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Gadget patrol: a NAS for your iPad

I have an iPad. I also have a Google Nexus 7 tablet (and yes, it basically fixed everything that was wrong with my Samsung-delivered sub-par Android experience). Both tablets are really optimized for slightly different tasks. However, they share a common Achilles' Heel: neither of them is designed to accommodate additional storage. If you bought one of these tablets with 8Gb or 16Gb you're right out of luck if you want to carry 32Gb of stuff around with you.

So I went looking for a solution, and found one.

What I wanted (and went looking for): a box, about the size of a pack of playing cards or cigarettes. It should include a battery, some sort of storage medium, a USB port for shovelling files into it, and enough smarts to attach via wifi to a network and make the files available via a relatively open API such as HTTP with WebDAV for saving updates. In other words, a small network-attached server for files I can carry in my pocket and that overflow my tablet's own storage.

Why not use DropBox or Box.net or iCloud?

Well, I'm not always attached to the internet. In particular, if I travel abroad, then unless I'm in range of a wifi hotspot, the cost of international roaming data is insane. (On recent visits to the USA I've been charged up to $6/Mb.) Again, even if I've bought a local PAYG SIM for my mifi or iPad, reception may be lousy—at one recent trade show, the T-Mobile network was so swamped that even 2G data service was effectively unavailable. Finally, cloud services can fail, and when they do, it's more than a little inconvenient. So a box that stores a bunch of stuff in my pocket seems like a useful adjunct to life with a tablet that can't take micro-SDHC cards.

My preliminary research didn't look promising: the Seagate GoFlex Satellite looked close to what I wanted, but failed on numerous levels. It's a battery-powered portable USB hard drive that broadcasts a wifi hotspot and permits streaming of content to attached devices: close, yes? But closer examination revealed a whole lot of fail. It appears to require a wall-wart to charge its battery, even though you use USB to move files onto it. It only talks to a proprietary app (versions for iOS and Android), apparently only serves up media files that the app understands, is formatted with NTFS (not so friendly, Apple/Linux world), and you can't save files to it from the iPad. Oh, and it can't attach to an existing wireless network. So you can use it to play movies or music, but that's about it.

I first looked into the Satellite six months ago: back then it appeared to be the only player on the field. I confess I was annoyed enough I even discussed the idea of a DIY project, probably kickstarter-funded, with a local entrepreneur: Raspberry Pi hardware, SDXC storage, a battery, and a custom case plus Linux-based OS. But luckily other people got there first, thus saving me a lot of time and money.

To cut to the chase: over the past couple of months a whole bunch of tiny battery-powered NAS devices have come on the market, and I looked into a bunch of them before buying one. The Kingston Wi-Drive looked promising, as did the Transcent StoreJet, but both suffer from the twin drawbacks of creating their own wireless hotspot (you're cut off from the internet while using them) and of being non-expandable FLASH devices. The HyperDrive CloudFTP looked very like the device I'd considered building; it's a kickstarter-funded startup project, but one that succeeded. You supply the USB storage medium, and the CloudFTP box makes it available as attached storage to whichever wifi network you configure it to connect to, or directly from its own hotspot. It's physically chunky, though, and reports on the software quality are equivocal.

But In the end, I went for the Maxell AirStash, for reasons I'll discuss below.

Maxell AirStash

The AirStash looks at first sight like a chunky SD-card reader (about the size of a disposable cigarette lighter), with a USB 2.0 plug at the opposite end from the SD card slot. But there's a magic button. Push the button, and it creates a wifi hotspot and serves up the contents of the SD, SDHC or SDXC card (up to 2Tb). Purchasers of big SDXC cards should note that it wants them to be formatted as Fat32, not ExFAT—it took me a tooth-grinding hour to figure that out (the hard way). Files are accessible via a proprietary iOS app (no Android version available), or via WebDAV, over the network created by the AirStash.

However, there's some new firmware in beta that makes it much more interesting. Upgrading the firmware is easy: drop the upgrade file onto an SD card, plug the AirStash into a power source (but not mounted as mass storage by a computer), and it auto-installs. I'm currently running the June 7 beta 2 release, and it adds what Maxell call "SideLink"; you can configure the AirStash via the iOS app to connect to an existing wifi network. So, for example, if you carry a mifi you can configure the AirStash to connect to the mifi's network and serve up files to other attached devices without requiring them to connect to its own network (which by definition isn't internet-connected).

