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Review: Digital Foci Picture Porter 35

by Peter West Carey on 08/29/2012

The Picture Porter 35 by Digital Foci comes in two varieties (250GB and 500GB) with enough storage space to hold at least a couple weeks of photos shot while out exploring the world away from a beloved home computer. The device is designed to accept a number of memory card types and is equipped with an operating system to copy and verify files without the need for a laptop. Its market is that of the lightweight backpacker or even serious photographer who wishes to leave the weight of computers behind and take to the road, camera in hand, while ensuring their precious photographic memories are safely stored.

Tech Specs

Pulled from the manufacturer website.

Model no. PPR-350
Memory card supported CompactFlash*, MultiMedia Card, RS-MMC, SD Card, SDHC card, miniSD, Memory Stick, MS PRO, MS Duo, xD-Picture card
* Note that some high-speed UDMA CF cards are not compatible. Typically, cards rated as 200x or 30MB/s or higher will not be compatible. These cards can be copied through a card reader using the USB connection
Hard drive 2.5″ 5400 RPM SATA hard drive
LCD screen 3.5″ color TFT LCD screen with backlight (320 x 240 pixels)
Computer interface USB 2.0 (compatible with USB 1.1)
USB device interface USB Host (to USB mass storage class devices)
Transfer rate (device to computer) Up to USB 2.0 limit of 480 Mb/s
Transfer rate (card to device) 1GB in under 90 seconds from CF card*
* Actual copy speeds will vary by card type and file composition.
Image format support JPEG (baseline), TIFF (1 & 8 bits Grayscale, 8, 16, & 24 bits color), BMP (Monochrome, 8 bits color), GIF, RAW*
Video format support MPEG-4 SP (.mpg4) – (640×480@30fps)
MPEG-1 (.mpg) – (640X480@30fps)
MJPEG (.avi/.mov) – (640×480@30fps)
Music format support MP3; WMA 7, 8, 9; AAC
Photo viewing options Zoom, pan, rotate, thumbnail view, EXIF & histogram display,
photo slideshow with IPTC comments display, photo slideshow with random sequence option, photo slideshow from Playlist
File management features Copy, delete, rename files, create new folders, format hard drive
Playlist management Create, edit, rename, change playback sequence
Audio recording format support AAC
Video TV-out NTSC, PAL
Embedded speaker 8 Ohm, 1 Watt
Embedded microphone Unidirectional mono mic
Battery power 3.7V 2800mAh replaceable rechargeable Polymer Li-Ion battery
Battery life Up to 4 hours of continuous video playback;
Up to 3 hours of memory card copy
External power AC 100-240V to DC 5V/2A
OS compatibility Windows 7, Vista, XP; Macintosh OS 10.6, 10.5, 10.4;
Linux OS kernel versions 2.4.x and later
Hard drive file system Standard FAT32
Dimensions 5.4” (L) x 3.8” (W) x 1.2” (H)
Weight 14 oz. (with hard drive and battery)

Ergonomics And Design

You might not think ergonomics to be too important in a portable storage device and for the the most part, you are right. While this device holds a smaller 2.5” harddrive, the overall size makes me feel like there should be a 5.25” under the hood. The device comes with a nice leatherette case which classes it up a little and protects the device, but I found it often meant certain controls on the side were a little harder to reach.

From a design perspective, controlling the unit can be slightly unwieldy with the scroll wheel on the side, coupled with the + and – buttons. A number of actions are activated by pressing in on the control wheel and that often means the wheel gets turned a fraction of a second before the press actually registers, resulting in an inadvertent menu selection. These buttons and wheel on the side make navigation more cumbersome than if they were on the front of the unit with even such a simple control device as seen on old-school iPods.

Thankfully the charger is not a huge brick or cumbersome to travel with (such as the 4′ long cord that comes with some Pentax point and shoot cameras). Small and light and designed for travel. The device can also be run off of a DC source, such as a solar panel. The one aspect I wasn’t appreciative of (and you’ll see why in the In Real Life section below) was the lack of a way to reliably carry the USB connection dongle. This dongle is needed to adapt the unit’s mini-USB connection to a female type-A connection and thus allow any USB device to interface. Why is this dongle important? Read on!

In Real Life

Let me cut to the chase and tell you the Picture Porter 35 gave me fits. I worked with the PR department at the company to try to resolve issues, and they were thankfully responsive and earnest in their desire to help, but some issues remain unresolved. In testing, I used the Picture Porter while leading a photo tour in India and while exploring Oman, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Alaska and Colorado. In all, about 2.5 months on the road.

The Picture Porter 35 has a number of features I won’t touch on here because, honestly, they aren’t really needed in a photo storage device (e.g. music player, slideshow, etc…). What the device is set up to do is copy images from a memory card and place them on an internal drive in the device. It can also then back that drive up to another drive (a handy feature, really, when traveling far from home and cards need to be wiped and reused). It has a verification process that can be run and an appending features so duplicates don’t gum up the drive space.

Let me explain the basic function of the device as used in the field. This backup device has card slots for Compact Flash, MMC, SD/HC, Memory Stick, MS PRO, MS Duo, MS PRO Duo, and xD-Picture cards. Whew, that’s a lot of acronyms. It also has a USB connection (which requires the aforementioned dongle) to allow for backup of USB thumbdrives or for camcorder devices. In that regard, it is compatible with a solid range of products who’s information might need to be backed up. It does currently have some limitations, though.

