Although prices of memory cards are coming down all the time, for a professional assignment or longer holiday, you would need to buy an awful lot of storage cards. Whereas capacities have risen to levels that were unheard of a few years ago, there will still be a time when images need to be backed up for security or to free up space on the cards.
A good solution then would be to invest in a battery-powered portable hard disk to store your images or other data.
The choice is overwhelming, from rather cheap devices - which are no more than a simple back-up device with sometimes not even the possibility to check if images have been backed up correctly, to clever advanced little units that allow viewing images or even enable multimedia presentations by connecting them to a TV or beamer.
We decided to try out SmartDisk's FlashTrax or Innoplus PhotoTainer PT-300P, as it is called in other markets. Not because it is the latest or cheapest device on the market - as it isn't - but because it is a well-designed and versatile little gadget that looks like it's built to last. It has a 3.5inch TFT screen that allows viewing and basic editing of your images and comes in a variety of sizes ranging from 20GB to 80GB - which should be more than enough for even the most trigger-happy shooters. It also doubles up as an MP3 or video player should you desire so.
The FlashTrax in use
The FlashTrax folds open like a miniature laptop to reveal a screen and basic keypad. The large four-way dial in the middle with the OK button in the centre, will be familiar from your digital compact or DSLR. Below this are Mode, Function and Escape buttons and along the top, a two-way zoom control and the on/off switch. Pressing and holding the latter for 2 seconds brings the FlashTrax to life. The screen lights up to reveal an Explorer type menu. Pressing Mode selects Set-up, Photo, File or Music formats. The Fn button controls the tabs from the Explorer menu and you can navigate the menus or files with the arrow keys confirming your selection by pressing Enter. When you are in the Photo Viewer menu, other file formats such as MP3 or WAV are filtered out. This makes the rather busy interface a bit less cluttered.
With the lid closed the Smartdisk FlashTrax can be used as an MP3 player by using the convenient control panel down the left hand side. With its massive storage capacity of at least 20 Gb, the unit has more than enough space to take your entire MP3 collection with you on the road and still leave room for your holiday pictures. Its qualities as an MP3 player are good especially if you use a good set of earphones - don't expect miracles from the built-in speaker though as it is too small to enjoy any real sound quality. However, compared to dedicated MP3 players on the market today the FlashTrax loses out on size as it is quite a lot bigger than the competition, no doubt due to its 2.5inch hard disk. On the right are connectors for fast (2.0) USB connection, net adapter and video or audio cables.
Build quality of the FlashTrax is excellent. The whole unit is rather heavy (340g) and feels like a sturdy piece of engineering. When opening the screen it locks in place with a positive click. Controls are well made and give the impression they are built to last. Smartdisk has really paid attention to detail on this one. Look at the screen which rests on two small rubber dots when closed, or the CF slot at the front, which is closed off with a large rubber flap to protect it from dust or debris entering. The unit measures 143mm x 92mm x 32mm - roughly the size of a paperback book, so it is not really small enough to fit a shirt pocket comfortably, and we feel it will be more at home in your gadget bag than your trouser pocket.
The first time you use your FlashTrax you will have to enter the set-up menu to set date and time as well as interface language. Setting the date correctly is important since - when making automatic copies from your CF card - image files are stored in directories labelled with the current date.
Copying photos from you image card couldn't be simpler. No need to open the lid or turn the FlashTrax on. Just put the CompactFlash card or Microdrive in the CF type I/II slot at the bottom; press Copy next to the memory slot and you are on your way. The unit powers on and creates a folder with today's date, along with a letter "a" for the first folder of that day, "b" for the next one, and so on. Downloading a full 256Mb card takes less than five minutes. A green LED on the 3.5inch TFT screen keeps track of progress. Smartdisk claim that you can download abour 3 to 6Gb of data before the battery needs to be charged - dependent on card capacity and number of separate transfers. Battery life when playing MP3 is about 3 hours while this is reduced to 2 hours when viewing photos on the LCD screen. Of course the unit can be operated straight from the AC adapter as well. A FlashTrax media adapter, which is sold separately,
lets you use other types of memory card such as SD/MMC cards, Memory Stick or xDcards.
