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A few months ago, when I upgraded to a Pentax K10D digital SLR, I had an unpleasant surprise: the venerable X’s Drive II that had worked flawlessly with hundreds of compact flash card transfers was unable to reliably transfer the SD cards that the new camera used. And so – it was time for new portable storage device.
After actually doing some research, I settled on the CompactDrive PD70X. As you’d expect, CompactDrive’s latest offering is a big step forward from the now several year old X’s drive. After some debate I decided to get an 80 gigabyte drive installed in the compact drive housing – sufficient to hold the rather large DNG RAW files that the K10D kicks out. (I could have just used the smaller, proprietary PEF RAW format files, but what the heck…)
I bought the drive at www.mydigitaldiscount.com – the same place where I got the X’s drive years ago. Their price, including the drive, was competitive, and I’ve never had a problem with their service.
Here’s a run down of what I like, and don’t like, about the PD70X:
1. Speed: Leading the “like” list is the speed of file transfers. This drive is fast! My old and slow Kingston and PNY 1 gig CF cards transfer their full load onto the Compact Drive’s hard disk in just under 4 minutes. Much newer and faster SanDisk Extreme III SD cards can transfer 2 gigabytes of data in just over 5 minutes. The manual advises using high speed cards to achieve the best transfer rates, and that clearly seems to be the case. In any event – the PD70X is way ahead of the old X’s Drive II, which took about 15 minutes to download a single gigabyte CF card.
2. LED Display: The well thought out LED display provides you with the essential information needed to use the drive without a computer. First, there is a lasting icon that lets you know if the card transfer was successful or not. Unlike some drives that may just flash an ‘OK’ signal for a minute or so, the PD70X leaves an icon on the screen until you power it down – so you don’t have to guess about unattended card transfers. In addition, the drive display shows the available space on the installed hard drive, shows the progress of card transfers, and even shows the voltage output from the batteries. And if something does go wrong, there’s a pretty comprehensive set of error codes that help you diagnose the problem quickly.
3. Power Supply: When used in the field, any portable storage device is limited by the its battery life. Having a 40 or 80 gigabyte hard drive doesn’t do you much good if the device's batteries die after 2 gigabytes are transferred. The CompactDrive attacks this problem from two angles. Running off of 4 AA rechargeable NiMh batteries, the documentation claims that the drive can handle up to 80 gigabytes of transfer on a single charge. I haven’t come close to testing this in real use – but I have transferred several cards onto the drive without appearing to even dent the battery capacity. The other advantage is that – should the batteries be depleted – they are widely available AA batteries. It’s easy to pack a spare set in the bag and be sure of ample power. The drive itself serves as a battery charger, and simply plugging it into the AC adapter starts the process of charging the installed batteries. That said – I still have had a few problems finding the right batteries for this drive (see the “don’t likes” section….)
4. Build Quality: The aluminum housing of the PD70X looks very solid. Having broken a few pieces of plastic gear while shooting out in the bitter cold earlier this winter (temperatures so cold the plastic got brittle and fragile) the metal construction looks good
5. PC Interface: USB II and it downloads files as fast as any good external USB II drive. Nuf said.
OK – sounds pretty darn good. So what’s not to like? Well, I can always come up with something…
1. File structure: This is the only significant annoyance I’ve found thus far with this device. Like most portable storage drive, the PD70X creates sequentially numbered folders to store the contents of each card transfer. So, transfer 3 cards onto a brand new PD70X and you’ll get 3 folders – CARD0001.UHS, CARD0002.UHS, and CARD0003.UHS. The CARD####.UHS is the default folder naming convention – by adding a simple .txt file to the main directory you can change this to whatever you want.
BUT – the PD70X always writes to the first available entry in the directory. So – using the example above – if you decide to delete the CARD0001.UHS directory, and then save your 4th memory card to the drive, the drive creates a CARD0001.USH folder and saves to it. In other words – folder saves are not sequential.
I can see this being a real annoyance in the future. I keep files on the portable storage device as yet another level of backup, until the device starts to fill up. But – I also take a lot of silly photos and from time to time dump the same card to the drive a couple of times. The X’s drive saved file transfers sequentially – if the last folder number was number 895, the drive would simply save the next card as 896. Just by leaving the last folder used on the drive, the card dumps were always incremented forward, and you could always tell what folder was the most recent. This isn’t the case with the PD70X – and if you edit and delete folders it could be a nuisance to figure out which folder holds your most recent files.
2. Power Source: I thought this was on the “like” list. Well, it is, but there are still some limits. For one thing, I found some 1800 mAh batteries are not up to working with the PD70X – even though they are new batteries and have a fresh charge. The drive errors out during power up, with a #20 – No Hard Drive Present error. I assume that these particular batteries just can’t put out enough voltage to get the HD to even power up.
I upgraded to higher capacity batteries (2650 mAh) and they work fine, as NiMh batteries go. But they still suffer from the fundamental problem that they lose their charge when not in use. So if the drive sits in the bag for a week or two without a charge, the battery life is seriously compromised. And while the drive does have a built in charger – it is not a high speed charger. So you have to be sure to charge the drive up in advance.
3. CF Card Port: Maybe I worry too much, but the CF port on the PD70X is really shallow. CF card ports have lots of little wire pins. I’ve never had a problem with bent pins (though I’ve known more than a few folks who have) – BUT the CF ports I’ve used before have been very deep – deep enough for the card to get very well aligned and straightened out before it interfaces with those fragile wires. The shallow port on the PD70X means you have to be careful when inserting a card. So far I haven’t had any problems, but, like I said, I worry…
4. USB Cable: OK, I’m getting picky here, but a 3 foot long USB cable? Come on… It’s just long enough to plug into the front of the computer and put the drive next to the key board. OK – I can go buy a 6 foot able or a USB II mini hub, but that’s annoying…
Overall – the “like” obviously outweigh the “don’t likes” – and I’m looking forward to working with this drive. A bigger question – with the dropping price of CF and SD memory cards – is whether or not you need a portable storage device at all. For the same price as the PD70X I could have bought a bunch of SD cards. Given how cheap these cards are getting, it’s almost unnecessary to use any portable storage device. Personally, I prefer using the portable drive and carrying enough cards to cover a full day’s shooting – the best of both worlds.
How long does it take for the batteries to drain? Just a thought, but rechargeable Nimh batteries tend to have a short life after charging anyhow, maybe they are just depleting between charges?
While it's nice to have a charger built into the unit, one complaint I still have with the PD70x is that in day to day usage, the batteries are only slightly drained, and then charged back up. With Nimh batteries, it's best to let them drain down completely and then recharge. I take the batteries out of my unit while it is plugged in, and put them back in only when in the field, specifically to avoid this kind of charging and to help the batteries last longer.