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Eye-Fi Wireless SD Card Review
by David Rasnake -  1/27/2008

Wireless image transfer has been gaining interest and popularity by leaps and bounds in the past year. At CES earlier this month, we reported on several manufacturers who are looking to get in to the built-in wireless transfer game, allowing users to send photos straight from their cameras to their computers or web-based photo sharing services. In the aftermarket, however, the Eye-Fi Wireless SD Card promises similar functionality for any camera that shoots JPEGs and supports SD memory. Eye-Fi has built a lot of buzz around this one-of-a-kind accessory, and I've been eager to get my hands on one for a quick review.

Eye-Fi
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A neat concept that works flawlessly as a transfer solution (so long as you recognize its limitations), the Eye-Fi shows off what may well be the future of moving images from camera to computer. Range, configuration, and file type limitations, however, sometimes left me wishing for more.


In the Box

The slickly packaged Eye-Fi looks just like a regular SD card, and comes supplied with an SD card reader and a built-in quick start guide.

Eye-Fi
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Supporting 802.11g, 802.11b and backwards-compatible 802.11n wireless networks, the wireless side of the Eye-Fi's technology can use any wireless network, even those with most common security protocols, that doesn't use a splash page or other form of browser-based authentication. For the most part, however, the Eye-Fi is much more comfortable and easy to use on a dedicated home network. More on this in the following sections.

Eye-Fi
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Otherwise, the Eye-Fi is a straightforward 2 GB SD card, and can be used in the conventional fashion (i.e. via a card reader) without enabling the wireless transfer functions.

Eye-Fi
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The Eye-Fi works equally well in both Macintosh and PC environments, and a recently announced firmware upgrade means that photos can now be directly uploaded into Apple's iPhoto. In terms of supported file types, however, the Eye-Fi is a JPEG only affair. This, combined with the fact that the much-discussed Compact Flash version has yet to materialize, means that Eye-Fi probably isn't going to become the file transfer system of choice for hardcore DSLR shooters or working pros.


Setting Up the Eye-Fi

Setting up the Eye-Fi to work across your home wireless network couldn't be much simpler: if you can type in your email address, identify your network from a drop down list, and click a few OKs, you can probably handle this tech task, which uses a super-simple broswer-based configuration interface. A fold-out quick start guide is built in to the Eye-Fi's hip packaging, quickly walking both PC and Mac users through the four-step setup process.

Eye-Fi
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From your home wireless network, you can choose to transfer the files to your home computer, to one of several photo sharing and social networking sites (including Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa) and photo printing services (like those offered by Wal-Mart and Costco), or to both.

Eye-Fi
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While initial setup, sitting literally feet away from the wireless router, was instantaneous and easy, the Eye-Fi's highly limited range as a wireless device is something I wasn't fully expecting. Move across the room from your router and transfers begin to slow down. Move into another room, and you'll be lucky to get a signal at all.

The fact that the Eye-Fi can only be configured when connected to a computer using the card's browser-based interface is arguably the Eye-Fi's primary limitation, meaning in practice that you can't (easily) grab a connection at a public hotspot and start sending photos to the card's supported sharing sites. Just to see what the Eye-Fi would do, however, I took the card, my camera, and my laptop around the corner to the local coffee shop. Since the Wi-Fi here is truly free and open, with no log-in or splash screen, theoretically I could add the network information to the card with my laptop, set up the Eye-Fi for sharing-site only transfer, and be up and uploading.

In practice, nothing is ever that simple. In spite of the fact that the coffee shop is tiny, with strong Wi-Fi signal throughout, the card kept demanding more signal strength at the setup phase. Since they weren't keen on letting me relocate to the kitchen in order to sit closer to the router, the whole plan died on the table, before the card was ever even setup or the first photo of my evening out uploaded. In short, I spent a lot of time looking at this screen, with its "please move closer to the preferred wireless router and retry" admonition:

Eye-Fi
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All of this is to further emphasize just how limited the range of this card, lacking an antenna of any kind, really is: excellent signal strength for browsing with your computer doesn't necessarily equal even acceptable strength for connecting the Eye-Fi. Even if you have a laptop handy for configuring the card to use a public network, don't count on seamless shoot-and-transfer capability. Thus the dream of web journalists and bloggers everywhere of being able to easily upload photos to web from anywhere with free Wi-Fi evaporated before I'd even finished my first cup of coffee. In fairness, Eye-Fi never promised this kind of performance, but like all professionally stubborn people, I guess I secretly believed that somehow, maybe, there was a way.


In Use

Beyond its range limitations, using the Eye-Fi is even easier than setting it up. Any time the camera is powered on and in range of its preferred network, it begins transferring photos. Eye-Fi's transfer system is appropriately complex in handling transfers, meaning that if your upload gets interrupted for whatever reason (you power down the camera, for instance), the Eye-Fi will resume where it left off as soon as the camera is on and in network range.

The Eye-Fi will upload files automatically whether the camera is in shooting or playback mode, and though it prioritizes shooting over uploading (meaning there's no slow-down during shooting, as transfer functions are automatically interrupted to write files), if you're shooting within range of your network, the pics you take are uploaded almost immediately - in under 20 seconds most of the time.

While it's undeniably neat to take a shot, walk across the room, and see it already waiting on your computer, there are limitations to this kind of auto-uploading system. Most notably, there's no provision for selecting which photos you want to upload, meaning that whatever is on the card is going to the web or to your computer as soon (well, sort of...) as the camera is in wireless range and powered on. The reasons for not wanting to transfer a full card's worth of images at Wi-Fi speeds may be obvious; if not, keep reading.

I don't have hard transfer speed numbers, but uploading a group of 20 images from a 6 MP camera took around 5 minutes, 25 seconds - working out to just above 16 seconds per transfer - with the camera sitting within two feet of the router. Obviously, these kind of speeds, while acceptable for single images, may pose a real challenge for a cardfull of shots.

In terms of battery impact, fears about this tiny implement's ability to really hammer battery life were perhaps overanxious. It seems that the Wi-Fi functionality itself doesn't, in fact, draw that much additional power; the Eye-Fi's ability to drain your battery, then, seems to derive largely from the fact that the camera must be left on and with the LCD up and running for the entire transfer process. No big deal for a dozen pics, but fill up the Eye-Fi's 2 GB capacity and you better be ready to buy a wall adapter for your camera. Wasn't the point of this thing to eliminate wires?

Moreover, as the discussion from the last section suggests, the Eye-Fi functions most successfully in practice as a short-range wireless transfer device. It may let you do away with your data cable or SD card reader, but one way or another, it's not going to effectively separate you from your computer and/or wireless router for uploading images.


Conclusions

The previous statement, that the Eye-Fi, in spite of its wireless capability, doesn't really do much to separate users from their home computers for transferring files, is the tool's biggest let-down. As a device, the Eye-Fi's setup and operation are hard to fault, working exactly as advertised. The bigger problem that I foresee users having with this accessory, after the novelty wears off, is that while it certainly performs as advertised, there's more implied in the Eye-Fi's claim to be a wireless image transfer solution - and more potential in Wi-Fi technology itself - than this card delivers.

If you're simply looking for a way to untether, to bring your camera home, turn it on to transfer your day's worth of images, and forget about it, the Eye-Fi is a great, user-friendly product, and comes highly recommended - so long as the buyer goes in with a clear understanding of what it can and can't do. In light of all its limitations, however, it seems to me that there may be better ways to spend $100.