versatility to properly limit both camera and iPad battery drain. Even for prosumer-grade applications, we would actually use the iPad Camera Connection Kit in the field right now with only modest limitations and concerns, and that’s saying something given how weak the iPod Camera Connection Kit was as a storage and sharing alternative. Apple’s latest release is a considerable improvement on the iPod version released years ago, and easier to recommend today than that one was back then. Our A- rating reflects our rare high recommendation, with caveats.
That having been said, there’s little doubt that the iPad Camera Connection Kit may stir up grumbles from some photographers and iPad owners—some will dislike the fact that it needs to exist at all because of the iPad’s overly sparing I/O ports, and others may be less than completely impressed by some of its current software issues, particularly its less than ideal handling of media shot by higher-end and higher-resolution cameras. If history is any indication, such high-resolution photos and videos will only increase in popularity over time, straining the current-generation iPad’s software and hardware; hopefully Apple will be more aggressive going forward in responding to these changes than it was with the iPod accessory. Incorporating superior file format support and eventually reader hardware into upcoming iPad releases would win over users who aren’t thrilled by this otherwise extremely competent new Kit.