Accessory Review: Western Digital My Passport Wireless
Western Digital My Passport Wireless
1TB $199.99/£149.99 | www.wdc.com
At the end of last year, storage manufacturer Western Digital launched a new Wi-Fi enabled hard drive that features a built-in SD card reader, called the My Passport Wireless. Alongside the drive, it also launched the My Cloud app, allowing photo, video and audio files on the drive to be viewed wirelessly from a phone or tablet.
- Built-in SD card slot
- USB-3 Connection for data and charging
- Wi-Fi connection with up to 8 devices (802.11n with MIMO)
- Rechargeable battery
- DLNA/UPnP media streaming
- Wi-Fi hotspot mode
- Free iOS and Android app for control and browsing
- Claimed 20 hour battery life in standby, 6 hours for streaming
- 500GB, 1TB and 2TB models are available for £109, £129 and £199 (500GB not available in all markets)
- Dimensions: 500GB (3.39 in x 5.0 in x 0.86 in), 1TB (3.39 in x 5.0 in x 0.96 in), 2TB (3.39 in x 5.0 in x 1.17 in)
- 500GB (0.55 lb / 0.25 kg), 1TB (0.60 lb / 0.27 kg), 2TB (0.77 lb / 0.35 kg)
- 2-Year warranty
A question I've often been asked is whether there's a good way to backup photos on the road without a computer. Sometimes it's simply not practical to carry a laptop, along with the necessary card reader and power adapter, particularly if your destination is a remote one. Some years ago I explored a product from HyperDrive called the Colourspace UDMA which was essentially a hard drive with a built in CF card reader and a screen on it. The user interface left a little to be desired, but it did exactly what it said it would do and copied everything off your card and onto its internal drive.
In more recent years I've tended to recommend that people shoot to two memory cards in the camera and use this as their backup method. As the price of CF and SD media has fallen, this has become a more and more practical option and the number of cameras that feature dual card slots has also been on the rise. When launched, the My Passport Wireless immediately caught my attention because it looked as though it might solve the problem of being able to view your backed up images in a larger format, but without the need for a bulky laptop. A camera, an tablet computer and a My Passport Wireless should, in theory, give you everything you need to backup and verify your images on the road. But how practical is this solution?
My Cloud App
After downloading the WD My Cloud app from the App Store, initial wireless connection to the drive was a breeze. I was able to view and quickly browse the collection of sample media files that come pre-loaded on the drive. Wi-Fi connection requires you to connect directly to the drive in your mobile device's Wi-Fi settings, but since the My Passport Wireless can also act as a mobile hotspot, you can stay connected to the internet once you have logged the drive itself onto your network using the app. Network discovery took a while but once the drive was on the network, my iPhone was able to connect to the internet through the drive with no issues.
The biggest omission from the iOS version of the My Cloud app is the ability to simply save an image from the drive, into the iPhone or iPad's Camera Roll. Having backed up your photos to the drive and browsed them in the app, it's natural that you might want to save some of them to your device for easy viewing or social sharing. In fact, it's just about the very first thing I tried to use the drive for in my workflow!
With some of Canon's DSLRs lacking built-in Wi-Fi, I thought I could use the My Passport Wireless to quickly get images from my camera, onto my phone, and then out onto various networks. You can share the photos out to a large number of other photo apps, like SnapSeed if you have it installed, but the “Save To Camera Roll” omission is mystifying.
A little research shows that since the My Passport Wireless' launch, this is something that has been mentioned time and time again by buyers and reviewers alike. I really wish that based on that feedback, Western Digital had updated the app to include what I consider to be the most basic of features for any iOS photo management app. You can share the photo to another app, and then save it to the Camera Roll from there, but nobody likes to add another step to their workflow when it seems so unnecessary. While the app does provide a specific option to save a local copy of an image to your device for offline viewing, that viewing has to happen within the My Cloud app.
Browsing images on the My Cloud app also has some limitations. On the iPad, the thumbnails or file list are confined to a small portion of the screen on the left-hand side. When an image is selected, the preview fills the remainder of the screen, but if you are trying to browse several hundred images then the majority of the screen's real estate is going unused. When it comes to browsing folders that you have uploaded from an SD card, or dragged to the drive from your computer, you are limited to a list view that shows a filename next to the thumbnail image.
It would have been logical to offer a proper thumbnail view option as well, especially since this is how images are presented if you tap the 'Photos' button at the bottom of the screen which reveals all photos on the drive in one continuous gallery.
One of my favorite features of the app was the option to connect with various cloud storage services like Google Drive or Dropbox. You can quickly move images from the drive up to the cloud, and this means they can be shared very easily with a simple link via email. For photographers like myself, it means you could carry around your entire portfolio of 'keepers' and move them to a cloud service to share with a new client every time you make a sale.
The My Passport Wireless features a USB 3 port for connection to your computer once you return home with a drive full of photos. Testing with the standard AJA System Test gave results that were nothing to write home about. The average write speed of the drive was approximately 84 MB/s, while the read speed came in at around 90 MB/s on average.
After the USB 3 test, I moved on to check the speed of the built-in SD card reader. The easiest way to get some ideas about that was to compare the transfer speed of a folder of images from an SD card to the My Passport Wireless, with the speed it took to copy the same folder of images to my computer from a standard USB 3 card reader. What we're looking for here isn't the actual numbers, because they can be affected by the speed of the card I used. Instead we just want to note the relative difference in speed between the two options. A 3.6GB folder of photos took 44 seconds to copy from my SD card to my computer using a normal card reader. That same folder of photos took 4 minutes and 46 seconds to copy to the My Passport Wireless.
