Every once in a while, someone comes up with a simple but really great idea that legitimately improves the way people use their computers or gadgets. Photo geotagging—encoding photographs with map coordinates—is one of them. Paired with a program such as iPhoto, you can suddenly see all of your photos on a map of the world, and jump from location to location to see what you did there. More broadly, web-based photo-sharing services can aggregate pictures from millions of users, and let users check out what a given place looked like at different times, from different angles, and so on. So long as the technology is opt-in—you choose to let your device tag your photos with location information—it doesn’t raise any huge privacy concerns, and it can be a lot of fun to play with.
Of course, iPhone camera users have had this ability since iPhone OS 2.0 and the release of the iPhone 3G, thanks to a combination of Wi-Fi triangulation technology from Skyhook Wireless and GPS chips that have been added to later iPhones. Virtually everyone else is left with a choice: wait until you buy a new camera with geotagging capability, or look for an accessory that adds the feature. Nikon released an insanely priced $240 add-on for some of its professional cameras, and Sony introduced a similar $150 attachment; they and other companies have also been working on and in some cases releasing cameras with the feature built in. The accessories have just been too expensive, and the new cameras slow to arrive.
So for now, Eye-Fi has the best answer: Eye-Fi Geo ($60). It’s a little orange SD card with two features: first, it possesses the standard Eye-Fi ability to transfer photographs wirelessly from your camera to iPhoto ‘09 or a folder on your computer. This, it does so flawlessly that we have to say that we’re thoroughly impressed. Eye-Fi packages the card with a card reader that is used to install a software package on your Mac, which is then immediately updated over the web. From a software engineering standpoint, some very complex things are achieved as smoothly as can be: Eye-Fi’s software has you set up an account, quickly pairs the card with your computer, and then tells you to insert the card into your digital camera to take a picture. You take the picture, and 20 seconds later, the full-resolution image is sitting in a specified folder on your computer. Ten seconds more and it can be imported into iPhoto. That’s it—dead simple, and it works.
There are some hitches worth noting. The card has a mere 2GB capacity, or “enough but not a lot” of capacity by current standards—same-capacity SD cards can be had without Wi-Fi or other frills these days for under $10. There’s an unspecified battery impact due to the Wi-Fi chip and usage differences, which Eye-Fi says only “will not be noticeably shorter,” but practically requires you to keep the camera on a little longer than you otherwise might, permitting the file transfer to take place.
It also requires that your camera be set up with the Eye-Fi utility to hang out on your wireless network, though interestingly, we were able to get Eye-Fi pictures sent on the 802.11g band of a dual-band AirPort system to arrive on a computer residing solely on the separately-named 802.11n band—a real bonus. The only real issue we’d have was one on Eye-Fi’s FAQ: two of our cameras are on the list of models that “exhibit audible static or noise during video playback,” which means that those who use their digital cameras for video and audio recording mightn’t find Eye-Fi’s cards to be a good fit for their needs.
We don’t do a lot of video recording on our cameras. We also haven’t needed to send pictures wirelessly from our cameras to our computers—at least, when we’re on our home networks—so despite some interest in the technology, we had never used an Eye-Fi card until now. Eye-Fi Geo changed that, because the card’s second feature, geotagging, was something we actually care about. iPhoto ‘09’s Places feature immediately made sense to us when it was introduced, apart from the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of photos that are untagged, and not going to get tagged any time soon. We also very rarely rely on our iPhone cameras to take any serious pictures, so most of the images we create today are still without location data. Adding geotagging to one of our cameras was really appealing.
So the good news is that Eye-Fi Geo works, though not as smoothly as the Wi-Fi service did; it worked more or less properly after a little fussing around. Our first sample images were snapped, scanned for location data, and found to be untagged. Eye-Fi’s instruction manual didn’t offer any clues as to why this was, so we dug around in the application. It turned out that geotagging was turned off by default—odd for a card that markets geotagging as its major feature—so we turned it on. Two pictures later, geotags started to show up in the images. They were nearly accurate: Eye-Fi uses the same Skyhook location-triangulation technology that the original iPhone and iPod touch depended upon, and needs a little time to get a lock on your location, which explained the one-image lag before a tag was added. As with Apple’s pocket devices, the location data is based on some rough wireless router-tracking data from Skyhook that’s not perfectly accurate, so photos that were taken in one place instead show up as a collection of pins that appear to have been scattered across a one- or two-block area on a map. It’s close enough.
You can make up your own mind as to whether the wireless transfer and geotagging features found in Eye-Fi Geo justify a $50 price premium over a typical 2GB SD card; it’s hard for us to render as conclusive an opinion on the topic given that two of our primary cameras are on the chart of models impacted by audio interference. Notably, however, Eye-Fi’s decision to make this an Apple Store exclusive guarantees that the card will be sold at its full $60 asking price without discounts that might make it more attractive relative to its many competitors. It should be noted that there are other Eye-Fi options. Geo is actually a stripped-down version of the company’s Explore model, which adds features such as automatic web service-based sharing and hotspot access to the card, potentially removing the dependence on your computer for wirelessly transferring photos to services such as Flickr, Facebook, and MobileMe. Right now, 2GB Explore cards can be had for $80, with a 4GB version with video-sharing features at $100.
Alternately, you can pony up $10 per year to add the Flickr, Facebook, and MobileMe feature as an optional service to your Eye-Fi account. Interestingly, Eye-Fi is offering the same service for free to iPhone users who download the free Eye-Fi app for iPhone, which unfortunately requires some clunky, on-computer setup but then transfers photos at full resolution from your iPhone to your computer or a photo sharing/social network of your choice. It’s an alternative to using e-mail or separate dedicated uploading apps, though it could use some extra interface polish.
For the time being, Eye-Fi Geo is a product with features that are legitimately compelling—for us, one more than the other—with pricing and certain compatibility issues that may somewhat limit its appeal. That said, Eye-Fi’s use of the SD format and $60 cost of entry both make it far easier to add geotagging to most cameras than the pricier model-specific accessories that have been introduced by other companies. Apart from the initial hiccups in setting up geotagging, it’s a joy to use.