In 2003, SmartDisk introduced FlashTrax, a portable photo, video, and audio storage and playback device. While it could play videos and MP3 music files, it was primarily aimed at photographers who wanted a way to quickly store and view still images. The latest version, the FlashTrax XT, sports enhanced audio-video capabilities, a revamped body, and other improvements for anyone who wants to capture and view multimedia files on a handheld device. (While the FlashTrax XT will eventually replace the original FlashTrax, the latter is still available.)
The FlashTrax XT is much improved over the original model ( April 2005 ). While I’m not especially fond of the new, chunkier body, the 3.6-inch, 320-by-240-pixel TFT LCD screen is larger, brighter, and clearer than the previous model’s. But the unit is also 27 percent larger and 3 ounces heavier than the original.
Recording and playing AV
FlashTrax’s most exciting new feature is its ability to record both audio and video and to let you listen to and record FM radio to its hard drive. The FlashTrax can play video encoded with MPEG-4 simple profile (SP) and Windows Media Version 9 SP; DivX 3, 4, or 5 with MP3 audio; XviD 1.0; and MPEG-4, AAC-LC stereo. I viewed several XviD and various DivX files, and they played flawlessly.
You can easily record video to the FlashTrax XT from your VCR, TiVo, camcorder, directly from a TV, or any unit that has composite analog video-out ports, using the included composite audio-video cable. Once the cable is correctly connected (when you start seeing the video signal on the FlashTrax’s screen), you just press the Record button to start recording. You can also connect the same cable to your TV’s video-in port to view the unit’s stored images and movies on your TV. However, the unit no longer comes with a remote control. As with the previous model, you transfer files to and from the FlashTrax to your Mac via a USB 2.0 connection.
Videos were colorful and easy to watch. The radio tuner and recorder worked well, too. You can also generate customized playlists from your tunes. Unfortunately, while FlashTrax does play MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, it does not play Apple’s AAC format, so no music direct from the iTunes music store. All audio from the FlashTrax XT sounded better when using the included earbud headphones as opposed to playing it through the speaker.
Fewer photo capabilities
With its new emphasis on recording and playing multimedia, SmartDisk has de-emphasized some of the original FlashTrax’s photographic functionality. For example, the FlashTrax XT no longer lets you rotate photos and it no longer displays TIFFs. But you can still zoom and pan JPEGs, GIFs, and some raw files, and compile photos into albums that you can view as an automatic slideshow, complete with music, if you wish.
Inexplicably, the new model no longer shows photos’ detailed EXIF metadata in Photo mode, and now shows only the dimension and size of a photo. As a field-photography tool, that is less than optimal. SmartDisk says it is considering firmware upgrades that would restore those capabilities to the FlashTrax.
The FlashTrax XT comes in two hard drive sizes—40GB and 80GB—and considering that the larger one packs twice as much storage into the same sized body, it seems worth the extra $100. (At 4MB per MP3, the FlashTrax can hold 10,000 or 20,000 songs, if you do not also store video and photos on it.)
The FlashTrax XT’s performance is much better than the original’s. With the original, I sometimes had to wait three or four seconds for images to appear as I cycled through my pictures in a manual slide show; with the new model, I just clicked the Enter or Down button and they appeared immediately. The transfer of 1GB of images from the FlashTrax to my Mac took a bit longer—a minute and a half as opposed to a minute and 7 seconds—but this is no cause for complaint. It took about 7 minutes and 10 seconds to transfer 1GB of files from a CompactFlash card to the unit’s hard drive. The battery lasted just under five hours running a continuous photo slide show; more than twice as long as the original model.
Ease of use
I found navigation and file management through the FlashTrax XT a bit clunky. For example, FlashTrax shows hidden audio files generated by the Mac OS that do not show up on your computer, and they cannot be removed via the FlashTrax. It’s much easier to manage files by connecting the unit to your Mac.
FlashTrax’s inconvenient DOS naming convention doesn’t help with navigation because it truncates some file and folder names. You can rename individual files, photo albums, and playlists, but you can’t rename folders.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
The FlashTrax XT is an extremely useful, multifaceted device that has expanded its target audience to include multimedia users on the go. If you don’t need to rotate or see photographic EXIF data, the FlashTrax XT stores and displays your still photos quite well. FlashTrax XT’s recording capabilities, excellent audio and video playback, and improved LCD screen make it a very good product indeed.
[ Jackie Dove is Macworld ’s senior associate editor. ]