As strange as this might sound coming from an iOS-focused publication, our entire team has been very excited about G-Technology’s G-Connect ($200) hard drive ever since it was announced in June 2011. Originally scheduled for a July 2011 release, G-Connect was developed by our long-time favorite Mac hard drive maker G-Technology, promising to deliver a portable, Wi-Fi, Hitachi-caliber 500GB hard drive inside an Apple-styled enclosure. Unfortunately, G-Connect’s release was delayed by flooding in Thailand, and spent 10 months in limbo before its actual release this month. So can it compete effectively with existing iOS wireless storage options? The answer is “yes,” though it’s important to note that G-Connect is a unique option that will appeal to a specific group of iOS users, rather than merely duplicating accessories that have come before.
Today, there are three different but overlapping categories of iOS-compatible external storage solutions. The first is represented by Western Digital’s My Book Live, giving you an “always-on” hard disk so that you can stream selected content to your iOS device at home without keeping your computer running. My Book Live is large, like a fairly thick hardcover book, and depends upon a wireless router to become accessible to your iOS devices. The second category, represented by Kingston’s Wi-Drive is iPhone-sized, completely portable, and capable of creating its own Wi-Fi network wherever you go. On the surface, Wi-Drive sounds like the most universally appealing option, but it relies upon flash memory and starts at only 16 Gigabytes of capacity, while My Book Live starts at a massive 1 Terabyte. Both units debuted last year in the $130-$150 price range, but their street prices have since fallen, in some cases dramatically.
Because of their varied features, these options will appeal to two different types of users. G-Connect now is a third option designed to sit in the middle, sharing a unique mix of the earlier products’ assets and compromises. Made from glossy white plastic, G-Connect’s chassis looks very similar to Apple’s AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule wireless routers, but much smaller—less than half the volume of My Book Live. So while it’s larger than an iPhone, it has a much smaller footprint than any iPad, and can very easily fit inside a bag for use away from home. Inside is a 500GB hard drive, closer to My Book Live’s starting capacity, along with an 802.11n/g Wi-Fi hotspot capable of supporting five users at a time, like Wi-Drive. But unlike Wi-Drive, there’s no battery inside G-Connect: it requires a wall outlet, so you can’t access its content on a subway or in a car.
G-Technology’s industrial design is enviably simple and compact despite the power of the hardware inside. Three white LEDs indicate power, Wi-Fi connectivity, and streaming activity status. A power button, Wi-Fi on/off button, and ports for power, USB connectivity, and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity are found on one side, leaving the other sides bare. Gray rubber feet on the bottom keep G-Connect in place on a table, and it runs virtually silent, with only occasional quiet clicks revealing its presence; it becomes ever so slightly warm when in use. While both buttons would have worked better with a distinct “pressed in” position—neither Wi-Fi nor power turns off as quickly as one might expect—the hardware is otherwise unimpeachable.
Though G-Tech’s computer hard drives often come with one cable per port on the back, G-Connect’s wires are somewhat more sparing. The company includes a short power cable and detachable, folding wall adapter in the box, a combination that’s designed for portability, and only objectionable if you hope to keep G-Connect tethered to an existing home router and need extra cable length. You’ll need to self-supply an Ethernet cable for that purpose, as well, since G-Tech doesn’t include one. However, a dual USB cable is packed in with G-Connect, enabling you to use the drive with mini-USB or full-sized USB ports on a computer. G-Tech assumes, most likely correctly, that you’ll use this cable occasionally to synchronize content from your computer to the drive, then operate G-Connect wirelessly on its own. If that’s not your intended usage model, the router-tethered My Book Live offers higher storage capacity for a lower price, and will probably make more sense for your needs.
G-Connect’s suggested usage model is very specific. After initially filling it up with your computer, you’ll plug the drive into wall power, wait for it to establish its own 802.11n/g Wi-Fi network, and then stream content to one or more devices at a time: up to three HD videos or five standard-definition videos at once. The USB cable is solely there for synchronization with your computer, and then only because USB is much faster than Wi-Fi at filling a hard drive—a fact that G-Tech warns multiple times will take longer over the unit’s web-based, semi-drag-and-drop interface. The drive comes with sample videos, music, photos, and documents pre-installed, each sorted into its own category, and a free G-Connect iOS application lets you browse and access them from any iOS 4.3 or newer device.
It should be noted that G-Connect has some issues that are par for the game with most external iOS storage devices. First, though it can share its library using the DLNA protocol with non-iOS devices, iOS devices require an app or a browser connection to access content; ideally, Apple would instead let third-party devices appear in the iOS Music and Videos apps under “Shared,” just like iTunes libraries with Home Sharing turned on. Second, rather than going for “dead simple but insecure,” G-Technology locks G-Connect down with access passwords, and though you’ll only have to enter a password once per iOS device, you may need to OK the saved password on subsequent connections. Third, G-Connect supports unprotected videos in MP4, H.264 + M-JPEG formats, but not protected iTunes purchases, and may stumble when trying to play content in other formats. Again, while these issues tend to be common across similar accessories, first-time users might find them surprising.