Note that SideLink is not configurable via the web interface, or via any mechanism other than the iOS app, at this point—but the basic functionality is still in beta; I expect web configuration will come (if only because it's a no-brainer selling point to Android tablet owners).

Also note that this feature is in beta. When it works, it's great, but today it's been showing a worrying tendency to forget the passwords to my preferred networks. If you really need this to work right now, out of the box (for example, because you need it for a non-technically clueful friend), you'd do better to wait a couple of months.

My take is that SideLink and the ability to expand its storage via SD cards are the killer features that make the AirStash far and away superior to the other pocket wireless NAS devices I've seen so far. While the beta software is still, well, in beta and a bit wobbly, it shows promise. Oh, and it works fine as a (slightly big) SD card reader for any USB-equipped computer. Most importantly, it fixes a design flaw in the best-selling 7" and 9.7" tablets, which between them account for around 80% of the tablet computing market. I'll certainly be carrying it in my gear bag until something better comes along; and if the SideLink feature stabilizes in the next couple of months, it may well let me replace my current more-than-two-year-old iPhone with a new one with less than the maximum amount of storage (at which point it will have saved me more money than it cost).

46 Comments

1:

I am not sure about iPad, but Nexus 7 should be able to use any kind of USB storage with the help of a very cheap USB-on-the-go cable adapter. Much simpler system.

2:

Interesting bit of kit! I have a use for this as well. I've been very happy using my Synology 1010+ for cloud sotrage on my precious, err, iPad but that requires a net connection. For some redundancy and extra functionality, this looks very nice. Thanks!

3:

Sadly, while the Nexus 7 does indeed support USB on-the-go, in common with many (most?) Android 4 devices, it doesn't actually mount mass storage devices. StickMount ought to work, but does require rooting the device so it's not a completely casual-user-friendly option. It's a shame Google haven't made a bit more effort to sort out Android storage management, it's an area where they could shine.

4:

My personal problem is the desire to carry large quantities of music files around with me and more than the biggest iPod (Classic 160) will carry. So I really like the idea of a Nexus 7 or iTouch with a 2.5" USB attached hard disk duct taped to the back and perhaps with some additional battery capacity built in. In theory this should be easy to achieve. In practice, it seems that there are all sorts of gotchas, not least being that the built in music players may not be able to play music from a BIG music store that is locally or network attached.

Apple's inability to upgrade the iPod Classic line in line with storage increases along with plenty of other pressure is making me feel like some sort of tech dinosaur for wanting to collect music. Apparently now there's no money in selling music directly, the industry would rather I bought music on demand. And if I need too be weaned off collecting music there's no point in creating devices or systems for managing large quantities of it.

5:

I'm expecting Apple to release a 128Gb iPod Touch in September/October, and retire the clickwheel iPod completely. Given that flash is more reliable in write once/read many scenarios, and uses less juice than a spinning disk, it's clearly the way to go. And as Apple sell hardware, they've got no reason not to boost storage capacity in the long term. (By holding off upgrading the 160Gb spinning thing until lots-of-flash becomes more affordable they can force a transition and sell more shiny things. Besides, hard disk iPods were getting cheap, i.e. non-profitable.)

6:

256Gb SSDs with decent controllers are now around the £140 mark. It may well be possible to launch a Touch -- perhaps in a slightly chunkier form factor than the iPhone -- with 200Gb+ of storage at a not-totally-eye-watering price.

7:

Yes, but then how could they push users into Google Drive? They threw away one of Android's great advantages - thorough SD card support - to push their cloud storage product.

8:

If you're willing to do some work for a media player to suit you, what about going to Amazon or Ebay and picking up a used iRiver, then swapping the 1.8" internal drive for a larger one? They can also be easily used with the Rockbox firmware, which should allow you to get a more modern interface.
Yes, these are ridiculous lengths to go to just to get enough storage, but then, if they won't sell you what you want...

9:

Why not just get a Macbook Air an any external USB drive? Tablets really just come off as humped laptops when they constantly can't handle simple functions like storage.

10:

I wish I'd seen this a couple of weeks ago when I paid just under the cost of one of these devices to buy my other half the 32 rather than the 16gb iPad to accommodate a bit more video.

This is still definitely now on my wishlist, especially since I was looking at the Nexus 7" for myself. I don't suppose you've had chance to try video streaming from this to a couple of different devices simultaneously?

