Minds@Work Digital Wallet

Computerworld (US)

Portable storage has undergone amazing advances in the past half-dozen years, but it hasn’t really kept pace with the capacity growth of today’s multigigabyte hard drives. With the capacity of compact flash cards and Memory Sticks from Tokyo-based Sony Corp. topping off at a few hundred megabytes, digital cameras and MP3 players can quickly fill up. And sometimes a user may want to be able to back up the contents of a laptop while on the road. It would be nice to have something nearby with the capacity of a hard drive and the convenience, size and weight of a personal digital assistant.

That pretty well describes the new Digital Wallet from Minds@Work LLC in Irvine, Calif. Digital Wallet is a 6GB portable hard drive that connects to the Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports of PCs and Macintoshes.

Portable hard drives have come and gone. What makes the Digital Wallet unique is its ability to perform high-capacity disk operations without being connected to a PC. Other portable storage devices, notably Roy, Utah-based Iomega Corp.’s 40MB Clik and 2GB Jaz drives, offer similar functions. What they don’t have is 6GB, enough for 6,000 high-resolution photos or 150 hours of music. Minds@Work says resellers will soon offer even higher-capacity drives.

With that much room, you can free up space on your digital camera, for example, by inserting its flash media into the included PC Card adapter, then lifting the door on the right side of the Digital Wallet and sliding in the adapter.

Four buttons are all you need to control downloading and uploading from the menu that appears in the monochrome LED. The Digital Wallet makes hard-drive sounds, Minds@Work’s logo flashes on-screen and presto: your files are off the flash card and on the drive. The unit ships with an adapter for Compact Flash, the most popular storage type, but you can also order adapters for five other types, including SmartMedia and Memory Stick, for less than US$100.

Besides augmenting the limited storage of portable digital devices, the Digital Wallet makes a nice supplemental hard drive for desktop systems, appearing as a removable drive in Windows Explorer. Its usefulness goes way beyond that, thanks to its ability to be quickly plugged into the USB ports of PCs and notebooks that have its software installed. Large database or image files can be more easily shared and displayed on other systems. With the bundled SmartBack Jr. from Rutilus Software Inc. in Irvine, Calif., you can use the Digital Wallet as a backup device and for synchronizing files among PCs. Also included are image management and archiving software.

The Digital Wallet contains a 54-MHz ColdFire processor from Motorola Inc. – essentially a computer on a chip that provides limited, PC-like control. Also inside is a 2.5-in. portable hard drive from Toshiba Corp. – the same model used in some Toshiba notebooks, according to Minds@Work. There’s a monochrome LED that’s strictly for status and control information; don’t expect to view pictures or files on it. A small plastic attachment holds one end of the USB cable as well as the AC adapter, which doubles as a charger for the removable batteries.

The 4,200-rpm drive’s 8M to 12M bit/sec. data transfer rate and 13-msec seek time are considerably below those of desktop drives, and USB limitations throttle performance. But I found no appreciable slowdown during informal tests I conducted. JPEG files on the Digital Wallet loaded about as fast as from the internal hard drive. Uploading several images from a compact flash card took about 10 seconds, an appreciable though tolerable wait.

Some Concerns

Minds@Work still seemed to be working out kinks when I tried Digital Wallet a month after it began shipping.

For one thing, while Digital Wallet can hold a lot of photos, you can see them only if you use another machine.

And I couldn’t get it to run without a call to technical support, which e-mailed a patch that resolved a conflict with Adaptec Inc. drive controllers in my Celeron-based Pavilion from Hewlett-Packard Co. and my Pentium III-based notebook from Gateway Inc. (This was a day after I was left on hold for 90 minutes during a weekend call to a technical-support line and finally gave up.) However, the drive soon stopped working on the HP, and I began getting Windows messages indicating a problem with my USB controllers.

Durability may be a concern, too. Although the 12-oz. unit feels fairly solid, the plastic doors for its battery and the adapter seem flimsy. According to Minds@Work, the unit has withstood drops of three and four feet in internal tests; I opted not to try that test.

The name of the product is a little confusing. Microsoft Corp. used to have a product called Wallet, now renamed Passport, designed to address secure Internet payment issues. Another product, the eWallet, is available from Ilium Software Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., for $29.95. It’s a handy utility for Pocket PC handhelds that stores photos and personal information, including password-protected replicas of your credit cards (with personal identification numbers) and other items that may normally reside in your back pocket or purse.

The Digital Wallet shows promise as a unique storage option, but it may need tweaking before it can serve as a true plug-and-play device. My advice is to try the product before you buy it.

Minds@Work can be reached at http://www.mindsatwork.net.

Essex is a freelance writer in Antrim, N.H. Contact him at david_essex@conknet.com.

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