The Eye-Fi card holds serious promise and is a marvel of engineering and miniaturization. If only it worked. In my real-world test at Tech Field Day 6, the Eye-Fi proved frustrating, failing to live up to my expectations and showing serious flaws in design and execution.
The Out-of-Box Experience
For more information on the Eye-Fi card line-up, see Introducing the Eye-Fi X2 Card and What Are The True Eye-Fi X2 802.11n Wi-Fi Capabilities?
The Eye-Fi comes in a pleasing package, and includes a USB SD card reader along with the SD card itself. I was happy to find Mac and Windows software pre-loaded on the card – just insert it and you are ready to install and configure the Eye-Fi Helper and Eye-Fi Center software.
Before it is useful, the Eye-Fi card must be configured in Eye-Fi Center. This includes associating it with an online Eye-Fi View account as well as any photo-sharing services you might want. The software uses Adobe Air, and the user interface is neither Windows nor Mac-like. It uses lots of tiny fiddly icons, menus, and tabs, and I found it difficult to understand what was going on at times.
Annoyingly, the Eye-Fi Center frequently refuses to recognize my card when I insert it directly into the SD slot on my MacBook Pro. The card functions fine (iPhoto can see it and import), but the Eye-Fi Helper reports no card attached and Eye-Fi Center won’t allow it to be configured. This caused initial frustration for me, and continues to annoy. Eye-Fi blames the MacBook Pro slot for “powering down” and recommends their USB reader.
Adding a known Wi-Fi network requires the computer to be in range and connected, a serious limitation. I was unable to configure the Wi-Fi for my home and work LAN since I was on a trip, and it’s a hassle to move the card to the computer when I happen to be on-site. Why not let me program networks arbitrarily, perhaps in an “Advanced” menu?
Configuring Direct Mode
Configuring Direct Mode and setting up the iOS app are much more difficult tasks than expected, even for an advanced computer user. You must enable Direct Mode in Eye-Fi center with the card in the computer, then configure all devices (including the computer itself) to connect to the special network created by the card. Since it’s password protected, the Eye-Fi instructions call for a multi-step process of copying and pasting the password.
It would have been much easier if there was a way to disable the password entirely. It’s not much of a security risk – Direct Mode is only active when the card is powered on and has photos to transfer, and its weak Wi-Fi signal is limited to short range only. I would also like to be able to customize the SSID: Perhaps something without the word, “Eye-Fi” in it?
Since Direct Mode is an ad-hoc network, some operating systems (including, apparently, Mac OS X and iOS) occasionally refuse to automatically connect. When this happens, one must manually select the Eye-Fi network when a transfer is to be made. And I found that the iPhone sometimes refused to download photos in Direct Mode, even when everything appeared to be set up correctly.
Direct Mode can only connect to a single device at a time. I was testing with an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook pro and had to tell the Eye-Fi software to switch devices frequently. When you do switch, however, it re-uploads photos to the new client software, creating duplicates if online photo sharing is enabled!
A Slow and Draining Experience
When initially configured, the Eye-Fi card will upload all photos to the online service, any configured sharing sites, and any connected devices. This takes quite a while for a 14 megapixel camera.
In the case of my NEX-5, each image is about 6 MB. Each took 10 to 20 seconds to upload using my Virgin MiFi, with an inexplicable delay before and after. I tend to shoot a lot of photos at events like Tech Field Day, and the Eye-Fi/MiFi combination simply could not keep up with my demands.
I would take a few photos and then set the camera aside, leaving it on so the Eye-Fi could transfer. Contrary to Eye-Fi’s claims, this rapidly drained the (normally strong) battery in the NEX and proved unsatisfying in terms of usability.
Put simply, over the course of three days of use, my photos were never where I wanted them when I wanted them there. They would eventually upload to Flickr, but by then I was on to the next presentation or location. I couldn’t wait for the card: By day 3 I was frequently removing the Eye-Fi and using it as an ordinary SD card.
Tuning the Eye-Fi Experience
One reason my photos were so slow to upload was the sheer volume of data to be transferred. I took hundreds of photos over the course of two days, 598 to be exact. Uploading 3 GB of data over a MiFi just isn’t practical; even a standard broadband connection would have had difficulty with this kind of load.
This is a perennial complaint about the Eye-Fi, and something the company really can’t solve. Images keep getting bigger and cameras just keep getting faster. The new “wireless n” radio in the X2 series of cards is severely limited in terms of performance and does little to help.
I can think of two solutions, neither of which exploit the full potential of the Eye-Fi card:
- “Wireless card reader” – Disable all online services and rely on Direct Mode for wireless connection to a computer, iPhone, or iPad.
- “Selective transfer” – Configure the Eye-Fi to selectively upload only the best photos, skipping the local computer.
In both cases, many of the vaunted features of the card are ignored. Neither uses the Eye-Fi View online service, for example, and Endless Memory and the Eye-Fi Center application are skipped. But these options function, which is really the point, after all.
I simply cannot recommend any Eye-Fi card, even the fancy new X2 line, to average camera users. Even enthusiasts like me would be wise to curb their enthusiasm. Most features barely work in practice, and the device frequently failed to perform.
I found myself pulling the Eye-Fi card from the camera and transferring photos like any old SD card. Only Direct Mode shows any promise, and it was annoyingly inconsistent, but I did come up with two workable use cases. All in all, I’m deeply disappointed.