Stated on the company’s website, cards with speeds faster than 200X, or 30MB/sec, don’t work so well. In my experience, this is true. When I had a fast card in the unit and began a backup, the device would begin and then mysteriously turn off without warning at some random point. Not often would it copy a full 16GB card without this problem. I would restart the process and could pickup from where I left off, but this is less than ideal. I even had problems using Transcend 16GB 133X cards.

The way the device functions is fairly straight forward:Turn on unit with power switch on top.

  1. When initialized (about a 20 second operation on average), place a memory card with awesome photos in one of the card slots on the left side of the device.
  2. Up pops a menu asking what you would like to do. Backup files, please! This is accomplished by pressing in on the control wheel on the right side (which is the default “Enter” button).
  3. The device checks the memory card for size and asks if you want to copy items to a specific location or just start a new folder to hold the entire contents of the card. If you want to select the location, the device brings up a list of existing folders and one can be selected.
  4. The device starts copying images to the internal memory (and if an existing folder was selected, the device checks to make sure it is not making duplicates).
  5. When complete (a 133X 16GB card takes about 20 minutes) the device asks if you desire to verify the contents of the folder to see if they match the card.

Done! If it is working. When the device failed on me and powered off, I would have to run the process again and again. Thankfully, the device always got it right about the last file copied (it was usually partial in size, i.e. 8MB instead of the normal 22ish MB) and would pick up from that location. As a work around for the copy problem, Digital Foci suggested using a card reader (kindly sending me theirs for testing, although my standard MSI unit worked fine). When used with a USB card reader via the dongle, backups were practically flawless. ‘Practically” because it still failed on me once.

Power is supplied by a standard wall charger that is universal in nature. I had no problem plugging it in (with an appropriate adapter) in countries far and near. Battery life after four months of testing is about 60-90GB of transfer, realistically. That is in hot or warm climates so far as I have not taken it to Nepal or the Cascade mountains in winter.

A feature that I found useful one certain trips was the ability to backup the backup. I’m paranoid when I travel when it comes to pictures. Some of the place I visit, I may not visit again and I want to make sure my images come home with me. With an external drive (such as the slim 2.5” Western Digital My Passport I used) attached, a backup of the internal drive can be dumped for added certainty of image safety. This backup of the backup can now be stored in a separate location while traveling.

File management, while labeled “Advanced” on the website, is basic. You can hunt around the file structure and copy files or move them but honestly, it is cumbersome with just a scroll wheel and + and – buttons. The device does read RAW formats which is nice and it will display EXIF/IPTC data as well as a histogram. Photos can also be shown in a “list” view to help verify your precious shots did make it to the device. All of this is basic, useful and simple to navigate.

Pulling images off of the device also caused a few problems. After two weeks in Alaska I had about 12,000 images to download (something like 280GB). I hooked a standard USB cable with mini-USB end into the device and hooked it up to my iMac. Presto! It’s there. And the screen on the Picture Porter has a large graphic letting me know it is connected via USB and locked for use. Good on the device.

On the Mac I can see all my files and I start copying them via Adobe Lightroom. All is going well and Lightroom can index the entire drive as all the files are in the Backup folder of the device. But about 40 minutes into copying to my Mac, the unit shuts off. The Mac complains that I didn’t eject a device properly. I weep a little inside and hope it was a fluke. It wasn’t. It happened eight more times and I felt I had to babysit the device while it ran so I didn’t wake up in the morning with hopes to edit photos, only to have 1000 image copied and hours more file transfers to go. This caused me strife.

What I Liked

  • When it worked, it worked. My files were backed up (usually using a card reader and dongle) and I could check to see which files made it.
  • The unit can be charged via USB if I want to leave one more power adapter at home (if I have a computer with me).
  • The folder structure is organized by date and then type of card. For those that use multiple card types, this helps to find things and to make sure you actually ran a backup the day before.
  • The case did protect the unit from scratches and abuse.
  • The unit works to move files from computer to computer and to grab a copy of photos from other friends on a trip without the need to email or complicate things.
  • The device allows for the viewing of not only RAW images, but also video and text files.

What Needs Work

  • Verify does not work when a folder holds more than one card’s worth of images. 500 images on two cards makes the unit freak out because it can only verify one card, 500 images, at a time and it sees 1000.
  • Crashing. And Freezing. Twice in four months I had to remove the battery to reboot when the unit was completely unresponsive.
  • Copying files off the unit and the unit shuts off. I checked for power save features and the unit was plugged into the wall with a full battery.
  • The control dial on the side is less than ideal and the +, -, Menu, Esc buttons weren’t always intuitive.
  • No protection for files in case the unit falls into the wrong hands.
  • Needing to use a dongle when cards are too fast, even if ‘too fast’ is the current industry standard. How annoying is this? There is a reason you don’t see any picture of the dongle in this post because I could not find it when I needed it most.

Conclusions

My frustration with this device stems from not being able to use the native card reader ports with the cards I own (and certainly not with faster cards in the future). This seems to be hardware related as a workaround (using a USB card reader) ‘fixes’ the issue. Also, the unit powers down unexpectedly when copying files at home. It works and I can use it in place of bringing a laptop, so it is not a total loss, but the freezing and crashing don’t build confidence while 9000 miles from home. It is entirely possible I received a bum device, but I’m not eager to give a new unit from Digital Foci a try any time soon.

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