capsule review

Eye-Fi Explore Wireless SD Card

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At a Glance
  • Eye-Fi Explore

Have you ever looked at a picture you've taken and wondered who's in it and where you snapped it? Facial recognition technology hasn't yet come far enough to determine the "who," but the Eye-Fi Explore digital camera memory card can often help with the "where."

Like last year's Eye-Fi Share, the Eye-Fi Explore is a 2GB Wi-Fi-enabled SD Card that will automatically upload your pictures to the photo-sharing or blogging site of your choice or to your computer. It works with a long list of online photo-sharing and blogging sites (though not with Blogger).

The Explore adds two significant features: automatic geotagging of image files and the ability to upload pictures when the card is within range of a Wayport wireless network hotspot, at no extra charge. (The Eye-Fi Share worked with any access point, but you had to set it up on your computer first. The Explore lets you skip that setup step when you use it with a Wayport hotspot.) The Explore costs $130 versus the Eye-Fi Share's $100; another Eye-Fi offering, Eye-Fi Home, costs just $79 but can upload wirelessly only to your computer, not to the Web.

When reviewed last year, the Share uploaded image files to the user's chosen photo-sharing site first, and then to the user's computer; that method dramatically lengthened the time the card took to transfer pictures to a computer. But Eye-Fi's cards (including the Share) can now determine whether your computer is turned on and connected to the network, and can use that information to choose automatically whether to upload to your computer first or to the Web first. That really helped speed things up when I was taking pictures around the house. (You can disable the Web uploads if you prefer.)

Eye-Fi says that you can use any of 10,000 Wayport hotspots to upload your photos automatically. You get one year of free Wayport access, after which you'll have to pay $19 per year for the service. Wayport hotspots are commonly found in McDonald's restaurants, Hertz car rental outlets, hotels, and other venues. But all of those hotspots don't make Wayport's connectivity ubiquitous. And because the Eye-Fi Explore doesn't provide an interface on your camera, you must keep an eye out for golden arches or Hertz signs, or you must use a computer to find a hotspot, which detracts from the spontaneity that Eye-Fi proffers as a selling point.

Another problem with the lack of a camera interface is that the card can't tell you when it's uploading or when it's finished. Eye-Fi tackles this problem by adding e-mail and short message service (SMS) notifications, which you can set up with the Web interface. After setting up both, I received triggers telling me when images started uploading, when they'd finished, and when they were interrupted. But you can't choose which notifications you get; you can't, for example, instruct the notification system to alert you only when an image has finished uploading (which would be my choice, so I could limit SMS charges and still know when I'm free to leave a hotspot).

Hotspot uploading was very inconsistent for me. I spent entirely too much time at three different McDonald's restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, waiting for text-message notification that pictures had begun uploading. In my first round of visits, that notification never came--because the card wouldn't upload at all. After some discussions with Eye-Fi, I tried again at two of the restaurants; this time, however, I reduced the capture resolution of my 10-megapixel Canon SD790 IS to 0.3 megapixel. That booted everything into gear--uploads began promptly, transferred quickly, and I received notifications about transfer progress. But the next morning, when I reverted the camera to its highest resolution, my phone remained mute. Only when I again set the camera to low resolution did it start transferring images (including the higher-resolution ones I'd taken just before).

I found the Eye-Fi's geotagging capability far more flexible. The card uses technology from Skyhook Wireless, which has mapped the locations of tens of millions of wireless access points worldwide and uses those points to identify your location. The card doesn't have to connect to the access point to read its location; Skyhook claims that its technology can determine a location in just 1 second. Only a few partner online sharing services have location capability, but several desktop image-editing applications have it, including Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Most of the pictures I took appeared on Picasa Web Albums with location tags in place. The Eye-Fi card relies on your proximity to wireless access points, however, and you won't find many access points in the mountains or in small towns. As a result, the locations where geotagging might be most helpful--on a hike, for example--are the ones least likely to get tagged.

In my urban and suburban travels, the card usually recorded a location, and most of the locations were correct. But perhaps 20 percent of them were off, sometimes significantly: A couple of pictures I took in South San Francisco were tagged as having been taken in Mountain View, California--about 30 miles away--and two pictures that I took in Belmont, California, were geotagged for San Francisco--about 20 miles distant. On the positive side, editing the locations in Picasa Web Albums was easy.

By its nature, the Eye-Fi Explore card is a kludge. Sure, it's an extremely clever, well-designed way to add wireless capability to digital cameras that weren't designed for it; and its makers did their best to get around the limitations of having to function inside an oblivious host. But it doesn't work nearly as well as it would have if it had been integrated into a camera from the outset (by a camera maker that doesn't impose silly limitations). And because prices on standard SD Cards have fallen so dramatically (a 2GB card now goes for $10 or less), Eye-Fi's cards cost significantly more than cards without wireless capabilities. In view of the price premium, the wireless capabilities should work better than they do.

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At a Glance
  • The Explore takes an innovative concept one step further with geotagging and hotspot uploading, but it's still ultimately a kludge.


    • E-mail and SMS notification
    • Well-designed, simple software


    • Some geotag locations were off
    • Inconsistent hotspot uploads
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