You can check whether your images have been stored safely by opening the lid and checking them on screen. Alternatively you could ask FlashTrax to perform an automatic quick check where file names only are compared between those on the card and the 20Gb disk or opt for a full check, which compares each original file with its copy to check if they are identical. The latter will take as much time (and power) as copying a complete set of images since every file is compared to its counterpart in real time.
The SmartDisk FlashTrax can show JPEG and RAW images from most cameras. Even TIFF files can be viewed if they contain an uncompressed embedded thumbnail. AVI and MOV videos can be shown up to 320 x 420 at 30 frames/sec or 640 x 480 at 10 frames/sec, and our FlashTrax can even read and display PowerPoint files. This feature combined with its composite video out, makes the FlashTrax ideally suitable as a portable standalone PowerPoint Presenter.
When viewing photos on screen you can perform basic editing functions such as copy, paste or delete. Another option would be to rotate or rename them. You can generate photo albums or set up automatic or manual slide shows to present on a TV screen. Images can be viewed as a file list with small thumbnails alongside it or as full screen thumbnails. Browsing is fairly intuitive - albeit a bit slow with a pause of about one second before the next image is shown. You just scroll through the file list with the arrow keys and press Enter to show the image full screen. Pressing Enter again shows image info such as size, date, camera used and exposure details. An RGB histogram can be called up as well.
The Fn button lets you zoom in on details, while the Escape button takes you back to where you were. Image quality on the big screen - though not as detailed as on the latest digital cameras - is easily good enough to determine critical sharpness and especially the zooming function is very useful for this. Zoom can be accomplished in two ways, first by using the zoom in and out buttons or by pressing the Fn key which will display a 3x3, 4x4 or 2x2 grid with an active square. Use the arrow keys to select the square you would like to zoom in to and hit Enter to enlarge that part of the image.
When you connect your FlashTrax to a computer through your USB port, Windows will see the unit as a separate drive, and images can be transferred by simply dragging them to the directory where you want to store them. No drivers are needed for Windows XP, although for Windows 98SE a separate driver should be downloaded from the SmartDisk website, where you can also check whether any (free) updates are available. Macintosh computers are supported as well.
In the box
The FlashTrax is available in capacities ranging from 20 to 80Gb, and apart from the unit itself you get an AC adapter and power cord, USB and video cables, a rechargeable 2200mAh 5V Lithium-ion Battery which should give you about 3 hours of playing time and then needs another 3 hours for a full charge. There is a soft felt carrying case to protect your FlashTrax and an infrared remote control which allows playing slideshows on TV from the comfort of your arm chair.
An elaborate manual of 150 pages in French, German, Italian, English and Dutch is included, with 25 pages dedicated to each language. All basic and advanced functions are explained in the form of a tutorial which you can follow at your own leisure. Software is not included as no drivers are needed for Windows ME, 2000 and XP or Mac OS X or OS 8.6 or higher. For Windows 98SE you should consult the SmartDisk website where you can download drivers and get the latest firmware. Extras available are limited to a spare battery for extra power and a media adapter to use other types of memory card besides CompactFlash.
After working with the SmartDisk FlashTrax for some time we have to admit that it really is a very comfortable unit to use. If you regularly take lots of images and need a portable storage medium, the FlashTrax could be just the thing for you. Copying memory cards or transferring images to a computer is very easy indeed and requires no technical knowledge at all. FlashTrax allows you to store, view and play all sorts of media files, all in one palm-sized portable device. The fact that it doubles up as a (desktop) MP3 player and provides you with entertaining music while you are working on your photo files, makes this device even more attractive.
Although the FlashTrax is perfect for a long vacation or for the avid photographer who wants to travel light, we have to mention that all units with built-in hard disks are sensitive to vibrations and shock, so dropping the FlashTrax or moving it violently should be avoided to prevent damage or loss of data, especially while it is operating. But then hey, the same is true for your precious digital camera, and you don't go about trashing your gadget bag when on the move either, or do you . . .
To conclude, we found SmartDisk's FlashTrax to be good value for money, well designed and arguably one of the most versatile solutions on the market today if you want more than just a mere back-up device which is easy to operate on all levels. It certainly beats lugging a laptop computer around.