Cost Effective, Compact, Media Wrangling Tools
When it comes to managing your media on location shoots, the tool of choice is typically a laptop. However, laptops can get very expensive quickly, require big external power supplies and bags, and, for simple media management (copying files to a client’s drive) they are overkill. Today’s laptops are also powerful enough do basic grading, editing, and even media conversion and uploading while in the field. But what if you don’t need all of that capability? What if you just need to copy your camera files to an external hard drive for the client to take with them?
A new solution in the market is a budget tablet with USB-3. Today, USB-3 ports enable you to copy your media cards to external hard drives much faster than USB-2. I’ll take a look at three cost-effective and compact mobile media wrangling tools on the market today: The RAVpower RP-WD01 portable media device, as well as the WinBook TW800 and WinBook TW100- both are Windows 8 tablets featuring a full-size USB-3 port on the edge.
The tiny little RAVpower:
The RP–WD01 from RAVpower is a very small handheld device is primarily a power-pack to charge external devices, like a cell phone. So it has a full-size USB-port you can plug in your camera’s charging cable. But the makers didn’t stop there. They added an SD card slot in it and Wi-Fi so that the media on the SD card could be shared wirelessly with multiple local devices. Then they also made it so the USB port could access media, like a USB stick or external HDD you plug in. On top of that, there’s a mobile control app that offers, among other things, the manage your media- including copy your SD card to a connected USB hard drive that is powered by the RAVpower.
In principle this sounds perfect. An awesome little “swiss army knife” or mobile media management. But in reality it is hampered by several different issues that plague this device. First of which is that the copy speed is terribly slow. It took three hours to copy 5 GB of data off of a fast SD card and onto a USB-3 hard drive. I am not able to test the read speeds exclusively, but it seems that the USB port may not even be “high-speed” USB-2 it may even be slower than that.
I also found it difficult to manage the capabilities of the RAVpower through the app itself. You can connect to the RAVpower via WiFi- with the RAVpower acting as its own access point. Sometimes I couldn’t get an IP address from the RAVpower. The app was very finicky and many times would just stop responding to me. In researching the problem, I found out that I can also access it directly through my cell phone’s web browser by typing in a specific URL for the device. I found that this actually works better in most cases, but it doesn’t have the same features of the dedicated app. So it’s the proverbial rock and a hard place.
I found that there was an update to the device for In the end, as much as I wanted this little device to be the solution, it just clearly was a cheap little power pack with some additional features grafted on.
WinBook To The Rescue?
The next tool I want to take a look at is a very affordable WinBook tablet that features a full-size USB-3 port. This is unique among tablets because most tablets are built as media consumption devices and don’t need full-size USB ports, just microp ports for charging. Another advantage with a full-size USB three is that no tiny adapters are needed to try and get regular USB devices to fit. You don’t have to worry about losing an adapter and thusly losing the ability to use the USB port.
When I decided to take a look at these tablets I purchased both the 8 inch and 10 inch because, despite the same general specifications for both tablets I felt it might be better for a client to view their footage on a 10 inch screen versus 8 inch screen. So that becomes a question of compact and more affordable, versus something that is more useful in showing your footage to a client. Also when it comes to specific details the 8 inch model I picked has half the memory and half the storage space of the 10 inch model and I wanted to see if the lower-end specifications would hurt the performance or not.
As of this writing the 8 inch model is just $100 and the 10 inch model is $200. Now, the consumer electronics show is just completing as I write this, so there will be a whole slew of new tablets and mobile devices available for consumers in the coming months. The key features of these tablets are that they both have the USB-3 port on the edge, and they both feature a high-quality IPS display for very good color, wide viewing angles, and great clarity for the video that you’re presenting. The resolution is limited to 1280 x 800 which is good enough for HD video, but it is certainly not a super-high resolution “retina-like” display. Unfortunately, tablets with those higher resolution displays mostly do not have USB-3 ports on them, and their price tags are 3x the price of these tablets, or more, depending on configuration.
I’m going to be testing these two WinBooks with 4K video. So the internal processor will be tasked with downscaling the 4K video on the fly to present iton the display. I’ll be testing usability, transfer speed, and viewing the footage.
Both of these tablets run Windows 8.1 and have access to Windows applications, like VLC and more. However, I tried to load Red Giant’s media management app “Offload” to facilitate copying footage from one card to multiple apps, and I was disappointed to find that it appears to require a 64-bit OS and it wouldn’t complete the install. So the breadth of apps available may not be as wide as initially anticipated.
