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Epson P-3000/P-5000 Multimedia Storage Viewer

March 10, 2007

Updated June 6, 2007

I've been looking for a practical way to back up cards while traveling, and so I started looking into what was available and then wrote down this list of backup-device types that I believe is complete:

  1. Laptop computer, with various configurations of internal and external drives.
  2. Portable digital storage device ("digital wallet") with previewing screen (e.g., Epson P-3000/P-5000).
  3. Portable digital storage device without previewing screen.
  4. Portable CD/DVD writer with card reader.
  5. Portable card copier.
  6. Attachments for iPod-like devices and PDAs that allow card reading or direct attachment to camera.
(I'm considering only standalone devices, not other methods such as visiting a friend with a PC or uploading from a cybercafe.)

A laptop is perhaps the best choice if you want to carry one with you, since you can attach any additional devices you want to it, and even work on your images with a copy of Lightroom, Photoshop, or whatever. But I wanted something much more portable and that would fit in where a laptop would seem out of place, such as at a beach resort. (Pack a laptop in your luggage and family members will give you dirty looks.) Something to carry in a jacket pocket or camera bag, not in its own attache-sized case.

A CD/DVD writer seems like too much trouble. Without a computer, there's no way to validate that the CDs or DVDs got written correctly. Another problem is that a DVD holds only 1 or 2 cards, so you'll have to carry a bunch of blanks with you.

A portable card copier might make some sense, but I know of no such device.

There are ways to transfer images directly from a camera to an iPod, but from what I hear they are extremely slow and not especially robust. Also, to my knowledge, unless your iPod is configured as a storage device, which mine isn't (it's controlled by iTunes), it accepts only image formats it knows about, which rules out raw files. (Email me if I've got this wrong.)

So that leaves the battery-powered devices with card readers and internal hard drives, of which there are lots of choices. The ones without image-preview screens cost around $150 for 40GB (Wolverine FlashPac 7040; the same device with 100GB is about $215).

Adding a preview screen so you can see the images bumps the price by $130 or more, depending on the size and quality of the screen. The ultimate devices are the Epson P-3000 (40GB) and P-5000 (80GB), which cost about three times what Wolverine FlashPacs with the same capacities cost.

After some research, which including reading the Epson P-5000 User's Guide, I decided that there were enough extra features to justify the higher price, and I went ahead and bought the P-3000.

What I've discovered is that all the advertised features work, but there's a lot more to the Epsons than Epson bothers to note on its web site, on the product box, or in the documentation. They can't decide whether to position it as a multimedia viewer, a photo backup device, or a USB hard drive. It's pretty good at each job, and the combination is very powerful.

The first notable thing about the Epsons, which they do talk about a lot, is the screen. It's way better than those on portable DVD players or LCD photo frames. It's in the iPod Video class, which means the resolution (pixels per unit area) is so high that you can't see the pixels. At 4 in., the screen is much bigger than the iPod's. The Epson's screen contains 640x480 pixels, which is a lot to be packed into such a small area. As a result, you really can review your images for quality. The LCD is based on four colors instead of the usual three. Epson claims it supports 88% of the Adobe RGB gamut. I'm impressed that they would even mention the word "gamut." It make me think they know what they're doing.

There are two card slots, for SD and CompactFlash. When you put a card in, the system jumps right to a screen that asks you if you want to back it up, and if you press the OK button the copy starts right away. You can then put the Epson away in your camera bag or wherever and go about your business. Try that with a laptop.

The Epson comes with software that manages play lists and does other iTunes-like management tasks, although without an online store, as far as I know, but I didn't even install that software, as I wasn't interested.

What I was interested in was how the Epson behaved as an external USB drive. It behaves as a plain drive, just as fast as my other USB drives, with its own software completely out of the way. By contrast, my iPod always acts like an iPod, accessible only through iTunes. In practice the Epson bare-bones design really speeds up my workflow. For example, if I want to export JPEGs from Lightroom so I can show them off on the Epson, I export directly to a folder on the Epson. To do the same thing on my iPod, I first export to a folder on my hard drive, and then import the photos into iTunes, or, worse, go through iPhoto first. Then they still have to be transferred to the iPod, which is much slower than copying to a USB drive.

(This is not to say that the iPod isn't convenient in other ways. When there's a new episode of Fresh Air from Audible, it goes straight from Audible.com to my iPod without my ever knowing about it. The Epson isn't that well integrated into online multimedia services, but I don't care, because that's what my iPod is for.)

Interestingly, if you mount the Epson as a drive on a computer (OS X, at least--didn't try Windows), any cards in it also mount, independently (not as folders under the Epson folder). So, it's a USB card reader. I don't think Epson mentions this anywhere. What's more, you can have SD and CF cards mounted at the same time. My Sandisk ImageMate 12 in 1 can't do that.

Epson hasn't found a way to describe how the device display raws that its customers can understand, because raw files are poorly understood. Yes, the Epson displays some raw files, but, no, it doesn't display raw image data. It turns out that some, maybe most, raw formats contain a hidden JPEG preview, and that's what the Epson displays. This is distinct from the JPEG thumbnail that you often see when browsing folders of images; it's a reasonably-sized JPEG, not a thumbnail. It's also not the JPEG from shooting Raw+JPEG; it's a JPEG inside the raw, and it's not optional. Since the Epson's screen is only 640x480, even a smallish JPEG is big enough. (640x480 is tiny compared to the raw image's size, which on my cameras ranges from about 3000x2000 to 3800x2600.)