11:

Archos sells some Android tablets with 250G of storage (a spinning magnetic hard drive with a big enough flash cache to let the hard drive be almost always spun down). The current generation is no longer price/feature competitive with the Nexus 7 being out... you'll pay more for a less powerful ICS tablet (don't know if JB upgrade is planned, but the RAM and CPU specs are both about half the Nexus 7's), just to get the extra storage.

12:

Tablets scratch a different itch. I would guess most of the people talking about tablets here already have laptops, but there are obvious benefits to only having to carry a 7", or even a 10" tablet over even the most ultra-portable of ultra-portable laptops. If I don't need the extra functionality of a laptop, traveling abroad on holiday, for instance, then I'd rather travel as light as possible - even the 11" netbook I usually take on the road can be a little too cumbersome in some situations. Not to mention the battery advantages (it's not always feasible to find somewhere to plug in). I guess it's an edge case, and if you're getting minimal benefit then it's not worth the cost when you could spend the extra on a better laptop/something else entirely, but that's not to say this solution isn't without its advantages.

13:

Maybe you've done this and it didn't work for you but for many of use with both tablets and laptops, there is a difference. Tablets are just more convenient in many cases. Especially when traveling.

14:

If the Nexus 7 has rendered your Samsung into obsolescence, Charlie, have you considered auctioning off the sub-par Android device on eBay to recoup your losses? I'm sure you could make back retail on the device if you were happy to leave some early drafts of short stories or uncompleted, unpublished blog-posts on it. It'd make for a unique item for collectors and carry some of the appeal of deleted-scenes DVD extras.

15:

Your older Samsung device might have been able to provide the same facilities via software .... there's certainly a number of FTP servers and a Samba server (which requires rooting) available for Android. It might be able to provide the hotspot optionally at the same time so you get your mifi and file server in one device. I've tried file share and hotspot with a small Huawei Ideos but not both together yet. This will support a 32GB microSDHC - haven't tried 64GB (microSDXC) which would be even better.

16:

Already got a local buyer probably lined up, thanks.

17:

even the 11" netbook I usually take on the road can be a little too cumbersome in some situations.

I really want to see the new MS thing and how they deal with the keyboard cover. When I carry around my iPad it has a case with a flip back cover. And this allows me to open it up and hold it with only one hand while using it with the other while standing, sitting, or lying down. (No netbook need apply.) Now with the MS Surface the keyboard/cover comes off. So where do you hold that while walking around the construction site? Or library stacks. Or on the subway? Does it snap onto the back? If so that seems to be a two handed operation. How will cases work? I know SJ really wanted to show off his beauties but cases are a big deal for most of us as the after market for iPad cases has shown. I wonder if there will be an aftermarket for cases for the Surface with an included bluetooth keyboard and most people just leave the included keyboard/cover at their desk?

But back to the netbook/tablet choice. They have different use cases. Many times very different.

18:

Rooting a tablet.

I suspect Charlie is like me in that while dorking around with the innards of a tablet or phone is a neat exercise at times, most of the time we just want to use it.

19:

And of course for upgrades and patches to just work without having to then crack, root or jailbreak it all over again.

Just because these things are smaller or lighter or less powerful why do they also have to be closed and controlling?

20:

I have a cheap Android tablet, and the way that a microSD card is accessed, effectively read-only to Android but it can be written to if you use the tablet as an external drive, is somewhat sub-optimal. I could put some big files on a USB stick, and mount that stick, but I can't put the data on a microSD card using Android. And there is not a simple way, in the file manager I have, to get at the different physical drives.

I know Android is a modified Linux, and i know how easy it is to manage such devices on Ubuntu Linux.

It almost looks as if Google figured they'd take less flak if they took away the microSD support, rather than try to modify the OS to make that extra storage useful.

[Was it late May or June that I mentioned the hassles? Well, it's not the only example I have of penny-pinching manufacturers ruining their oen product.]

21:

Googling around I've answered my own question, apparently it supports 8 simultaneous connections and will happily stream video to three devices at once.

22:

I've been looking at the same kinds of things since I purchased an N7. At this point I am leaning towards the 'hack something together from a Raspberry Pi' solution. But then I do embedded software for a living.

I'll take another look at the Airstash. I forgot why it was I didn't like it before. Lack of Android support maybe?

23:

People have successfully used N7 with external storage via USB OTG. However, doing this requires rooting the device and installing some software, not a solution for everyone.

Moreover, do you really want to walk around with a cable and a flash drive dangling from your tablet? Also, there is the issue of storage and charging at the same time.

