By Geoff Taylor
The post-PC era
Following the introduction of the iPad at the D8 Conference in June, 2010, Steve Jobs famously heralded the new “post-PC” age of mobile computing, comparing traditional computers (desktops and laptops) to big powerful but lumbering trucks, and tablets to nippy convenient little cars. With a tablet, he predicted, most of us would be able to do most of what we wanted just fine. And he was right. For most people, most of the time, a tablet is fine, and its typically long battery life is a great bonus.
The storage problem
One significant drawback, that Jobs didn’t highlight, though, is lack of storage space. Solid state Flash storage is still very expensive. The current top of the line iPad model costs £639 and only has 128GB of storage. After you’ve loaded on your apps, your photos, your podcasts and your songs, how many HD movies or TV series can you find room for? A 2-hour 720p HD film from iTunes is almost 4GB. Series 1 (HD) of Homeland comes in at over 20GB. It’s all going to be a bit of a squeeze.
The file sharing problem
Another issue, especially at work and school, which all of us must have experienced in different forms, is the problem of sharing files, both between users and between different machines used by the same user. Small files can be emailed, but as the size gets bigger, the solutions tend to get more costly, ranging from Internet cloud services to fully-fledged traditional computer-based file servers requiring specialised knowledge to set up.
WiFi cloud solution
One good solution could be an easy-to-manage local WiFi cloud where we can store, share and stream our growing library of files, a cloud whose size we can easily and cheaply expand as our needs increase.
Enter the hero
Welcome to the Kanex meDrive file server. The makers claim it acts as an easy-to-use local WiFi cloud file sharing and expandable storage solution, compatible with all modern iOS devices, including all iPads and any iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 5.1 or later, and Macs*. You just add USB hard drives according to how much storage you want.
*Windows and Android users can also use all the meDrive’s file sharing features via WebDAV, but there’s no special File Manager app, and of course they can’t use the functions connected with Apple’s iWork app suite (Keynote, Pages and Numbers).
meDrive File Manager iOS app
The free meDrive File Manager iOS app is well documented and quite straightforward to use. On an iPad, in landscape mode, the view is of a navigation bar on the left and a content area on the right, with the option to expand the content area to fill the screen or view in windowed mode. In portrait mode, the navigation bar becomes a drop-down window. I like how refreshing the navigation bar view is done with the commonly used “pull down and release” gesture. On the iPhone / iPod touch, there is only a single window at any time.
In my tests, viewing files of different formats worked flawlessly. Various popular image, audio and video and document formats loaded flawlessly, including PDF documents, and even Microsoft Word and Powerpoint documents. (See the FAQs page on the website for a list of compatible formats.) The only files I could copy but couldn’t view within the meDrive app were TV and movie files from the iTunes store, which presumably have a DRM (digital rights management) lock on them. But all audio files, including music tracks purchased from iTunes, played fine. Likewise, any video files I had made myself, or downloaded from YouTube, or ripped from DVDs with Handbrake all played perfectly.
Streaming large media files
Amazingly, even a half a gigabyte MP4 TV show loaded and started playing within a few seconds on my iPad. Better still, I was able to simultaneously play this movie on three different iOS devices, so, depending on bandwidth, different users can certainly stream different files at the same time. This would be very useful in a school situation, such as in my case, teaching at St Clare’s, Oxford, where Internet bandwidth is often not sufficient for a class of a dozen or so students to simultaneously stream multi-media files such as TED talks or YouTube videos. I haven’t been able to test this, but if I could download the desired media files and students could access them locally via the meDrive, that might avoid the kind of nagging video buffering issues that erode students’ motivation and goodwill.
Most of the meDrive app file management functions worked very well. I was able to download files from the USB drive to my iOS device, rename them, zip and unzip them, delete them, create folders, sort items within folders by name, kind, date or size, and email files as attachments. I was able to use the “Open In” feature to upload email attachments to the cloud. The “Open In” feature for downloading documents from the cloud to my iOS device worked beautifully with iWork apps, at least those which I have on my iPad, Keynote and Pages.
For some reason, I frequently got error messages when trying to move iWorks documents up to the cloud. I found the file-moving feature somewhat temperamental, sometimes working, sometimes not. The Add photo and Add video functions also seemed to be somewhat temperamental on my devices.
A big question is how long it takes to transfer files using the meDrive. Too slow and any kind of real time sharing of files between teacher and students within a lesson, or between colleagues working on a project, or between family members wanting to share a set of great photos, will become unworkable. The good news is that in my tests at home, with the meDrive plugged into my BT Infinity Home Hub 3, copying files wirelessly from my Mac to a 1GB USB stick plugged into the meDrive, uploading took about 1 minute per 100MB of data, almost 2MB per second, quite useable, in other words. Downloading cut the time in half. All in all, fast enough for most purposes. Small documents created by students or teachers in a school, for example, could be uploaded or downloaded in a minute or two or less. You could copy a half hour standard definition TV show of half a gigabyte in a few minutes, though a full-length HD movie of four gigabytes might take about 40 minutes.
By adding larger hard drives via the USB port, or even adding a USB hub and attaching a number of hard drives, you can expand the storage in the cloud to pretty much any size you want. The only caveat is that the drives must be formatted as (Windows) NTFS or (MS-DOS) FAT drives, which, out of the box, was a problem for me. As an Apple-oriented guy, virtually all of my bus-powered portable USB drives, used as Apple Time Machine back-up drives, are formatted as Mac OS Extended (Journaled), which is not compatible with the meDrive.
