Posted Thursday, July 01, 2004

Travels with Pixels: Portable Digital Photo Storage Options

It's vacation season in much of the world, but not for me. I'm chained to my desk wrapping up a final edit on a new Avondale Media instructional DVD. We're just a few weeks away from releasing "Secrets of the Photoshop Masters, Volume II," and it's looking great.

My wife and I are going to be vacationing this year, but not until autumn, when we head to Holland, Belgium, and Paris for a couple of weeks.

This will be my first European vacation with a digital camera, and I've been fretting about how and where to store the photos I take on our trip. I won't be taking a PowerBook along -- it's too big, and I won't allow myself to be distracted by the pleasures of pixel pushing. When I'm in Europe, I'm in Europe, and I'm not spending hours hunched over a trackpad. I won't allow it, and ahem, neither will my wife.

So that means either buying a lot of Compact Flash cards or using some kind of portable photo storage device. I'm weighing a few options, and I thought I'd list them here and solicit your feedback. If you're about to hit the road, maybe you'll find some useful options here.

iPod media readers. My iPod will be accompanying me, which means I'll have a large hard drive close at hand. Belkin makes two products that let you offload photos from a memory card to the iPod: the Belkin Media Reader for iPod and the newer Digital Camera Link for iPod.

I reviewed the Belkin Media Reader for iPod on this site last October. While I love its ease of use, its slow transfer speed leaves something to be desired -- you can drain the iPod's charge with a single photo-transfer session. I'll be shooting 5- and 8-megapixel images on my trip, so this baby isn't an option.

The Digital Camera Link looks similarly sluggish -- it unites iPod and camera via a USB cable, so it can't be that fast.


SmartDisk's FlashTrax. This intriguing device is what some people (not necessarily me) hope the iPod will become. The FlashTrax contains a hard drive (between 40GB and 80GB), memory card slots, and a 3.5-inch color screen that lets you view your shots.

I like the idea of a built-in screen: being able to see your shots before erasing them from a memory card gives you the assurance that the photos were actually copied. The FlashTrax can accommodate any photo format, including raw. It can even play MP3 files, though it doesn't support AAC or other iTunes-specific formats, so it won't replace the iPod in my suitcase.

But I'm nervous. By the end of my trip, I'll have thousands of photos stored on this one hard drive. What if it breaks during travel? What if a security guard drops it? What if it's stolen? What if I spill Belgian beer on it?

Isn't there another way?

Portable CD burner. Its name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the EZDigiMagic has other appeals. It's a portable, battery-powered CD burner with memory-card slots: insert a card full of photos, press a button, and the photos are burned onto a CD-R.

I like the idea of having photos backed up across multiple CDs. CDs are relatively rugged, they're impervious to magnetic fields, and by not relying on a single hard drive to hold all your shots, you aren't putting all your eggs in one basket.

But here come the worry warts: The EZDigiMagic doesn't have a screen or an LCD; it simply flashes a light and beeps when the burn is complete. I'm not sure that instills enough confidence: "Honey, the burner beeped -- time to delete all those photos from the card!"

CD burners are fairly fragile, too -- can I throw this baby in a suitcase day after day for a couple of weeks? And how many AA batteries will I go through?

Strength in numbers. In the end, I may just adopt a redundant strategy: maybe the iPod and a Belkin reader and the FlashTrax. Or maybe FlashTrax and EZDigiMagic. If I spread my photos across multiple media, I'll stand a better chance of arriving home with all of them.

What do you think? Have you used a portable photo-storage device? If so, write to me and let me know what worked for you. I'll share your replies in a future posting.

Is it classy to scream "class"? My book/DVD, The Macintosh iLife '04, is out and selling briskly. I've already received kind emails from all over the world, and I thank everyone who has written. I've posted video excerpts and the new edition's table of contents (for the book and DVD) on this site's about page. Check them out and see why Phil from Australia wrote, "From the DVD to the book, everything about this package screams class."