For playback I tried a few solutions to play back my 4K video H.264 files from my camera. The built-in Video Player had some issues with my 4K video test. It started with a very low frame rate, but playback got smoother as I let it play. However, it never achieved smooth 24 fps playback. I downloaded VLC from the Windows App Store. With VLC 4K playback was very jerky. One frame every few seconds. Basically unusable, but the audio continued just fine. Then I tried a different media player called, unimaginatively Media Player. This one played my 4K video just fine. However, it’s fanciful and distracting design was not very businesslike, or intuitive.
I had initially planned on adding a Dell Venu 8″ tablet that also has a USB-3 port, despite the Android OS, but when I saw that it was a Micro USB, the concept of using that to connect multiple media storage devices became a little far-fetched. Also, in several days of searching, I could find no media management tool made for Android, so it’s pretty clear that the production industry is not so big on Android. There are some video editing apps, but those are primarily for video created in the device.
However, an advantage with Android is camera remote control software. Android and iOS have apps to wirelessly control various DSLRs. Whereas finding the same tools for Windows “desktop” OS was far harder. So there is no clear winner on the software end of this comparison. You’ll have to decide what’s more important to you.
The 10 inch WinBook is a nicely specced tablet that feels good in the hand. The large size makes it easy to type and manage your way around with the tile interface. In desktop mode, I was surprised at how accurately it interpreted my touches given the small size of the text and links on the screen. The Windows logo on the bottom of the long edge means this tablet is designed for use in landscape mode.
My initial usage of the 10″ tablet was hampered by the fact that the built-in Wi-Fi seem to be quite unable to find the various Wi-Fi access points in my office. In fact, when I put my cell phone right next to the tablet, my cell phone could see eight different hotspots while the tablet might find one, and that it had difficulty connecting and getting an IP address. In doing some research, it seems that this was a known problem for the 10 inch tablet and there was an update for it. But when I went to get the update and loaded onto my 10 inch tablet, I found out that my tablet was already up to date.
So for the entirety of the review, whenever I needed to download software or look something up on the 10 inch tablet, I had to be within arms reach of my access point in order to get decent speeds. This does not bode well for using the 10 inch tablet in corporate situations, say in a convention center where there is a lot of different RF flying through the air and it takes a good Wi-Fi receiver to be able to hold on to a good signal amid all the interference.
Because the actual resolution of the two WinBook tablets was the same, and the 10″ spread that resolution out across a much bigger surface than the 8″, it was much more comfortable to use. The keypad was bigger, text easier to read, etc. However, in hand holding it, I became fatigued faster with the 10″ because it’s always hanging out of my hand, and I just wanted to put it down somewhere. Of course, that covers the rear speakers unless you have the folio cover to help it stand up on its own.
The higher number doesn’t mean a much better model, it just means an 8″ screen (and presumably, a smaller battery). The processor, screen resolution and all the other aspects were (or could be) identical between the two tablets. However, I chose the “budget” 8″ model that saved $40 and had half the RAM and storage space as the 10″ model. Pay a little more and it would have the exact same RAM and storage specifications.
The 8″ model had a much easier and more reliable time connecting to wireless access points in the office. It also downloaded updates and test apps faster, without hesitations. So in the wireless respect, the 8″ clearly performed better.
In setting up the 8″, I found myself walking around and holding it in my hand and never really noticing it. It fits nicely in my hand despite the somewhat chunky bezel. In as much as I would like the bezel of these devices to be a lot smaller, you still need space for the battery, speakers, camera, processor, USB hardware, etc. But as it was, I found the 8″ model to be much more convenient to use.
Given the better performing WiFi, lower cost, and exact same USB-3 functionality, I decided to go with the WinBook TW800 as my mobile media management tool.
The Key Factor- USB-3.
When you’re trying to move several large SD cards worth of data, USB-2 is no longer fast enough. The same external USB hard drive that I wrote to at 70 MBps using the WinBook only manages a write speed of about 13 MBps using USB-2. This is FIVE times slower. The more footage you have, the longer the transfer will take. Moreover, writing to two HDDs slows the overall throughput.
Utilizing an app to manage the copy (or command line if you are savvy enough) means you can read once and write twice. Using the “desktop” to copy files means you have to establish two different copy processes, and each copy process must be initiated separately. Add USB-2 on top of this and you might as well hire a person to do it while you shoot because it’s going to take a long while.
So the bare minimum of USB-3 for media wrangling in the field is critical and no mobile device without USB-3 (or Thunderbolt, and associated accessories) should be considered.
