Review: Storage Appliance Corp. Clickfree Transformer for iPod
There hasn't been something quite like the Clickfree Transformer for iPod ($50) in quite some time -- it is, quite simply, the sort of accessory that serves a purpose, and so well that it's easy to look past what it actually is: a flash drive mixed with a USB extension cable. Developed by Storage Appliance Corporation, Clickfree Transformer is a white glossy box with a USB port at one end and a USB plug at the other; you plug it into your computer, then use your iPod's USB cable to plug your iPod into the box, and with very little user interaction, you can back up the contents of your computer to an iPod, or the music from an iPod to your computer.
Storage Appliance accomplishes this by intelligently pairing its pieces of hardware and software together in a logical way. Plug the Clickfree unit into your computer by itself and a Clickfree System window will appear, prompting you to load an application that has very few buttons or options to worry about; it can run almost completely without user interaction if you desire.
Once an iPod has been connected, it automatically searches your machine for music, videos, photos, emails, web content, and various types of office documents, then presents you with check boxes to transfer them all or individually, plus an optional window where you can specify only individual files. You can also select “all others” to do a complete backup of your machine to the iPod, rather than just its key files. That’s pretty much it; Clickfree lets you know how much space your iPod has to back up the files, and how much space the files will consume, so if you start the backup, you’ll know whether you’ll be able to squeeze everything onto your pocket-sized device or not. In the absence of user intervention, it runs a countdown timer before it will start to make its own decisions on what can and can’t be backed up, and then does what it thinks it can do.
After everything’s backed up, it’s hidden in a series of nested folders on your iPod, which are instantly discovered by Clickfree whenever you make your next connection—on the same computer or a different computer. You can use the program at that point to restore the backed-up files, view them inside their folders, or choose an “Import Music” command to bring your iPod’s music back over to your computer.
If the music is DRM-free, it’ll work in iTunes without any questions; if it’s DRM-locked, it’ll only work on a computer that’s authorized with your iTunes Store account information. The software works with iPhones, as well, including the latest 3GS model.
There is, of course, one wrinkle: though we had no problem backing up computer content to even a fifth-generation iPod nano or an iPhone 3GS, Transformer couldn’t retrieve music from the fifth-generation nano; it said that it couldn’t read the brand new device’s directory, even though it had no issue with music on the iPhone 3GS. This isn’t a surprise since Apple continuously plays with the music databases on its devices, breaking sync-back compatibility all the time, so there’s no guarantee that Clickfree will be able to keep up with these changes in the future.
Storage Appliance at least has the pieces in place for a solution: its options screen does have an Update feature, which is capable of connecting automatically to the Internet, searching for an updated version of its own application, and saving the new software within the accessory’s built-in memory—a flash upgrade capability that far too many devices fail to include, or integrate as smoothly as this one. Unfortunately, the latest software version available still couldn’t read the iPod nano 5G’s database, but we suspect that a near-term upgrade will.
Serious computer users will recognize immediately that what Clickfree is doing here isn’t exactly magic; there are programs, even free ones, that do the same things as Transformer—though not necessarily one program that both backs up your machine and pulls iPod media content from it—and you needn’t go out and buy a $50 accessory to do these things; it’s largely the software here that’s performing the magic. But that misses the point of this product: its convenience. You get a good, dead simple piece of software that provides very simplified computer-to-iPod backup, and under most circumstances, iPod-to-computer content transfers as well. It’s a magic bullet, fully portable solution that removes the need to someone how to download two different programs, run them, put them on a flash memory card to carry somewhere else, and then run them again to transfer files from one machine to another. The convenience alone makes Clickfree Transformer for iPod worthy of our general recommendation; a lower price and guaranteed complete iPod and iPhone model compatibility, the latter really in Apple’s hands rather than developers’, would make it even more broadly appealing to the masses.
Updated September 29, 2009: Following our original review, Storage Appliance sent Transformer SE, a black $90 version that adds USB hard drive backup functionality to the iPod/iPhone features mentioned above. We are not reviewing or rating this version, but the higher price strikes us as steep.