Tablet computers generally do a good job of playing videos and music, and displaying photos and documents. But they have limited capacity to store all these files, so you typically can carry only a fraction of your PC’s data on them.
You can get apps that allow tablets to access files you’ve stored in the cloud on services like Dropbox or SugarSync, but these require an Internet connection and can be slow.
Now, two companies are coming out with small, portable, companion hard disks that massively increase the storage capacity of tablets. And because most tablets lack USB connectors, these external hard disks stream their content to the tablets over a special, local Wi-Fi network they create. No Internet access is required. The content remains on the external device, though you can download files to the tablet’s own memory for permanent storage there.
I’ve been testing the first of these gadgets to emerge. It’s from Seagate Technology, the big hard-disk company, and is called the GoFlex Satellite. It costs $200, and holds 500 gigabytes of data, far more than the 64 gigabytes that is the maximum on typical current tablets.
It was initially designed for use with Apple’s iPad, though it also works on Android tablets, as well as on iPhones and Android smartphones. It works best with a special iPad or iPhone app you install, though it will operate through the Web browser on Apple and Android devices.
In my tests, the Satellite basically did its job, smoothly and rapidly streaming movies, songs, pictures and documents to an iPad and other devices. It is battery-powered, so you can carry it around with your iPad, or leave it plugged in for longer use, as long as the iPad remains within about 150 feet. It isn’t tiny—about 5 by 3.5 by 1.25 inches, and just over half a pound—but it’s quite portable. It can stream different content to up to three devices simultaneously.
The portable GoFlex Satellite can stream different content to up to three devices.
However, the Satellite has some drawbacks and trade-offs. The main trade-off is that, while you are connected to it via Wi-Fi for streaming, your iPad or other device can’t access the Internet, so you’re cut off from things like email, Web browsing and social networks. If you launch the Web browser while connected wirelessly to the Satellite, it just brings up the Satellite’s menu of files, regardless of what website you type in.
In addition, both the companion app and the Web-browser-interface display, while attractive and simple, can be clumsy to use. It is awkward to play photo slideshows or to listen to multiple songs in a row. And the Wi-Fi connection dropped several times, even when the iPad and the Satellite were located very near each other.
The GoFlex Satellite
For me, the battery life fell short of the company’s five-hour claim.
The Satellite’s main competitor, due out later this month, is called the G-Connect, from Hitachi. Like the Seagate offering, it costs $200, holds 500 gigabytes of content, and is initially designed for the iPad and iPhone. Unlike the Satellite, it has no internal battery, though it will accept external batteries made for the iPad.
Also, unlike the Satellite, it allows simultaneous media streaming to an iPad and Internet connectivity, though only when the G-Connect is hooked up to a wired Internet connection via its Ethernet jack. I wasn’t able to test the G-Connect, so I can’t say how well it will work.
A third contender in this category, the Wi-Drive from Kingston Technology, is a bit different. While it has an internal battery and uses Wi-Fi to stream content, it has no hard disk and uses only memory chips. Thus, it has much less capacity than the other two, and doesn’t add much storage to a tablet—only up to 32 gigabytes extra. It isn’t yet available, according to the company’s website, which also lists no prices, and I didn’t test it.
So, how do you get content into the Satellite so you can use it on your iPad or other tablet?
First you plug it into a USB port on your PC or Mac. Then, you have two choices. You can either drag whatever files you want manually to the drive. Or, you can use free software that syncs music, video and photos. This software can be set to fetch only content that is playable on your particular device.
Using both methods, I moved 55 videos (including two feature films), more than 2,000 photos, about 1,700 songs and nearly 200 Microsoft Office and Adobe PDF documents to the Satellite, some from a Mac and some from a Windows machine. Using the sync software, the process was surprisingly fast, and this content took up less than 20% of the drive’s capacity.
All the content showed up as promised on my iPad in both the special app and in the Web browser. I also tested it on an iPhone, where both the app and browser display also gave me access to the content via wireless streaming.
I tried it on two different Android tablets, where the content showed up and played fine via the browser. In addition, I tested a pre-release version of the Android app—almost identical to the iPad app—and it, too, worked as promised.
However, while the Satellite’s app and browser display are clean and well-organized, I found them annoying in some respects.
For one thing, they lack simple slideshow, playlist and album features. While playing a group of multiple photos or songs, I couldn’t manually skip or go back.
In addition, the computer-sync software doesn’t allow you to easily select only certain files or to eliminate small files like record album covers or icons, or special, hidden files your computer creates that look like videos, but aren’t. So your file list gets cluttered with dozens of unplayable or unwanted items.
The Satellite’s battery supposedly lasts five hours when continuously streaming videos to one device. But in my tests, I only got about four hours.
Overall, the GoFlex Satellite might be a useful device for iPad or other tablet owners with large media collections. But it needs work.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at email@example.com.