Thinking it over…
I really was looking for a compact, inexpensive device to copy my media onto client HDDs while out on a shoot. I didn’t want to dedicate a $2000 laptop to this. Nor do I want to carry around 2-4 pounds of gear just to copy media. My initial hopes of a tiny media copy device were dashed quite quickly. Stepping up to a tablet seemed the natural order of progression and I would gain considerable functional capability- especially the ability to view my video clips.
Previously, there were expensive, dedicated media storage devices, with tiny screens- like the NexTo DI that I reviewed previously. They could copy your media to internal drives, but they were very expensive, and could only do this one task. For comparison, a tablet that now costs $100 makes it easy to view the video on an 8″ ISP display, and directly push a clip to the outside world via WiFi or USB modem. Tablets can also check mail, skype, take photos and more, though I found the photo capability at this price point is quite poor compared to a decent smartphone. Nevertheless, $100 buys a lot of functionality.
Stepping up to $200 gets a 10″ model which would seemingly make it so much easier to work with media, and just easier to see everything on the screen. But I found that the limitations of the TW100 outweighed the advantages. In fact, I ended up preferring the smaller 8″ device because it was lighter and easier to wield with one hand. Both devices have the same exact resolution so the 8″ is certainly harder on the eyes and I tried resizing the desktop resolution to make icons and text bigger- but moving away from the native resolution really means everything also gets blurrier. So I was no better off that way.
The 8″ WinBook also had better WiFi. Not by leaps and bounds, but it saw one more hotspot in my office, and it was more reliably able to connect, hold the connection and downloads came faster.
Both devices also have an internal MicroSD card slot. Typically this would be used to dramatically expand the device’s storage space. But given the included apps, and what little I needed to add, I would be better served changing my camera media to MicroSD with a SD card adapter, and leveraging that MicroSD slot as the source for my media copying, freeing the USB-3 to deliver the files to the external HDDs. It also lowers the power demands on the USB-3 port since the SD card would be internal.And the power demands are not to be trifled with- they could potentially botch transfers by having the HDD quit out in the middle of writing. So be careful by connecting one thing at a time, and let the tablet access everything it needs to (image previews, etc.) before connecting the next device. When I tested the 10″, I got a power warning. When I tested the 8″, I connected the external USB power charger, and, by taking my time, I never got an error warning.
While the screen does a good job showing video, the speakers, on the other hand, are on the back of the tablets. They are on the FLAT part of the back of the tablets- meaning, when you put them down on a flat table, the volume of your audio is greatly reduced. Prop it up on an angle and you get more sound. Turn it around so the speakers face you, and it’s a lot clearer and louder.
There are other tablets with forward facing speakers, like the $100 Lenovo A7, $300 Nvidia Shield tablet, or Google’s Nexus 9 with HTC “BoomSound” stereo speakers, but they are limited to USB-2 and it’s unknown if these offer full file control to connected devices like a “computer” tablet does. I’m just not able to test every tablet in an ever-changing market.
Even the just-released Dell Venue 8 7000 series with an impressive 8″ OLED screen and forward facing stereo speakers, is limited to USB-2. The USB-3 specification was established way back in 2008. Still having USB-2 on devices in 2015 clearly marks these as media consumption devices They are not meant to connect to, or transfer large amounts of data– which is exactly what we need.
So when you are looking for solutions, start first with USB-3. That seems to be the great limiting factor. Then consider the screen for viewing your footage- is it big enough, IPS? OLED? I found that even these $100 units were capable of even downscaling my 4K footage to the screen resolution on the fly. They are media consumption devices and, as such, the video playback capability is usually pretty good. But if you plan on editing or transcoding clips on your tablet, you’ll need to look at higher end models for speed.
Think about connectivity. The models I had were not stellar WiFi performers and there was no cellular option. I could add a USB dongle for connectivity, but if it’s something you expect to need often, make sure the device you get has it built-in. Lastly, don’t forget the speaker quality and placement. When you start playing back your footage, you realize how important it is to you (and your client) to hear good sound from the clips you review. Otherwise make sure you have a good set of headphones that travel with the tablet.
My priorities are:
- Quality Screen
- Powerful Processor
This has been my look at some cost-effective, compact, media wrangling solutions. This is for those not looking to bring along a big laptop & power supply. With the fast pace of the consumer electronics industry, the entire market will change in just a couple months. But the key assessment points will remain the same. Hopefully as these devices need to compete, USB-3 will be added as tablet makers try to find an edge among the competition.
Disclosure: No material connection exists between Anthony Burokas and any product or company mentioned herin. I purchased the RAVpower, and both WinBooks with the full intent of keeping them for my media management use. The RAVPower and the WinBook TW100 were returned for the reasons discussed in the article. I returned the TW800 and purchased the TW801 which has double the RAM and storage of the TW800.