24:

Apple's inability to upgrade the iPod Classic line in line with storage increases along with plenty of other pressure is making me feel like some sort of tech dinosaur for wanting to collect music

The problem is that nobody's really pushing to make higher capacity 1.8" drives -- since only the Classic uses them, even the mighty Apple supply chain can't really push the costs down or the storage density up.

Toshiba has made 250GB 1.8" drives, but the power consumption is high -- and the number of people who need more than 64GB, much less more than 160GB, is pretty low -- so, the number of people who need more than 160GB isn't enough to drive the market. If we could do that in flash RAM, sure, but not in spinning disks.

I doubt very much there will be a new model of the iPod classic -- or anywhere near 256GB on any iPod not built to play video.

25:

Seagate has significantly updated the Satellite since launch; fixed the wifi hotspot problem and some of other points you mention, with new firmware for existing users. Just in case anyone has one and is frustrated with it.

Why wireless? keep the drive in a backpack/pocket, not trailing on a cable and dragging on the floor ;-)

26:

I'd love to see a portable Storage device that mixes Physical Encryption and Durability (1 TB). Like a Hybrid mix of these:

http://amzn.com/B00157UH96
&
http://amzn.com/B00157UH96

I more then slightly distrust the security of having a separate WIFI-accessible storage device.

27:

Those links don't go where you think they go ...

28:

I don't have a laptop. I made the decision to sell the laptop I never used to buy my first iPad.

I now have two iPads, although one might go on eBay soon, and don't miss a laptop at all. OK, I'm perhaps an unusual case in that I rarely travel for work - my bedroom to my office is around the same distance as OGH and I don't get invited to Cons and similar in far away cities, let alone far away countries.

On the occasions I do travel the iPad is more than enough to keep on top of almost everything I need to do. Anything I really can't do, I'll apologise about and do when I get home or borrow a computer or access to one from somewhere. Diet Coda makes even maintaining databases and websites from the iPad achievable if not as easy as it is from my home computer.

A friend was needing to buy a new Mac (wanted to use xCode for iPhone apps) a few months ago and was all set on a laptop. After chatting to me he settled for a Mac Mini and has not looked back. On the one occasion he has felt he would have liked a laptop to take to a client he checked they could lend him a monitor and a keyboard and just put the mini in his pocket. Given he also has a new baby, the amount he saved was very well received at home too.

29:

While the mini is small that still has to be a pretty big pocket. And he still needed the power cord and maybe a display adapter.

30:

That's an understatement. There's a mini on my desk -- SoHo server -- and it weighs more than a 15" Macbook Pro. Never mind needing a head end ...

31:

I'm merely relaying as told, didn't witness the event. It's possible he meant pocket on the knapsack he takes to business meetings.

32:

Re: 18 referring to 15 ... I'm with you on rooting but this is only rooting the "spare" device to only be used for storage/hotspot, not the main device. It's only the Samba software which needs the rooting, so ftp server may well be worth a try. Big problem with all these devices is finding what works. Many specs/reviews say "doesn't work with Android" or similar which is true "as standard" but add something like ES File Explorer and everything works great (iomega iconnect I use is a good example .... I use mostly for copying betweeb Android devices .... but not battery powered or that portable).
Useful tip I find on hotspots is set the name/encryption the same as my home network .... everything then connects with the same settings.

33:

For those interested, here's the AirStash site:

http://www.airstash.com/#home

Looks interesting. Not cheap, but maybe in a few months, once the bugs are fixed, it'll be worth the splurge.

34:

I imagine that the Nexus 8 will be released just before Xmas, have a retina OLED screen, a card slot, 3G capability and an extra camera. It will come out soon after Apple invents the 7" form factor.

35:

Dunno about the Nexus 8, but the Kindle Fire 2 is rumoured to be released Real Soon Now/maybe tomorrow with a rumoured Range from a Nexus /7" Apple/ Hi Def Retina Rival on up to a 10 ish " top of range hi definition tablet new I pad rival ......and so on and so forth.. Blah! Its worse than the rumours that spread in the run up to the new I Pad a few months back.

We shall see, but it does look as if a skip load of Tablet Devices are due out in the lead to Hogswatch 2012.

