Walt Mossberg

For iPad and Mobile Devices, a ‘Port’ out of the Norm

The pocket-size USB flash drive has become nearly ubiquitous in the PC world, for moving files among machines and for adding extra storage. But it can’t be used with most tablets because they lack standard USB ports.

Now, there’s a special, modified, pocket flash drive that works as usual with PCs and Macs, but can transfer and stream files to popular mobile devices without standard USB ports, such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, Amazon’s Kindle Fire and many other Android devices. Its secret: It has built-in Wi-Fi to beam the files to and from tablets and smartphones wirelessly. It can even stream files like videos to many devices simultaneously.

PTECH

The AirStash drive with removable SD memory card

It’s called the AirStash and is made by a tiny company called Wearable Inc., and distributed by Maxell Corp. It’s available at Amazon.com and a few other retailers for $150 for an 8 gigabyte model, which can increase the storage capacity of a base iPad by 50 percent. An AirStash model with 16 gigabytes is $180.

The AirStash is a clever device that solves a genuine problem, though not without some issues. In my tests, it worked as advertised, without crashing or exhibiting bugs. But it’s pricey and has one big drawback: When a device is connected to the AirStash via Wi-Fi, it can’t be connected to the Internet. The company plans a fix for that as early as next month.

The AirStash looks like other USB flash drives, except a bit wider. Its storage is provided by a removable SD memory card that pops into the bottom edge. You can substitute your own larger card. In fact, you can swap in the memory card from your camera and beam your photos.

This product is aimed at the iPad and iPhone, and the company has a free app for those products that makes it easy to manage and view the files on the drive. But its wireless file transfers also work, via the Web browser, on non-Apple devices, even computers. And the company plans an Android version of the app.

A typical way to use the AirStash would be to first plug it into your computer like any flash drive and copy onto it photos, documents, videos, podcasts or songs. Then remove it from the computer and press a small button on the front of the AirStash that turns on its Wi-Fi network. Next, you connect your iPad to this network, launch the AirStash app and all the files on the drive show up.

PTECH-JUMP

The AirStash app allows an iPad to wirelessly import photos from the drive.
PTECH-JUMP

The AirStash app allows an iPad to create a new directory on the drive, below.

From the app, you can view documents, play songs, watch videos, view photos or listen to podcasts. On a non-Apple device, there’s no special app, but you can still access the content on the drive. You just link up to the AirStash Wi-Fi network, launch your Web browser and go to airstash.net. A page appears with a list of the drive’s contents.

AirStash performed some feats I found impressive. In one test, I was able, from about 75 feet away, to flawlessly watch three movies stored on the AirStash at the same time on three devices. I had “Inception” playing on an iPad, “The King’s Speech” playing on a Kindle Fire and “Star Trek” playing on a Dell laptop. I stress, none of these movies was stored on the devices—all were stored on the AirStash.

In another test, I was able to watch a movie on an iPad, play a song on an Android-based Motorola Droid and read a PDF file on a Mac, simultaneously. Once again, all these files were stored on an AirStash drive 75 feet away.

The AirStash can beam material to as many as eight devices at once, except for video, where the limit is three devices. It can beam the same video to three devices at the same time. A parent could use one AirStash to provide different videos to each of three kids during a drive in the car.

Wearable, the maker of the AirStash, boasts it works in both directions: You can also write files to the AirStash from a device like an iPad. Technically, this is true. For instance, from the AirStash app, you can export photos stored on an iPad or iPhone to the drive.

But several iPad apps for viewing or editing documents, which the company says work with AirStash, require a geeky setup process, and I couldn’t get them to send edited documents back to the drive.

There are some other limitations. For instance, on non-Apple devices, the Web interface is rudimentary, and on the Kindle Fire, music can’t be streamed from the AirStash.

Finally, unlike most other flash drives, the AirStash has a battery to power its Wi-Fi. The company claims up to seven hours of continuous battery life between charges, and while I didn’t do a formal test, the battery life seemed good to me. You can recharge the device either through a standard USB wall charger, like those that come with cellphones, or by plugging it into the USB port of a computer. In the latter case, the Wi-Fi capability can’t be used while charging.

If you’re pining for easier file transfer or expanded storage on your iPad, iPhone or other mobile device without a standard USB port, the AirStash might be the ticket, albeit an expensive one.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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