Take a wireless router, make it run on battery, add an SD card slot and shrink the whole thing down. Congratulations, you just made an AirStash. Read on for the review.
The AirStash is a device that aims to fix the issue that iOS devices have with lack of expandable memory. By creating its own Wifi network to allow any Wifi enabled device to access its content it essentially adds a wireless memory card reader to those devices. This way you can stream data as well as write data to a memory card, all without a physical connection between the memory card and the device.Obvisouly this is aimed at iOS devices first and foremost since those lack memory card slots, but it can also be used with other devices that either have no full sized memory card slot or need more memory that one slot can provide.
Before going further into how it works, let me address the elephant in the room. I’m fully aware that paying $100 for a wireless memory card device that is dependent on battery power is rather ridiculous when pretty much all non-iOS devices have memory card slots. However, it really comes down to the fact that the AirStash offers a solution- whining about it does not. Whether it’s worth the cost is totally up to each individual.
The AirStash basically looks like a large USB SD card reader. It has a single button that turns it on and off, a USB port with a protective cap and a SD card slot. You can charge the AirStash and use the AirStash as a normal SD card reader with the USB port, which puts it quite a bit ahead of the recently released SeaGate GoFlex hard drive which not only lacks a built in USB port but actually requires a proprietary cable. The USB port is quite handy since you always have what you need to charge it and connect it to a computer, all integrated in the device. The Airstash is quite wide though, so it might not fit into all USB ports (if something is in the way on the sides).
There are a few issues with the design though, more specifically the build quality and functionality of the SD slot. I am told by AirStash that small enough spring loaded SD slots didn’t exist at the time it was made, so they went with one that needs you to pull the card out manually. This works fine for most cards, but I actually have to use my Leatherman’s beedle nose pliers to get the card out when I use a microSD card in an adapter, since that adapter doesn’t have a nail nick. The other issue is a quality issue regarding the plastic having some tool marks and sharp edges, which I’m told is because they had to make changes to the mold after the mold had been made. Neither are dealbreakers, just things to keep in mind.
On a sidenote, the AirStash won’t work with Eye Fi cards due to them using more power than the AirStash can give the card.
How it works
When turned on, the AirStash creates its own (password protected) Wifi network that your device connects to. Going to airstash.net in a browser when connected lets you access the contents of the card, and the OS does the rest in terms of playing back media. Basically, anything on the card will be treated the same was as similar media would if accessed on the Internet, since that’s what the device thinks it’s doing. There is an app as well, but really you can get by with the browser.
A more recent addition is WebDAV functionality, which is a protocol that lets certain software access storage servers online. A fair share of apps have WebDAV functionality, including Apple’s office apps. When using it with the AirStash, you can access the content in a more file browser like way, and even upload files to the device. The feature is a bit unstable at the moment with only certain software working, but I’ve found iFiles to do a rather good job.
Writing files to the AirStash
Since the AirStash can function like a USB thumb drive and the iPad can write practically any file to it using apps like iFiles, that makes the AirStash the only way I’m aware of to write files to a “USB drive” or an SD card without the aid of a computer (though the i-FlashDrive will soon change that). I’ve already written about one use for this, and I have plans for another; the Kobo Touch. The Kobo Touch is said to be able to read ePub and PDF files off a microSD card, and using the AirStash I can write those file types to such a card. Put all this together, and I have an eInk device that I can use with my iPad, without the need for a computer.
To be honest though, wireless is taking over more and more for physical file transfer. A few years ago I couldn’t imagine living without a USB drive, but now I have trouble finding uses for one. Between fast 3G and stupid fast Wifi I only really need to transfer files off the iPad physically when dealing with “stupid” devices such as my GPS, an ereader or something like a digital photo frame, and the AirStash allows me to do just that.
Streaming off the AirStash
Streaming off the AirStash is the reason why the AirStash was created. Technically, it simply streams files with no prejudice for OS or file compatibility- click on a file and it works if the device supports it. Practically, the AirStash is mostly useful for iOS devices and the marketing reflects this by listing photo, music and converted video streaming (i.e video formatted for iOS).
Video is likely what most people will use this for, and personally I can’t stand converting video into compatible formats. Luckily you don’t have to, even if AirStash won’t tell you how (which is due to the apps needed possibly lacking some licenses). I use Buzz Player for all my video needs on the iPad because it’s the player I’ve found to have the most features and best playback capabilities. If you use airstash.net/files instead of airstash.net as the URL in the browser when you access the AirStash, you bypass the HTML5 browser app and instead access a more basic list of files. You can then click and hold a file to bring up an option to copy the URL to the file. You then go into Buzz Player and paste that file URL into the app’s “Add Network File” popup and you’re all set to stream video formats that iOS itself doesn’t support. This makes the AirStash a whole lot more useful in my opinion as I can just throw some random, unconverted video files onto an SD card and run out the door, knowing I can play them off the card.
Battery and storage
The AirStash runs on a built in battery with a battery life of up to 5 hours. The Airstash supports SD, SDHC AND SDXC cards, so logic dictates that no matter what you’re streaming, the AirStash will run out of battery power long before you watch/listen to/view everything, and also long before an iPad runs out. You can however run it continuously off a USB AC adapter, as long as you turn on the AirStash before inserting it into the AC adapter. I have a Hama Piccolino USB AC adapter that is extremely tiny and practical, and the AirStash works perfectly with that. Turn on the AirStash, plug in the adapter and sit back within WIfi range and stream all you want. 32GB (max capacity for SDHC) can hold about 70 hours of video if you use the most common SD Xvid format (that you get from you know where), which should be enough for a lot of people. If it isn’t, SDXC cards are currently available in 64GB capacities and they’ll continue to get bigger as the standard can handle 2TB in theory.
AirStash, i-FlashDrive or GoFlex?
I’ve mentioned two other products in this review that does some of the same things, the SeaGate GoFlex and the PhotoFast i-FlashDrive. They all have their strengths and their weaknesses. The i-FlashDrive is a physical iOS-only flash drive that has the advantage of not being battery dependent, and it appears to be able to write files as well (which the GoFlex can’t do if I’m understood correctly). However it’s not universal like the other two, it doesn’t have expandable memory and while the 8GB version is the cheapest at $95it quickly becomes very expensive at $180 for 32GB. Capacity-wise the GoFlex wins at 500GB, but it’s by far the biggest and heaviest and it needs a proprietary cable to charge and transfer files (form a PC), while the two others have built in USB ports. The AirStash is somewhere in between, and the use of SD cards means it has the advantage of being able to replace the Apple Camera Connection kit and can interact with (micro)SD enabled devices such as GPS units, ereaders and digital photo frames. The Airstash also has a higher theoretical capacity at 2TB, even though SDXC cards like that don’t exist right now.
If I didn’t already have an AirStash and all three products were offered to me, I would likely still choose it. I don’t like accessories this expensive that only work on one brand (the i-FlashDrive) and the GoFlex is way too big and heavy to always be with me, and last but not least I like the ability to write to SD cards. As with everything though, it’s a personal choice.
While there are some hiccups and flaws here and there, the AirStah does what it promises and ironically quite a bit more. It’s definitely not the kind of accessory you buy “just in case”, but if you know you need what it offers then $99 + memory card is what you have to pay to get it. It’s a good product, and definitely has its uses. You can buy one on their site, but unfortunately they don’t ship outside the US and Canada.