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August 12, 2008

Review: Eye-Fi Explore Hits the Mark

After spending two weeks with the $130 Eye-Fi Explore Wi-Fi memory card, I'm a fan: The Eye-Fi Explore was introduced in July by the eponymous firm to support geotagging - embedding latitude and longitude into photo metadata - and easier uploading of images. The Eye-Fi Explore is a Secure Digital (SD) card with 2 GB of storage, a tiny computer, and a Wi-Fi radio. The Explore uses Skyhook Wireless's Wi-Fi positioning data combined with Wayport's network of 10,000 hotspots, mostly McDonald's, along with revised firmware and software that dramatically improves the experience of uploading photos.

The company shuffled its products into three versions several weeks ago: Eye-Fi Home ($80), which uploads only to a specific computer over a local network; Eye-Fi Share ($100), a rebranded version identical to its first offering last year, which can upload to photo-sharing services or a computer or both; and the Explore. (You can purchase the Eye-Fi Explore from, as well as the other models.)

eye-fi_cards_sharer_sm.jpgI reviewed the Explore as a geotagging system for The Seattle Times this last Saturday; I'd reviewed the original Eye-Fi (now Eye-Fi Share) for them last year as well. You can read that review for my take on geotagging, or skip to the bottom of this review, as well.

The hardware is apparently the same or nearly so, and it works just as well as it did last year. The biggest improvements, however, are a few workflow tweaks that make it far easier to manage and track uploads of pictures without draining your camera's batteries down to zero.

Eye-Fi requires power from a camera to upload over Wi-Fi; this is logical, of course. If you plug an Eye-Fi card into a USB memory reader, it can transmit using USB power, but as long as you're on the go or just want to use your camera as your uploading device, you have to disable any features that cause the camera to power down after a period of time.

With the first release of the Eye-Fi last year, you had to baby a camera. If you'd set the Eye-Fi to upload directly to the company's servers, there was no way to know that a transfer was complete. Eye-Fi first loads the pictures on their servers and then moves them to photo-sharing, print-making, or social network services like Flickr, Costco, and Facebook, among man others.

When you set an Eye-Fi to "upload" to your computer and to an Eye-Fi partner site, the Eye-Fi would first upload to Eye-Fi's servers, and then download all the images over the Internet to your computer. Hardly efficient. They've solved both problems in a quite nifty fashion.

Now, when you upload pictures to a computer and Eye-Fi's servers--with either the Share or Explore models--the Eye-Fi rapidly transfers photos over the local network to the computer, with an optional preview appearing on screen as a little drop-down menu as each picture is received by your computer. Your computer then performs the upload using Eye-Fi's small-footprint management software.

You can check the manager to see when it's done and power off the computer. It also means that a quick stop at home could allow all your pictures to be grabbed over a 20+ Mbps throughput 802.11g network, instead of what's likely 512 Kbps to 1 Mbps upstream access you have to the Internet.

If you're not at home or using a computer to handle the uploads, Eye-Fi's added a notification feature that alerts you via SMS or email or both when a photo-sharing upload has started, if it's interrupted, and when it's complete. This helps tremendously if you're using the Explore and a Wayport hotspot to upload. If you don't also have a Wi-Fi account with a Wayport partner (like AT&T, Boingo, or iPass), then you wouldn't know when the uploads were finished. With notification, a regular phone can be buzzed when it's done, or you can use a phone with email to check for a note that the upload is complete.


The notification feature is so important in making the Eye-Fi Share and Explore less of a hassle to use and manage that I was surprised that I couldn't find any reference to it on Eye-Fi's site. It's not in their product information, their FAQ, or their support search engine's results. (The only brief mention is in a 22-July-08 post on their blog that lacks a permanent external link.)

I find that now I routinely take my camera out of my bag when I get home if I've taken photos while I'm out with the kids or during the work day, switch it to "display" mode so that it doesn't extend the lens, power it on, and walk away. A few minutes later, I'll check that the manager software has grabbed the images, and I power the camera off. This is vastly better than the last time around.