Thankfully, we found G-Connect’s performance to be exactly as expected: strong on the hard drive side, and in need of extra polish on the user interface side. We had no problems with the unit’s Wi-Fi or Ethernet hardware, and were able to use the drive either as a standalone network or tethered to our existing Wi-Fi network via a cable. When everything was working properly, we were able to stream multiple videos to different iOS devices without any hiccups. There were predictable, relatively brief initial video buffering periods in the 2- to 5-second range, only increasing past the 10-second mark when two or more video streams were playing at once. Music, photos, and documents similarly performed through iOS devices without issues, subject to their own quick buffering delays; photos, for instance, initially appear as low-resolution previews before the full images replace them. If Wi-Fi streaming isn’t quick enough for your needs, you can wirelessly transfer any file from G-Connect to the iOS app, a handy feature that requires far less time—minutes rather than hours—than playing an entire movie at its original speed.
G-Tech’s software works pretty well, but could stand to be improved. Once content has been added to G-Connect, and you’ve installed the G-Connect app on your iOS device, streaming is generally as simple and efficient as tapping on a Photo, Music, Video, or Documents tab on the iPhone/iPod touch, or boxes labeled Photos, Music, Videos, and Documents on the iPad, then picking a file. Thumbnail and list views are supported for each type of content, along with name, date, size, and type sorting schemes. The app also has full-screened (iPhone/iPod touch) or paned (iPad) initial sort screens that are effective for music, giving users song, album, and artist names, but merely add another layer of month-year chronology for photos and videos, an unnecessary annoyance to tap through on the smaller iPhone/iPod screens. A little confusion enters the equation when you realize that the app has separate tabs for your iOS device’s saved file library and G-Connect’s wireless library; if you hit the wrong button, the app may suggest that you have nothing to play.
There are some other user interface and experience issues. The G-Connect app occasionally got hung up on either the iPad and iPhone at times, requiring a restart of the app for reasons unknown, even when the hard drive was properly sending content to another device. It also doesn’t have a refresh button, and sometimes doesn’t show you all content in a folder—or proper thumbnails for files—until an automatic reload has happened. Additionally, since it’s (correctly) assumed that you’ll start by synchronizing content from a computer, the initial setup of the G-Connect drive is Mac/PC-based, using a web interface for everything from setting passwords to adding files to the drive. While this interface has obviously been polished enough to make setup easy by PC standards, there are still some unnecessary steps in the process, including calling up a specific “upload files” screen before you can drag and drop content onto the drive, and the need to hit an “add” button after every drop of additional content onto the web browser window. Both the iOS app and web UI could and hopefully will benefit from further simplification.
At this point, it’s worth summing up G-Connect’s advantages and disadvantages relative to its competitors. G-Technology has come up with a hard drive that’s smaller than My Book Live and more truly portable, as it can create its own wireless network so long as it has wall power; however, the 500GB storage capacity is lower than the lowest-capacity My Book Live, and it sells for a higher price due to the Wi-Fi hardware. By comparison with the Wi-Drive, G-Connect offers greater storage capacity and similar Wi-Fi functionality, but is larger and doesn’t include a rechargeable battery to power itself away from a wall. Once again, it’s more expensive. While the pricing may change over time—and there have been major post-release fluctuations in street pricing for its competitors—G-Connect today has the highest entry price of any networked storage solution we’ve tested for iOS devices, and the fewest capacity options.
While there’s no clear victor in the external iOS storage market right now, G-Technology has done a good job of making G-Connect stand out from its rivals. The hardware’s very impressive apart from its lack of a rechargeable battery option, and G-Tech’s done a good enough job with the software that most of the target demographic—computer users with the desire to offload roughly 500GB of content for home or portable streaming—will be pleased by the overall experience. While mainstream iOS users may want a little help from more experienced family members with the initial web-based setup and synchronization process, it’s very easy to access the content thereafter from multiple iOS devices, and G-Tech’s decision to let G-Connect establish its own wireless network wherever it goes is the single biggest reason to prefer it over My Book Live. It wouldn’t hurt G-Connect to have a more aggressive price or more capacity options, but then, there’s nothing else exactly like it out there. Like My Book Live, G-Connect is worthy of our general recommendation; some post-release polishing of the software could help make it even more appealing.
Company and Price
Company: G-Technology/Hitachi GST
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, iPod touches