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Picture storage with Pocket PC
July 12, 2002 (updated September 3, 2002)

How do you store thousands of digital pictures while you're away from your computer? Whether it is a vacation trip with a hotel every night, an assignment covering a remote event, or a camping trip to the middle of Alaska, you need a way to store all of your digital pictures until you get back to your main computer.

I just returned from visiting friends in Seattle for 10 days, five of which were spent hiking and camping in the Northern Cascade Mountains. I use a Nikon D1x camera, which generates 8MB raw .NEF files. That's a tremendous amount of data to deal with! It simply isn't cost effective (around $1,600) to buy a 4GB stack of Compact Flash (CF) cards, especially since 4GB isn't even really enough - I exceeded 4GB on this trip and expect to do so again later this summer. Just a single panorama can take 10 or more frames, so storage disappears in the blink of an eye. I originally transferred pictures from CF cards to a laptop's hard drive, but it was difficult to balance the laptop on my knee and squint to see the screen while transferring the pictures outdoors. Not to mention a laptop wouldn't fit in the pocket of any clothing I was willing to wear...and I certainly wasn't taking anything that large, heavy, and fragile hiking.

There are a number of products that help to solve this picture storage problem, but they typically only do one useful thing - transfer pictures to a built-in hard drive. I don't trust all of my pictures to any single device unless I have to, especially on a long trip. Plus, the last thing I need is another electronic widget to carry around...not to mention a charger, extra batteries, etc. I like to get as much as possible out of the equipment I already have, and my Pocket PC already goes pretty much everywhere since it holds my calendar, address book, notes, calorie tracking software, ebooks, and news from the newspapers and magazines I read. Why not use it for storing pictures as well?

Equipment

I use a Compaq (now HP) iPaq Pocket PC, which supports a slide-on expansion sleeve that holds two PC-Card (PCMCIA) cards. The complete setup includes:

To use this setup, you slide the dual PC-Card sleeve onto the back of the iPaq, slide the case onto the front to protect the screen, insert the CF card that contains the pictures into the PC-Card adapter, then insert the adapter and a hard drive into the two sleeve slots. The CF card and the hard drive appear on the iPaq as separate folders, allowing you to copy or move images between them.

If you use a camera that takes SD memory cards instead of Compact Flash, several Pocket PC devices already have built-in SD slots, which allows you to use a smaller single PC-Card sleeve since you don't need two additional slots - just one to hold the drive.

Software

I use three Pocket PC programs for storing images:

Of course, you could just use cut/paste in the Pocket PC File Explorer to transfer images between drives. However, this plan has some problems: transfers are very slow, the device times out and shuts off while transferring unless you change the battery options, there is no indication when the transfer is complete, plus other annoyances. Bottom line: the built in Pocket PC functionality was not designed to repeatedly transfer hundreds of megabytes of data. Pixfer solves these problems:

Clearly, the right software makes a huge difference. Just in case something happens to the iPaq on a trip, I copy all of the software to a small Compact Flash card so that I can restore it in the field if necessary. I haven't had to do this yet, but it is better to play it safe.

Power

Digital cameras and iPaqs (and probably hungry deer) eat batteries like candy. You can't have too much power or too much storage; the trick is balancing them so that you have enough power to fill all of the storage you have brought along - it stinks to have storage left over without any power to transfer more images. With the iPaq and dual PC-Card sleeve fully charged, Pixfer can transfer well over 6GB of images to Toshiba 2GB hard disks. That's quite a bit of data. However, since raw NEF files are so large, I like to compress them so that more fit on each card. Whenever I can hook up the iPaq to a power outlet, I turn on the compression to shrink the files by 25-30%. This takes considerably longer than just transferring the data, and thus reduces battery life significantly. Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to this problem. The Digital Camera Battery product can power both my Nikon D1x camera and the iPaq. Using this battery, I can get somewhere around one full charge of the iPaq system, or less if I also use it to power the camera for a while. Rob Galbraith has an excellent review of the battery and how much power it can provide. Note that in talking with the folks that make the Digital Camera Battery, recharging devices is very hard on the DCB, and will drain it quickly. In the future, I'll be reserving the DCB for the camera, and only using with the iPaq in a pinch. I also brought an Electric Fuel Instant Power cartridge and iPaq cable for backup power. I didn't end up needing it on this trip, but it should theoretically provide something like a full iPaq charge with the dual sleeve. Of course, due to losses during charging, you will probably get less than this. But it is small, light and inexpensive, so was easy to carry. A few additional comments on power:


It was cold at night...not good for batteries.

Workflow

Workflow? On a camping trip? Yup...you need to have a plan before you go. Your brain will hurt if you try and figure out the best way to get all of your images backed up while you're tired, cold and sore. Here are the basics of what I did:

What's the best setup to use?

I'm happy with my iPaq 3600, but I'll probably upgrade to a newer Pocket PC later this year. Up until recently, the iPaq was simply the fastest device out there, but newer models from almost all manufacturers are now competitive. For example, the new Toshiba models that are coming out have an updated processor called XScale (I'm hoping for faster compression/transfer speeds and longer battery life) plus a built-in CF slot. The total package with a single-slot PCMCIA sleeve should be significantly smaller/lighter than my current iPaq setup. Plus, it would be able to compress NEF files in place just using the built-in CF slot, making it a no-brainer to carry everywhere.

If I were looking for the least expensive kit possible, I'd investigate something along the following lines. This can probably be had for under $450 total even if you buy everything brand new from decent online retailers. It isn't the most portable, but it is quite inexpensive considering you can easily add more storage later and you get a full Pocket PC PDA:

In the future, I'm hoping for the following developments:

Conclusions

I'm glad that I chose to use the Pocket PC rather than a laptop or dedicated device. I now have a total of almost 14GB of storage (over 1700 D1x NEF images) between CF cards and PCMCIA hard drives. Plus, I can expand my storage easily by purchasing additional inexpensive drives. I may try putting a larger laptop drive, say 20GB, into the Travelstar case and see if that works. Or, I may just buy another Travelstar 8E.

Pros:

Cons:

More information

See our Pocket PC and digital photography resources for pointers to specific products and resources related to using your Pocket PC for digital photography.

About the author

Jeff Blum, CEO of Glass Lantern, LLC, has been photographing since snapping pictures for his high school yearbook in the 80's. He bought his first digital camera in 1997, when the technology was even more painful than it is now. Drop him a line at jeffbl@glasslantern.com.

Update History

09/03/2002

Added information about RAW image compression.

09/03/2002

Added pointer to the Pocket PC digital photography resource list, replacing the few extra links that were already in the article. Other wordsmithing/clarifications.

07/24/2002

Added pointer to Pixfer software instead of the "let me know if you're interested" link. Minor wordsmithing.

07/16/2002

Updated weight of entire setup - had said it was under a pound, but weighed it at the Post Office, and it is actually 18.1oz, including the iPaq, dual PCMCIA sleeve, Toshiba 2GB drive, CF->PCMCIA adapter, CF card, and cover. Added Semsons & Co link for iPaq AA power. Updated information on Digital Camera Battery life.

07/11/2002

First posted

Disclaimer

Articles attempt to provide accurate and timely data, but use this information at your own risk; Glass Lantern, LLC is not responsible for any bad experiences due to inaccuracies, exclusions, or other issue, and does not vouch for any of the products or suppliers in this article, which is meant to provide guidance only. Make sure you are comfortable with the solution you decide to use through your own research, and investigate any company before handing over your credit card. Now go take pictures.