As for the geotagging features, I'm reasonably happy with them, too. The Explore uses Skyhook's database and algorithms in an interesting way. Because you can't be sure of a live Internet connection at any given time that you're taking pictures, the Explore clearly takes a snapshot of the Wi-Fi environment that's later used when a live connection is available at upload to grab the estimated latitude and longitude, and attach those details to the photo's EXIF metadata.

eyefi_flickr_extract.tiffIn practice, the geotagging worked well in and around Seattle. I didn't travel outside the city during the two weeks I tested the card, and would likely be more disappointed when I travel to rural areas or the beach, and find myself outside of Skyhook's coverage territorySkyhook talks about having scanned any town with 8 streets or more. At one point, the card thought I was in Hamburg, Germany, but it got over it, and it was imprecise just for one brief bike ride. I definitely find it useful and enjoyable to have a timestamp and location stamp on each of my pictures. With two kids, I will never, ever have time to organize my photos, so at least I can find them on a map!

For more precise placement, that's where a product like the iPhone 3G, with a built-in GPS receiver, can certainly excel over the Eye-Fi Explore. (I tested the iPhone 3G's geotagging, and it worked exceptionally well.) I expect that Eye-Fi is looking into how it might supplement itself with a GPS, internal or external; the SD card format is pretty tight as it is, so I'm not sure there's room to put one more radio in there! (The iPhone 3G uses a combination of Skyhook Wi-Fi position, Google cell tower triangulation, and GPS data to come up with a set of coordinates; it uses the Wi-Fi and cell tower information to get a more rapid GPS fix, too, bringing it down to tens of seconds.)

Most likely, Eye-Fi could come up with a hybrid, such as the external GPS timestamp receivers that are starting to be available at reasonable prices. For instance, the intriguing $90 ATP Photo Finder has quite a lot of interesting features. You synchronize your camera's time to the ATP device's UMT calibrated timestamp, and then roam. The Photo Finder continuously records GPS information. When you insert an 2 GB or smaller memory card, the Photo Finder rewrites the metadata to include the GPS coordinates that match the photo's timestamp. The Photo Finder is a low-end, pure GPS device, and the company warns that in a new location (500 km/300 mi away from its previous use) or after a month of no use, it might take nearly 13 minutes for the device to get a fix. Other delays can also factor in. (More epxensive standalone GPS screen-based navigators - costing $300 to $700 - have features to make GPS start time much lower.)

Eye-Fi could conceivably produce their own such device, using Wi-Fi as a link, or even creating something that plugged in via USB. The real issue is how many people interested in geotagging will have the right combination of interest and geekiness. Eye-Fi is about making things simpler, and having an external device requiring extra management doesn't play into that perfectly.

The Wayport hotspot service, a year of which is included in an Eye-Fi Explore purchase, is a bit more problematic. Wayport operates service at nearly 10,000 McDonald's outlets in the U.S., but only a few hundred scattered hotels beyond that. They're under contract with AT&T to build out the telco's hotspots, including their new ones at Starbucks, but those aren't included, at least at the moment. I had a hard time finding McDonald's, which are a bit scarce in Seattle, and having the right amount of time to upload photos. I was able to match my location and time just once, and the card worked just fine. Additional years of Wayport service at $19 per year are optional.

One major flaw in how Eye-Fi handles the Wayport connection is that you cannot choose to connect just to Wayport locations - the switch that enables this pre-paid option also requires that you connect to any open Wi-Fi network. That's absurd, and puts users in a potentially illegal situation. Many U.S. municipalities have laws that prevent the unauthorized use of computer networks, and some people have been cited or prosecuted for this. In other countries, laws are even more strict. The Eye-Fi, deployed in Germany in this fashion, would absolutely violate new computer security laws passed last year. The company needs to separate the option for using open networks from Wayport hotspots.

In all, I would highly recommend the Eye-Fi Explore if you have any interest in geotagging without wanting to invest the time and effort for the Photo Finder or more complicated software options that rely on exporting information from ordinary GPS receivers. I like it, and I like Eye-Fi's improvements to their software as well.

Services that support geotagged photo uploads with basic fees, upload/storage limits:

  • Flickr (Yahoo): free, 100 MB upload/mo.; $25/yr account, unlimited uploads, storage
  • Locr: free, 100 MB/mo.; €20/yr., 2 GB/mo.
  • SmugMug: $40/yr, unlimited uploads, storage
  • Panoramio (Google): free, 2 GB
  • Picasa (Google): free, 1 GB storage; plus 10 GB storage, $20/yr up to 400 GB, $500/yr