I really liked the I Pad 3/new I Pad that I played with a while ago but I just need an inexpensive general purpose /Retina Like 10" ish device that I can use as an E book reader and a general around the house device when I don't feel like crouching before my Dell 24071920 x 1200 fed by my old Dell Dimension 9200 that I've at last managed to make run under a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate, that may be a fraction less than legitimate by Microsoft standards but ..well my OEM copy of Vista crashed in the worst way and its just as well I did back up my personal stuff so I reckon that MS should have given me a free upgrade to 7 given that I had to replace my scanner and my Printer and.. oh well, The Lady-friend had been winging about the lack of duplex printing on my old HP printer, whose toner cartridge was about to die the final death, and so it was worth the effort to reincarnate the old Dell Dim as an exercise that will ward off PC glamour ridden shininess and the Daemons of Microsoft until SSD drives drop quite a bit in price.

Mind you I'm NOT tempted by Windows 8 as a Desktop PC operating system for any new Desktop ish PC that I may buy in a few months time. I can see Windows 8 as successful touch tablet operating system but I'm likely to hang onto Windows 7 as an Operating System for whatever Desktop PC I get to replace my 5 year and a bit old PC system box whilst I will hang on to my 24" monitor for the foreseeable future ... £800 for a comparable 30" Dell monitor with a new - perhaps' Silent ' - PC from, say, Chillblast ? No, don't think so.


Still, I had hoped that our host would resist tablet temptation until the New Kindle Fire was released.

36:

I'm seeing a single link, to something I initially interpreted as bondage gear.

I'm slightly disappointed to realise it is in fact a puzzle.

37:

Glad to see I wasn't alone in thinking that... ",)

38:

While it's pretty, as a gadget, the use of wifi makes it problematic from a 'on the plane' perspective. Also 16GB for £95 is neither enough space, or a cheap enough price.

What I would say I want is a cable/hub, that plugs into the tablet at one end, a phone at the other (for the 3G), and has NAS-like storage (eg 100GB+), and can do away with the wires via wifi if desired/allowed. It might be very sensible to build such a device into a keyboard, and the keyboard into a case/stand (detachable).

Does anyone else get the feeling we are recreating the laptop, just in bits?

39:

64GB USB sticks can be had for about 20 quid these days and tablets have USB ports so that would seem to be the simplest way to cart massive amounts of music or infotainment-like synthesized product around with you. I understand that Android tablets can't write to their USB ports, only read but if you're simply consuming the contents of the stick then that's not really a problem.

40:

I just picked up Patriot "Gaunlet Node", a 2.5" (9mm max) SATA housing with USB 3.0, WiFi Hotspot, and a battery spec'ed at 5.5 hours. For now, I added a 250GB drive to it, but will likely upgrade in the future.

It supports up to 8 clients via SMB, and also has an iOS app for media access. Setup is via web pages. The features are limited to the core stuff.

Undocumented:
1. It claims to need NTFS, but works like a charm with HFS+ OS X default volumes. In fact, I set it up to be USB bootable for Mountain Lion as an emergency backup recovery for my Air.
2. It can be configured to act as a bridge to other WiFI networks via the Web interface. You connect to the Node, and get its networking, but can connect to the internet via an additional networks that the Node is configured to connect to. However, SMB services are blocked to this LAN, so you need to always connect to the Node itself (makes sense).

It's neat. It can stay in the back on the road. And with the push of a button, I have extra storage for my Air and iPad.

41:

I still use XP on the desktop.
My next machine with be Win7 - I will give Win8 a miss for the next 4 years at least. After that, who knows.... maybe Android/Chrome on ARM64?

42:

If your Android device is rooted, you can mount folders from an external microSD card under your internal storage folder. Give me a shout if you need to find out how.

43:

Also 16GB for £95 is neither enough space, or a cheap enough price.

The 16Gb is for the SD card it comes with. I bought the cheaper 8Gb model ... and a 64Gb SDXC card. After reformatting the SDXC card as FAT32 (the AirStash has problems with exFAT -- can read it/mount it as a USB reader but can't serve files off it) it worked fine. And it's expandable up to 2Tb, as and when 2Tb SDXC cards become available.

44:

Have you checked out http://www.hackseagatesatellite.com/wordpress/welcome/? I came across it in an Amazon review for the Seagate GoFlex. I haven't tried hack but it seems to address most of the issues with drive.

45:

That looks really interesting. (Am I right in thinking the GoFlex can't charge over USB, but requires a wall-wart? That being my main objection to it as a hardware device ...)

46:

I am weak.
I ordered one from a place in Virginia for $30 less than the average price. If it does what I think/hope, it'll be worth it.

I was just looking at the Maxell Airstash site's Product Review page, and was surprised to see them link back here.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on July 30, 2012 10:30 AM.

Typo archaeology: The Revolution Business/The Trade of Queens was the previous entry in this blog.

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