The Eye-Fi wireless memory card for digital cameras is rather clever. You can insert this memory card in any camera that works with the...

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The Eye-Fi wireless memory card for digital cameras is rather clever.

You can insert this memory card in any camera that works with the standard Secure Digital (SD) format and the card can transmit pictures as you take them or later over a Wi-Fi network. Pictures can be transferred to a computer on a local network, uploaded to various photo gallery and social-networking sites, or both.

The Eye-Fi is supposed to solve three related hitches that make it time-consuming to move pictures from a camera to a computer or Web site. First, there’s no cable. You don’t need to find a cradle, a USB slot, or the particular style of connector you need to move pictures off the camera.

Second, there’s no effort involved in transferring pictures. You turn the camera on and leave it on within range of a network you’ve configured for the Eye-Fi, and then walk away.

Third, the company’s Web servers can automatically transfer your pictures to one of 17 initially supported services with zero additional effort.

In testing the Eye-Fi over several days, those pretty ideas all turn out to be true, too. The adapter requires blessedly little intervention. The company tried to strip down features to the bare minimum, and that sometimes shows. But my core expectation for this card — effortless picture transfers — stayed on track regardless.

The Eye-Fi achieves these clever tricks because it’s a computer, not just a memory card. I had no idea quite how much technology you could cram into a small space until using the Eye-Fi: the 24 x 32 mm card holds a processor, a Wi-Fi chip, and 2 gigabytes of storage.

This allows the Eye-Fi to work independently of the digital camera, which is why it works with nearly all models and requires no special software support. The one critical issue is that you have to configure your camera to not power down automatically, as the card draws power from the camera’s batteries. You can turn off the camera while transfers are in process, and they’ll pick up later.

Useful item

Setting up the Eye-Fi takes just a few minutes. The card comes with a tiny USB memory-card reader — a useful item in its own right. Attach the card to a Windows XP or Vista or Mac OS X 10.3, 10.4 or 10.5 system, and install the software included on the card. (Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard support wasn’t available at this writing, but is expected.)

A small program acts as a bridge to connect you to the Eye-Fi Web site, where you set up an account and configure settings. The program adds a menu item for later access, and handles updating the card’s configuration as you make changes.

On the Eye-Fi site, you enter network information, providing details about the Wi-Fi networks you want to attach to. You can’t add networks on the fly and Eye-Fi doesn’t yet work with hot-spot networks that require you to pay a fee or agree to terms via a Web page.

But you can add any home or work network that uses standard Wi-Fi protection via WEP, WPA Personal, or WPA2 Personal passwords. Or any network that has no password to join.

If you use a hot spot that’s free and has no login or terms of service page to click through, you just need to make a note of its network name as it appears in the Available Wireless Networks list in Windows or the AirPort menu in Mac OS X. You add that name before you visit the location.

You also use the site to connect your account at Eye-Fi with any or all of 17 launch partners, including popular photo sites like Kodak Gallery, Flickr, and SmugMug; blogging services TypePad and Vox; and the social-networking site Facebook.

Powered on

After configuration and a quick test that the connection works, you can start taking pictures. Whenever you’re within range of a supported Wi-Fi network and — a critical and — the camera is powered on, the Eye-Fi transmits stored photos that aren’t yet uploaded.

The service allows you to transfer pictures to a folder on a computer on a local network, but not to a computer located through the Internet. You can also upload to Eye-Fi’s servers, where it handles transferring the images through the Internet. If you want to upload to Eye-Fi and to a computer on the same network, there’s an extra step. The Eye-Fi adapter uploads the pictures over the Internet to its servers, and then the service downloads the photos to your computer. The company explained this reduces battery usage, even though it increases the time necessary to complete the operation.

For safety’s sake in this first release, the Eye-Fi doesn’t delete photos after transferring them, which requires some management on your part to ensure the photos were transferred before you manually delete them.

I quickly hit a limit in how Eye-Fi supports online services, too. While you can enter account information for multiple services, your Eye-Fi account can only be set to upload photos to a single service at a time. You can change that preference via your account at any time, and all subsequent pictures are then uploaded to your new choice. But I’d prefer to upload to two or three services, like Flickr for sharing and Shutterfly for making prints.

Also, the Eye-Fi can’t transfer pictures to a computer and then later let you choose to upload via Eye-Fi’s servers, I’d like to be able to choose to use Wi-Fi or plug the card into a card reader and get the same automated benefit.

Limitations bypassed

The Eye-Fi service and card bypass two significant limitations in all the Wi-Fi-enabled cameras released from Canon, Kodak and Nikon and in most cellphones with cameras. Existing cameras will send only downsampled versions of pictures taken — a 6-megapixel camera might send just 2 megapixels of data, for instance. (This detail is often hidden or omitted from camera descriptions, too.) You can retrieve full-resolution images only through a direct USB connection.

And most of the cameras and decent camera phones are tied in by default to specific gallery services.

Eye-Fi uploads only full-resolution images, and the company said it expects to expand the number of supported gallery and related partners over time. For services that can’t handle the full size of your pictures, the Eye-Fi servers automatically downsample them before transfer.

This paints a rather rosy picture, but there are a number of limitations in this first release, notably two interrelated problems: You have to set your camera to not power down automatically, as noted earlier. But there’s also no way to know when the Eye-Fi is done transferring images without logging in to your online account at the service you’re transferring images to or checking your computer’s download directory.

So there’s no reliable way to know when to power the camera off manually. That’s a tricky problem because the Eye-Fi has no interface. Conceivably, the company could have its servers text message your phone when an upload is done, or pop a dialog up on a local computer.

The speed of the Wi-Fi radio is an issue, too. The card uses 802.11g, which has a rated speed of 54 Mbps, but true throughput of about 20 to 25 Mbps. When you’re uploading to Eye-Fi’s servers, that’s not a problem. But over a local network, 20 Mbps compares unfavorably with much higher rates available via a memory card plugged into a USB card reader.

Question of capacity

Professional photographers might be frustrated by the card’s capacity and its restriction to only support JPEG images, even though other image formats, like ye.fRAW, can be stored on the card (they just can’t be transferred).

For the former problem, 2 GB is the limit for standard SD; 4 GB and larger cards use SDHC (High Capacity), which many older cameras can’t use at all. The company said that for its first release it wanted to have the broadest compatibility. With 2 GB, many cameras can store as many as 1,000 photos.

These problems tend to pale in the face of the Eye-Fi’s accomplishments, however, in making it easier to take photos and put them online by doing nothing than by doing something. The firm is taking notes from its users, and the choices I find troubling today could be easily updated through software revisions later.

That’s just one more advantage in having a computer in a card that’s not tied to software built into a camera.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.