Until recently, the best way to make sure you didn’t lose your freshly shot digital photos was to keep a PowerBook strapped to your side so you could wipe your memory card, view your images, and organize your work. Other options included buying additional memory cards and using an iPod as a storage device. None were optimal solutions.
Handheld storage-and-playback devices—a new product genre—are designed for professional photographers and go a long way toward solving this problem. Part massive hard drive and part high–quality photo viewer, these devices feature gigabytes of storage space, high–quality LCD screens, and video–out connections for viewing images on a TV without the need of a computer. Some even let you crop and print without using your Mac, and some can play music and video files.
I tested three of these new products: Epson’s P-2000, Nikon’s Coolwalker MSV-01, and SmartDisk’s FlashTrax. All these players can display JPEG and some Raw image formats, and all support USB 2.0 for speedy uploading and downloading of image files to your computer. Each sports a large, bright LCD screen with various zoom levels, and each supports most types of camera-storage media, either natively or via third-party adapters. All can send images to your TV through their video-out ports, and the Coolwalker and the FlashTrax ship with remote controls.
Nikon Coolwalker MSV-01
Nikon’s Coolwalker is an extremely compact and stylish piece of equipment that holds 30GB of data. Straight out of the box, the Coolwalker is handy and easy to use. It’s small, it has an unambiguous interface with iPod-style click-wheel buttons, and it has an easy-to-understand hierarchical folder-navigation system. And Nikon’s inclusion of a convenient histogram was thoughtful.
But the Coolwalker’s utility is diminished by what Nikon likely perceived as a strength: it’s specifically designed to be used with Nikon digital SLR cameras and certain Coolpix point-and-shoot models. If you’re shooting with another brand of camera, the device won’t display Raw images (though it does display TIFFs and JPEGs from other cameras), and its audio functions, such as playback of voice notations with photos and MOV or WAV video files, work only with files generated by Nikon cameras.
The unit’s LCD, at 2.5 inches, is not large enough, despite the screen’s excellent quality. Images are bright and easy to see, and the viewing angle is wide, without color or image distortion as you view the display from either side. However, the colors seem a bit flat.
File transfers are relatively fast: in our tests, it took about 2 minutes and 42 seconds to transfer 256MB of images from a CompactFlash card to the device, and it took 1 minute and 43 seconds to transfer 1GB of images to my computer via the device’s USB 2.0 connection. Playback time is a bit sluggish, though; the unit took a few seconds to switch from one full-screen image to another, and to move or remove images. The Coolwalker’s battery life is between 1.5 and 2 hours—nothing to write home about.
Menus containing shooting data such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, and other EXIF information are easily accessible, but they’re superimposed on the image, which makes them difficult to read. To see all the EXIF data, you must cycle through five separate screens.
The Coolwalker has some frustrating quirks. For example, you must use the remote control to rotate a shot, because the unit has no rotate button. Editing is a one-shot-at-a-time operation; there’s no way to select a group of images to move or delete, though you can designate multiple images on a single print order.
The device has too many limitations for me to recommend it as an all-around viewer, unless you use a Nikon camera, and even Nikon users might benefit more from one of the other photo viewers I looked at.
For these photographic viewers, display size makes a big difference—and the Epson P-2000’s brilliant, 3.8-inch LCD comes closest to replicating your original photographic vision. The P-2000 has a comparatively huge LCD screen, and the device also works as a video and MP3 player. Its screen’s colors are bright and have excellent contrast, and you can use its friendly, icon-based navigation system to see full-screen images. The P-2000 is a tad heavier and bulkier than the Coolwalker, but its diverse functions make it more flexible and convenient.
You can rotate, move, or choose multiple images for printing at the same time, and you can choose between a number of professional and slick slide-show transitions. The P-2000 directly supports Raw images from camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon, and of course Epson, and it plays movie formats such as AVI and MOV generated from any camera.
The P-2000’s battery lasts 2.5 to 3 hours. It took about 1 minute and 42 seconds to transfer images from a full 256MB CompactFlash card to the unit, and 1 minute and 11 seconds to transfer 1GB of images from the unit to a computer.
The device’s display maintains a high level of image quality at disparate viewing angles. You can toggle EXIF data on and off; the information appears on a gray background that covers half the selected image—it isn’t superimposed directly over the image, as with the Coolwalker. All shooting information is shown on one screen, but there is no histogram.
This unit can play popular audio and video formats, and it does a fine job with both. You can even set music to play with your slide shows.
But the P-2000 has its downsides. You can’t include Raw photos in slide shows or enlarge or rotate them, though Epson is planning firmware upgrades to improve support in the future. The unit will not display TIFFs, and you can use only certain Epson printers to print your images. When we printed, sometimes the printer cut off part of the image and did not print as the P-2000’s or the printer’s preview indicated.
SmartDisk bills the FlashTrax as a multimedia player, but it’s primarily targeted at photographers. It comes in three hard-drive sizes—20GB, 40GB, and 80GB. This device has many useful and convenient features: the body is compact, functional, and quite stylish, and you can shut the unit to protect the screen.
The FlashTrax also has a progressive zoom that lets you enlarge specific parts of an image—a nice touch. The EXIF shooting information is superimposed on a white background on top of the image so that you can see and read it clearly. And the FlashTrax is more flexible than the others in its handling of Raw files: it lets you not only view them but also manipulate them.
Unfortunately, the FlashTrax’s display is inferior to the displays on the other devices. Its LCD has a low-resolution look, and I saw what seemed to be halftone dots on the screen. Despite a generous 3.5-inch screen size, images are harder to see on this viewer than on the others. The FlashTrax’s narrow viewing angle adds to the LCD’s problems.
The FlashTrax’s performance is slow. It takes between three and four seconds for each image to appear on screen. Whenever it switches thumbnails, the screen goes white while it waits for the next image or screen of thumbnails to load.
The FlashTrax’s navigation system has a Windows look to it. You can program it to play slide shows, without music and fancy transitions. I easily hooked it up to a TV to view images. The unit’s speaker sound was simply awful, but audio was much better when I used headphones.
The FlashTrax’s battery life is a little less than 2 hours. Moving images from a full 256MB CompactFlash card to the unit took about 2 minutes and 11 seconds. And transferring 1GB of data from the FlashTrax to my Mac took an average of 1 minute and 7 seconds.
How to Choose
If you’re a photographer looking for the best way to view your images, the unit with the best and brightest screen is the Epson P-2000. While its case doesn’t close like the FlashTrax’s, and the unit isn’t as compact as the Coolwalker, the P-2000’s image quality is far superior to that of the other two.
Battery life is not spectacular for any of these units, but the Epson outperforms the others. It was nice to be able to use USB 2.0 to transfer files from the unit to the computer, but FireWire would be even more accessible to Mac users and would likely be faster.
The FlashTrax is the only device that gives you a choice of hard-drive size (and, consequently, price), which some photographers may appreciate. And if you use a Nikon camera, you might prefer the Nikon Coolwalker for its interoperability with your camera.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The Epson P-2000 is the best choice in this new product category. Its high-quality screen and sound, as well as its friendly navigation scheme, give you the best value for your money. The P-2000 has convenient amenities that the other two devices lack, resulting in an altogether more pleasing and productive experience.
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