Portable Wi-Fi Drive Turns IPad Into Cineplex: Rich Jaroslovsky

A GoFlex Satellite mobile wireless storage device is the first battery-powered external hard drive to wirelessly extend the storage capacity of any Wi-Fi enabled mobile device. Source: Seagate via Bloomberg

Smartphones and tablets excel at playing movies and other media on the go, but suffer from one big drawback: They don’t hold all that much.

While the flash memory chips they use for storage take up much less space and power than traditional hard drives, they are also much more expensive on a per-byte basis. Apple Inc.’s 64-gigabyte iPad 2, for example, costs $200 more than the 16 gigabyte model.

But what if you weren’t limited to 16 or even 64 gigabytes? What if, for that same $200, you had access to, say, 500 gigabytes? That would be enough to store not just a part of your media library, but the whole thing -- as many as 300 full-length movies, for example. And what if you could share all this content with others nearby?

That’s the idea behind the GoFlex Satellite, a new mobile-storage device from hard-disk maker Seagate Technology Plc. The Satellite is a battery-powered drive that wirelessly streams videos, music and photos to phones, tablets and even laptops. I’ve been using it for a week or so now and generally like it, despite some shortcomings and glitches.

The Satellite looks like a conventional external hard drive, the kind you might toss into your computer bag. It’s the size of a paperback book and weighs about nine ounces. And it comes with a variety of cords and connectors, including power adapters to recharge it from a wall outlet or car’s cigarette lighter.

Speeding the Process

To copy your movies, music and photos, you’ll first attach the Satellite to your Windows PC or Mac using the included cable. The Satellite uses the new USB 3.0 standard, which will speed up the process if your computer supports it; if not, it’s also compatible with the older USB 2.0.

In my tests, the copy process turned out to be the most problematic part. When I listed the drive’s contents, it showed, erroneously, that each file had been written hundreds of times. The company concluded that the unit was defective and sent me a second one, which worked fine. Still, it took the better part of an hour to copy my not-very-extensive library from my Mac using a USB 2.0 connection. The process isn’t difficult, but it isn’t fast either.

One you get all your files onto the Satellite, though, actually using it is a snap. The drive shows up in the settings of your tablet or mobile phone as a wireless network, and you simply select and log into it as you would a Wi-Fi router or mobile hotspot. You can require a password, just as you would on a Wi-Fi network, or leave it open, and your content wirelessly streams from the hard disk straight to your mobile device.

Long Range

The only caveat is that your media has to be in a format your device can play; the Satellite won’t convert it for you. While Seagate claims a wireless range of about 150 feet, I was actually able to do even better.

The Satellite allows up to three simultaneous users, and they don’t have to be doing the same thing. I was able to watch different videos on an iPad and mobile phone at the same time, with no stuttering or loss of picture quality, while smoothly scrolling through photos on a second phone.

Seagate offers free apps for iPhones, iPads and, this summer, phones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system, but you don’t actually need them. Almost any Wi-Fi-equipped device with a browser will do. Once you connect to the Satellite, your browser automatically takes you to a homepage that displays the drive’s contents.

No Internet

That brings up one of the Satellite’s tradeoffs: When you’re connected, you lose Internet access. Voice calls and texting still work on a phone, but if you’re streaming a video and want to, for example, check your e-mail, you’ll first have to go back into your device’s settings and log off the Satellite, or turn it off.

Another limitation is battery life. Seagate claims the Satellite can provide up to five hours of continuous streaming; in my tests, running a high-definition movie, I got closer to four. You’ll find that car adapter indispensible, particularly if you’re trying to keep a couple of kids amused in the back seat.

The apps provide additional functionality, including tools to help organize and search your videos, photos and music. Most important, they allow you to copy a media file onto your phone or tablet for later viewing even when you’re no longer connected to the Satellite.

Overall, the GoFlex Satellite is a useful concept with a few rough edges. If you’re the type with a limited number of songs and a few flicks from the iTunes store, a gadget like this probably isn’t worth the $199.99. But if you’ve got a huge collection and want it accessible wherever you are, the Satellite means you can take it with you after all.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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