SD Card Backup In Use
On a recent two week photography trip to the Rocky Mountains, I used the My Passport Wireless to create a rolling backup of all the images from my daily travels around Banff and Jasper. I usually shoot with CF cards, so the first change I made was to switch to SD cards. As I mentioned earlier, you can't view Raw previews in the My Cloud app so initially I switched to Raw+JPEG in order to be certain that my files were being transferred. After about 20 successful imports, I had the confidence to revert back to just shooting Raw though.
I set the drive to copy files automatically when the card was inserted and never had any issues with the import process at all. The My Passport Wireless provides incremental backup, so it won't copy files over that it has already copied in a previous session. That means you can use huge capacity SD cards to maintain a second copy of your images, whilst incrementally adding to your hard drive backup whenever the opportunity presents itself.
In this regard, the drive works incredibly well, and there was definitely some added peace of mind, knowing that my freshly shot images were already duplicated even if I hadn't yet had the chance to get my laptop out and do a proper import to Lightroom. A lot of my photography specific trips have long days of shooting and at the end of a day I don't necessarily feel like setting up the laptop, drives and card readers. With the My Passport Wireless in my bag, I was able to shoot and backup without always feeling the need to deal with the laptop.
For a couple of reasons, I wouldn't go into a shoot with the intention of moving my images to the My Passport Wireless and then deleting the images from a full card to re-use it. Firstly, as the speed test showed, this isn't a fast way to get photos from a card. If you were relying on being able to move them from the card in order to use it again, you could miss important opportunities while you wait for the files to copy. The second reason is that the solid state memory of your SD card is likely much more durable that the hard drive in the My Passport Wireless with its spinning disk and moving parts. I'm always wary of that when I'm constantly on the move with my gear, as I was on this shoot.
These kinds of photography trips are always the real test for me as I see how a piece of gear settles into my shooting workflow. Firstly, I wish the drive displayed a bit more information on it. The two LEDs are designed to give you a variety of information based on what color they are and whether they are flashing, pulsing or continuously on. In the course of the trip, I had to refer to the manual several times to decode exactly what it was these lights were trying to tell me. When one of them flashes white for example, it means the SD card is importing photos. Given that both lights can flash white at various times, and neither is labelled as an indicator for the card reader, you can see how confusion can arise.
Once I became confident in the drive's ability to backup my photos, I almost stopped using the app entirely since I could not view the Raw files. What I would have appreciated is a small LCD on the drive that gave me more detailed information about the battery life and remaining drive capacity, as well as an import progress indicator for the current SD card download. Some of that information is available if you open the app, but this required connecting the devices over Wi-Fi and it felt a bit clumsy to have to do that just to get some basic information like that.
After a successful landscape shoot at a particular location, or a great encounter with some of the amazing wildlife in the Rockies, I would put the SD card into the drive and leave it in my camera bag while I drove to the next shooting spot. In once instance after an aerial shoot from a helicopter, I was able to back up those photos on top of a mountain before we flew back home. After those kinds of once-in-a-lifetime shoots, it's great to be able to create such an instant backup.
The battery life also proved to be excellent, and while I would top it up with a USB battery pack every now and again, I never really felt like I had to worry about the power levels too much. If you were looking for a backup solution for a very remote expedition, the drive could be charged using a solar power option such as those available from Goal Zero. Given my experience with the drive on my Rockies trip, I'd be confident in that kind of solution for a computer-less backup strategy.
Build And Durability
The My Passport Wireless has a plastic casing that feels a little fragile for a drive that's designed to be used in the field and on the move. I don't like to carry gear with me that feels like I have to baby it, and this definitely felt that way. In fact, at some unknown point during my time testing this drive, the plastic casing did indeed develop a crack. The drive remained fully functioning, but it just underlined my initial impressions of the unit. This is a product that is, for many reasons, great for travel. A drive like that needs to be a little tougher and be able to better withstand being thrown in and out of backpacks and camera bags. On top of that, the finish of the plastic casing is easily scratched, leaving my test unit looking several years old after just a few weeks on the road.
The WD My Passport Wireless is a nice idea that's let down a little bit by both hardware and software deficiencies. While it does everything that it sets out to do, it's not without fault and occasional speed-related annoyances. It feels very much like a first attempt right now, but it could become a truly excellent device with a little refinement and a second iteration. Those who were hoping that this could be a device to unload cards to, mid-shoot, will be disappointed. It's too slow for that so I wouldn't recommend relying on it in any situation where time is a factor. Anyone looking for off-the-grid SD card backup on longer trips might just find what they are looking for though. In that respect, it proved to be reliable and extremely useful.
What we like:
- Intuitive mobile app
- Decent battery life
- Reliable SD card downloading
- Wireless access to a huge collection of your images
- Upload files to cloud storage services from the My Cloud app
What we don't like:
- Slow startup speeds
- Slow SD card transfer speed
- Can't be used as a regular SD card reader when plugged in via USB
- Minimal indication on the drive as to what it's currently doing
- No 'Save To Camera Roll' function on iOS
- Could be tougher