As we noted in our review of PhotoFast’s i-FlashDrive several days ago, the idea of adding additional storage space to Apple’s digital media players was previously all but inconceivable: unlike some rivals, Apple didn’t include SD Card slots or other expansion options in its iPods or iPhones, and pretty much ruled out third-party storage accessories. Thankfully, recent improvements to the iOS operating system and accessory technology have enabled developers to tackle this formerly impossible mission; the most recent product of these innovations is Kingston’s new Wi-Drive. As the name implies, Wi-Drive is a wireless hard drive that comes in 16GB ($130) or 32GB ($175) versions, and though it has some important limitations, it’s a seriously cool way to store video, audio, photo, and other content without filling the limited storage capacity of your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch.
Wi-Drive is a glossy black solid state disk with a footprint only slightly larger and thicker than a current-generation iPod touch. Ringed with silver, the lightweight plastic unit has a small illuminated power button on its right side, a mini-USB port on its top, and twin indicator lights on its face; four plastic feet are on its bottom to keep it from sliding or getting scratched on a flat surface. Each Wi-Drive includes an 802.11g/n Wi-Fi chip and four-hour rechargeable battery, enabling up to three separate devices to wirelessly access whatever’s been synced to the 16 or 32GB of flash memory inside using an included USB cable. A wall power adapter is also included if you need to refuel the battery when you’re away from your computer.
Kingston’s Wi-Drive and PhotoFast’s i-FlashDrive have several things in common. First, their prices are comparable—Kingston’s 16GB unit sells for $10 more than PhotoFast’s, and the 32GB model sells for around $20 less. Second, for purposes of connecting to computers, both companies treat their accessories as flash drives, allowing you to make a wired connection over USB, then merely drag and drop files from your Mac or PC to the accessories.
Content stored on the drives doesn’t appear in Apple’s built-in iOS iPod/Music/Videos/Photos apps, but rather in companion applications developed by the companies and offered in the App Store for free.
As similar as they are in concept, the differences in execution between the accessories turn out to be critical—neither is perfect, but Wi-Drive comes much closer to offering a smart additional storage solution, and Kingston’s software approach is primarily responsible for this. When you want to watch a video or listen to music stored on Wi-Drive, you don’t have to wait forever for the file to be copied from the accessory back to your iOS device—or have a ton of storage space for that purpose. Instead, the Wi-Drive starts streaming the content to your device within seconds. It does this using its app, or stream media to any computer’s web browser.
More impressively, it works almost anywhere, creating its own 802.11g/n wireless network by default, which means that you can access your media if you’re in a car, subway, or otherwise away from home. Wi-Drive can also join an existing wireless network if you want it to do so; in the event that it fails to join a network, it falls back to its own—a very smart way of handling what would otherwise be a frustrating experience. The only situation in which it will be problematic is airplane use.
When you’re instructed to turn all wireless transmitters off, Wi-Drive certainly shouldn’t be used, and would benefit from an as-needed Dock Connector wired option that does not as yet exist.
Not surprisingly, Wi-Drive’s wireless performance was solid during our testing. As promised, up to three devices were able to access its content at the same time, though because of practical bandwidth limitations, it can only serve video streams reliably to one or two devices at once; the third device can grab smaller and less bandwidth-intense files, and depending on the bitrate of the videos you’re serving, you might need to give the second device a little caching time to guarantee completely smooth playback, too. We noticed that Wi-Drive did better with media than with, say, large PDF files, which it appeared to load in their entirety—with a little time penalty—rather than streaming. Battery performance came in at a half hour more than Kingston’s four-hour promise, though we noted that Wi-Drive’s internal cell becomes a little warm to the touch when it’s in use, similar to an iPhone or iPod touch under strain. Additionally, though the app provides a fairly conventional file directory structure to let you navigate through all of its contents, it offers tabs that separate files into photo, movie, and music categories for easier reference, and has a simple photo slideshow mode so that you needn’t click on each image individually.
Apart from its inability to be used on most airplanes, there are some other caveats that prospective Wi-Drive buyers should be aware of. First, while it’s a highly portable solution, it’s not as small as it could be: Apple could conceivably flip a software switch on its current (or prior-generation) iPod touches and have them serve the exact same purpose as Wi-Drive, albeit at higher prices.