The Epson knows about popular raw formats like NEF, for Nikons, which covers two of my cameras, but not about less-popular formats like the RAW from my Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2 or the DNG from my Leica M8. It doesn't even display thumbnails for formats it doesn't understand; all you see is a box with a notation in it. The backup features still work fine, and one display option is to see the file names, where the thumbnail isn't displayed anyway.

Images from my IR-modified Nikon D-70 show up as mostly red, as you would expect.

If you really want previews, you can shoot Raw+JPEG, which both the DMC-LX2 and the M8 can do. (Actually, the LX2 can't shoot raw without a JPEG.) You preview the JPEG, which for many purposes is OK. Serious analysis has to wait until you can get the image onto a proper computer.

Getting a video onto the Epson is extremely easy, since it mounts as a fast USB drive, but you have to use the right codec and parameters, or the Epson won't be able to play it.

On the Mac, ripping a DVD to the Epson is even more convenient than it is to an iPod, because, as I mentioned above, you can rip straight to the Epson, without an intermediate stop on some other hard drive.

Here's what you do: Get a copy of Handbrake, a free utility that, near as I can tell, can rip any DVD. (I don't know what regions it handles--maybe all of them.) It has a lot of parameters, most of which will result in videos that the Epson can't handle, but here's a combination that works:

AVI
MPEG-4
MP3 (not AC-3)
Avg bit rate: 1000 kbps or less. (Didn't try higher.)
Video 640x480
Audio: AC-3 2 ch, 44100, 128. (AC-3 here seems to conflict with MP3 above, but so be it.)

If the Epson is mounted as a drive and you want to keep it mounted for the many hours it will take to rip a DVD (run it overnight), just output straight to the Epson's video folder. Otherwise, output to some other drive and copy it to the Epson later. (The copy will be very fast.)

I don't know what the Windows equivalent of Handbrake is, but I'm sure there must be one. (Update: The Windows equivalent is Handbrake; it's multiplatform.)

One important feature of the Epson is that you can attach an external USB drive to it. The attached drive isn't quite a first-class citizen, as is a drive attached to a PC, but rather just a giant "card." You can browse its files and transfer files to and from it, but you can't backup a card directly to it, nor can you play music or videos from it.

If the Epson fills up, the only way to use an external drive to expand its capacity for more card backups is to copy files from the Epson to the external drive and then to delete them on the Epson. This isn't perfect, but it's still useful.

A handy choice for an external drive is a USB drive that gets all of its power from the USB connection, because those drives come in packages that are just as portable as the Epson. The problem is powering the drive, since the power output from the Epson is insufficient. A battery-powered external USB drive would be a good choice, but I don't know of any. Except for those intended for card backup, that is. So, I suppose you could use a Wolverine FlashPac (with its own battery power) as the Epson's external drive (I haven't tried it), but the costs are a lot lower for an external drive that's just a drive, such as the Seagate portables. A 100MB Seagate portable USB drive costs less than a 40MB Wolverine.

I like the Seagates because they're small, cheap, and widely available. Also, they come with a special cable.

This cable (maybe other drives have one, too) has two Type A USB connectors. One is for data and power if there's enough power, as there is from a laptop, desktop, or powered USB hub. The other is just for power. This allows the very strange arrangement shown in this photo:

Here the Epson is connected via USB to the Seagate portable (at right), and the Segate's auxiliary USB power comes from an iGo fitted with a USB adapter. It's not called a USB adapter by iGo for some reason, but an iPod Nano adapter (A46). That's a shame, because there are all sorts of things these days that run off of USB power (lights, speakers, drink coolers, and... USB drives).

I could write at length about how wonderful the iGo system is, too, but that's for another time.

The iGo can plug into a wall socket, a car accessory socket, and in sockets next to some airplane seats. It still doesn't solve the problem of powering the USB drive when you're away from walls, cars, and planes, but it's close. After all, the Epson, your main backup, is battery powered, so it can take care of itself.

If you don't want to plug the auxiliary USB connector into an iGo, you can get a USB-power connector for a wall socket or a car. Look in the iPod section of your local computer or electronics store and you'll see lots of choices. You can also use a nearby PC or laptop if you like. (Once I was visiting an office and plugged into a computer that I wasn't even permitted to log in to. USB power seems to be free.)

So that's the wonderful Epson P-3000/P-5000. It's as good a USB drive as a USB drive can be, has a better screen that anything I know of, is really convenient for backing up cards, and even takes on USB drives of its own. Who cares if Epson isn't sure what to call it. I guess Multimedia Storage Viewer is as good as anything.

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Raw Conversion: Better Never Than Late April 24, 2008

Scanning in India by Way of California With ScanCafe February 15, 2008

How To Back Up Your Personal Computer January 30, 2008

Every Camera I've Ever Owned January 25, 2008

Sharpening JPEGs for the Web January 4, 2008

Lessons Learned From My Memory Problem December 20, 2007

Hunting Down a Mac Hardware Problem December 20, 2007

Trimming GPS Tracks With GPSTrackViewer November 13, 2007

The World's Shortest Camera Buying Guide September 22, 2007

Transporting and Storing Portable Backup Drives August 26, 2007

"The Luminous Landscape" Teaches Me to Print August 4, 2007

Creating a Google Photo Map (Revised) June 26, 2007

Sony GPS-CS1: Not Good Enough for Geotagging Photos June 24, 2007

Epson P-3000/P-5000 Multimedia Storage Viewer March 10, 2007

Trying Out Infrared January 20, 2007

Stupid Designs Hold Digital Back April 1, 2006

 

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