capsule review

SmartDisk FotoChute

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If you’re the type of digital photographer who likes to shoot a lot of frames—because you bracket a lot, experiment a lot, or shoot just about everything you see—you already may have discovered the frustration of running out of storage space while in the field. Though the price of flash memory cards has dropped substantially over the last year or two, carrying enough storage for an extended photo shoot is still pretty expensive. The problem is even worse if you have a high-resolution camera and shoot in raw format. If any of this sounds familiar, you’ll want to take a look at SmartDisk’s FotoChute.

This small, battery-powered, 20GB hard drive has a simple operating system and interface, and provides a compact, portable repository for your digital images. The FotoChute is also inexpensive. With 1GB Compact Flash cards costing about $75, you’d have to spend $1,500 for an equivalent amount of flash storage.

The FotoChute comes in two models, both of which store 20GB of data. The $200 model, which I tested, has a five-line LCD screen where you can confirm by text how many images are stored in the unit; the $160 model has no LCD screen.

Just storage

The FotoChute is no-frills—there is no screen for viewing your images, it can’t display images on a TV screen, and it doesn’t play MP3 files. But it does give you a place to offload your camera’s storage cards so that you can continue shooting.

Measuring 3.1-by-2.7-by-0.9 inches and weighing 5.3 ounces, the FotoChute is tiny, and will easily fit into almost any camera bag. The LCD model had a few simple buttons to facilitate copying and deleting files, and checking on status information such as remaining disk space.

The FotoChute has no media slot. Instead, it provides a built-in USB 2.0 port where you can plug in either your camera or card reader. A single button starts the file transfer. The FotoChute preserves your camera’s original folder names, so the contents of the FotoChute mirror the contents of your original card.

When you’re ready to transfer the images to your Mac, you pull the unit’s built-in USB cable out of the side of the FotoChute (it’s both USB 1.1 and 2.0 compatible) and plug it into one of your Mac’s USB ports. The device is bus-powered and will appear on your desktop, just like a mounted hard drive, allowing you to begin copying your files.

Fast file transfers

The FotoChute is fairly speedy at transferring images from your card to the unit. In general, it takes about eight minutes to copy 1GB of pictures using a USB 2.0 connection. This will vary slightly depending on the speed of your media card. Similarly, copying to the Mac is speedy enough—a 1GB transfer took about two minutes.

Because of its small size, the FotoChute doesn’t have a huge battery, but you should be able to get 40 to 60 minutes of operation out of a single charge. While this may not sound like much, it’s enough to perform as many as 10 1GB file transfers. The FotoChute ships with an AC adapter for recharging, and you can run the unit off of AC while transferring to conserve the battery.

Mounting problems

I had trouble getting the FotoChute to mount on all the machines I tested. SmartDisk admits that FotoChutes have difficulty mounting on Aluminum PowerBooks, and I was unable to get the FotoChute to work with two such PowerBooks. First, I had trouble with a dual-2GHz Power Mac G5, though the FotoChute worked fine with a dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5. After updating the unit’s firmware, both G5s worked fine. However, the firmware updater runs only on Windows, and SmartDisk has not set a timetable for making the firmware updates cross platform.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

If all you need is a small, inexpensive place to clear your media card, the FotoChute’s small size, speedy performance, and low price make it very compelling. Though the LCD screen comes in handy for double-checking image volume, it’s kind of superfluous for basic use, so it might be worth saving $40 and going with the less-expensive, screenless version. Because the unit’s Mac compatibility can be flaky, you’d do best to buy from a vendor with a liberal return policy.

[ Ben Long is the author of Complete Digital Photography , 3rd Edition (Charles River Books, 2004). ]

SmartDisk FotoChute
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