One reason the smartphones like the iPhone are gaining ground on purpose-built cameras is their instant connectivity: Take a photo and you can immediately share it on Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, or other popular sites. Wouldn’t it be great if your SLR or digital camera could do the same? This is the promise of the Eye-Fi card: It adds Wi-Fi connectivity to most popular cameras, enabling you to transfer photos directly to your laptop or the Internet. If only it worked.
Introducing the Eye-Fi
The Eye-Fi card is a marvel of engineering. Now in its second iteration (X2), the Eye-Fi is a standard SD card with a built-in Wi-Fi radio and smarts to handle connecting and transferring images. It’s really amazing to think that that tiny card has a whole computer with Wi-Fi inside it!
Check out my follow-on post to see just what lurks inside the Eye-Fi X2!
But the Eye-Fi is more than a card. It’s also an online service (Eye-Fi View), software application for Windows or Mac (Eye-Fi Center), and app for iOS or Android that enables photo sharing. The card is useless without these applications and services.
The Eye-Fi card is compatible with most cameras that take SD media, and many (including my Sony NEX-5) have special support for the card. My NEX includes an on-screen icon showing card status, and will keep the camera powered on while images are being transferred.
The X2 Generation
Last year, Eye-Fi upgraded the hardware in their Eye-Fi lineup. These new X2 cards are a huge upgrade, as you will soon see, and were enough to finally push me off the fence and buy one. I purchased a Connect X2 card at Wal Mart, which sells them for a reasonable $39, as does Amazon.
Earlier Eye-Fi cards required a known Wi-Fi network to do anything at all, limiting their usefulness. But the new X2 series (including the Connect X2 I purchased) has a “Direct Mode” capability, allowing the card to act as a limited hotspot to transfer photos to a laptop, tablet, or phone when no network is in range.
Eye-Fi Features and Services
All Eye-Fi X2 cards offer the same features and services – for a price. Even my lowly Connect X2 can be upgraded to match the Pro X2’s geotagging and public Wi-Fi support. The only really Pro-exclusive feature is RAW file transfer. But none of these added features is actually worth that much, as you will see. I recommend the base Connect X2.
Eye-Fi inexplicably leaves the Geo X2 off their comparison table. And they’re not exactly generous with the information. So here’s my own Eye-Fi comparison table, and I’ve included about the nicest regular SD card I could find.
|Patriot 32 GB SDHC||Eye-Fi Connect X2||Eye-Fi Geo X2||Eye-Fi Mobile X2||Eye-Fi Pro X2|
|Speed||Class 10 (10 MB/s)||Class 6 (6 MB/s)|
|Connectivity||SD Reader||SD Reader, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi with Direct Mode|
|Capacity||32 GB||4 GB||8 GB|
|RAW compatibility||Manual import only||Yes|
|Sharing||Manual||Automatic to Flickr, Facebook, etc|
|Geotagging||No||$29.99 option||Yes||$29.99 option||Yes|
|Hotspot Access||No||$29.99 per year||First year free, then $29.99 per year|
|Price With Geo||N/A||$70||$70||$102||$90|
This is the real killer feature of the Eye-Fi X2 line. When the card isn’t in range of a known Wi-Fi hotspot (and has photos to transfer) it will create its own ad-hoc network for local devices. Once connected to this network, laptops, tablets, and phones can transfer photos at Wi-Fi speed directly from the card.
I’ll write more about it in a follow-on post, but suffice to say that Direct Mode is the only feature worth paying for and it’s included free on all Eye-Fi X2 cards!
Geotagging seems like an awesome add-on for a digital camera, and it is surprising more don’t already include it. Sites like Flickr and applications like iPhoto make great use of location tagging, and the iPhone automatically tags all photos.
But the Eye-Fi has two major strikes against it when it comes to geotagging, and these combine to reduce the value of this feature:
- The Eye-Fi cards don’t have a GPS receiver, so they have to triangulate location based on nearby Wi-Fi access points. This gives innacurate location data at the best of times and is completely worthless off the beaten path.
- The Eye-Fi doesn’t tag photos when they are taken but rather when they are transferred by the Eye-Fi software. This means that any images imported directly off the card won’t have geotags.
The limited functionality of Eye-Fi geotagging means it’s simply not worth paying extra for. There goes the $69 Geo X2 from Apple, as well as the $29 upgrade for Connect X2 users.
Basic Eye-Fi models only recognize hotspots you program them for, but the top model can access a wide range of public hotspots automatically. This is also available as an extra-charge item, priced at $29.99 per year.
Hotspot access was very valuable in earlier Eye-Fi models, since there was no way to transfer photos without them. But the X2 cards, with their Direct Mode, offer a better alternative at no cost. It’s definitely not worth buying a Pro X2 card for hotspot access, since it only includes one year of service.
SDHC Class 6 and Wireless-N Speed
The Eye-Fi X2 features two performance and compatibility improvements over previous models:
- SDHC Class 6 compatibility means the card can now keep up with today’s fast shooting and megapixel-heavy cameras. This is more important for HD video, but some cameras (like my NEX) can tax Class 4 (40 MB/s) cards in speed shooting modes, and Class 6 (6 MB/s) might not even be enough. In fact, I did encounter some “cannot write” errors when using the Eye-Fi card, and I attribute this to the card still not being fast enough!
- The new X2 cards support Wi-Fi “N” networks. This is more about compatibility than performance, since the card can’t transfer fast enough to tax a “G” network anyway. But folks like me who have “N-only” networks at home appreciate it, however.
Neiter of these features are deal-breakers, and neither adds much to the Eye-Fi experience. But both are welcome updates and keep the cards from becoming obsolete in today’s world.
Which Eye-Fi Card Is Best?
Normally, I have to waffle a bit when recommending a purchase. After all, some people might need to drive a Ferrari, right? But the Eye-Fi is a special case, and a single answer will do:
If you decide to buy an Eye-Fi card, get the cheapest Connect X2 model and don’t bother with any upgrades.
Seriously. The added features in the upscale Eye-Fi cards are worthless in real-world usage. Don’t buy them.
- Stepping up to 8 GB of capacity isn’t all that valuable in a connected card, and this is some seriously expensive capacity
- Eye-Fi geotagging is just about worthless, so put it out of your mind and don’t be tempted
- Public hotspot usage will just be frustrating, and Direct Mode allows the card to function without it
In my next post, I will discuss my real-world experience with the Eye-Fi card, and end with a disappointing recommendation.