I don’t quite know why this should be so, as Apple kit compatibility seems to be such a high priority with the makers, but perhaps it is in order to secure compatibility with Windows-based hardware devices. This is not a massive hardship, as you can get a 64GB USB stick for under £30, for instance, but it does mean that Apple-oriented users may find they will need to erase and re-format an existing USB drive (requiring deletion of any files stored on the drive) or wait until they can purchase a new drive.
Why not Dropbox?
As an alternative to a local networked physical device like the meDrive, why not just use a remote cloud service like Dropbox? One big reason, as is discussed in MacWorld podcast #350, is security. It seems that Dropbox, for one, is not legally secure, as the providers retain the security key onsite. Although the files are encrypted, they are accessible by Dropbox employees and also any organisation that requires them, by law, for example, to share the contents of an account. So, some categories of use, including the storage/sharing of medical records or school children’s data, are almost certainly prohibited from such a service, but would be very well suited to a secure locally-networked physical device like the meDrive, which continues to function even if access to the Internet itself is unavailable or blocked. Another big plus is the lack of monthly fees.
Best for who?
On their website, Kanex especially promotes the use of the meDrive in three different scenarios: at school, at work and at home. The file-sharing scenario between teachers and students shown in the video on the website looks brilliant, and as long as everyone is using compatible software, should work very well. I was unable to test this, because in the teaching building where I work, the routers are all locked away, and there are no Ethernet ports available. In my school, quite a lot of students use large screen Android phones, “phablets” some call them, so hopefully an Android version of the File Manager app will be forthcoming from Kanex, although currently there seems to be no public plan to produce one.
In a SOHO (small office / home office) situation where file-sharing is a must, a fully-fledged computer-based file server is probably overkill, requiring specialised knowledge and extra expense. In any medical context, data protection concerns for the safety of patient data should prohibit the use of remote cloud file sharing solutions. Likewise, in a modern home, where different family members may have a range of computing and mobile devices with limited storage space, it may be very handy to store and share files, including large media files in an easy-to-access location. In all these scenarios, what’s needed is a local protected cloud-based (WiFi) file server solution, that will enable people of all ages to share files quickly, easily and securely.
The design of the packaging is excellent, with well-chosen pictorial and text information on the outside showing what the meDrive is, what it does and what is and isn’t included in the box. The unboxing process itself is logically staged and convenient (you don’t even really need scissors if you have a coin on you or sharp nails), and leaves you with an intact set of nested boxes, perfect for conveniently carrying the drive and its cables around with you. If you are concerned about the environment, and issues of waste and size of carbon footprint relating to the transportation of goods, you’ll be impressed by the compactness and recyclability of the packaging (pretty much all cardboard).
Out of the box
Along with the USB-bus powered file server device, small and light, about the size of a pack of playing cards, the makers provide all the cables you need. Only the power source for the meDrive is likely to be an issue. You can power the meDrive off a USB port in your computer. But if, like me, it is not convenient for you to permanently locate your computer next to your router, a USB mains charger (not provided), such as you may already have for charging mobile devices like iPods is a must. (At Amazon.co.uk, for instance, you can pick one up for a few pounds or less.)
Getting set up
The makers have worked hard to make the set up process quick and painless. You can be up and running in less than 10 minutes. The hardware installation is a breeze, as explained in the instructions, of just three simple connections, and took me less than 5 minutes. You attach the meDrive to your network router via the provided Ethernet cable, and to the USB power source via a mini USB cable. The Ethernet cable provided is only 1 foot long, but worked perfectly with my BT Infinity WiFi Home Hub 3 router, as did the 1 metre mini USB cable with a USB mains charger. Then, just plug in your USB drive. On the software side, the process is just as quick. Locating and installing the free meDrive File Manager app onto my iOS devices from Apple’s App Store took just a few minutes.
Connecting to the file server
Connecting to the meDrive file server is dead easy due to the use of Apple’s Bonjour Auto Discovery Service, where devices on the local network are automatically discovered and shown via a graphical user interface, with “zero configuration”, the legendary “it just works” principle in action. On an iOS device, it’s very easy: in the meDrive File Manager app window, select the “plus” icon and in the resulting network device window, you should see the meDrive, select it, put in the default username and password, and you’re in.
On a Mac or Windows PC, it’s almost as easy. Go to the Finder menus and from the “Go…” menu, choose “Connect to Server…”, type in the server address (“smb://medrive” or “smb://medrive.local”), enter the default username (“admin”) and password (“1234”) and you’re good to go. (I haven’t tested this on a Windows PC, but using Windows Explorer and mapping the server address “\\medrive\usb01”, it’s apparently just as painless.)
A small stumbling block I can alert people to is that to change the default password (“1234”), you really do have to go into “Settings”. There, you have to enter the default password and put in your new password twice. You can also change the name of the device but not the username (“admin”). Ignoring the short easy-to-follow instructions in the included mini-leaflet, I foolishly assumed during installation that I HAD set a new password and wasted quite a lot of time trying to work out why the drive wouldn’t load.
The meDrive user guides are excellent. In the box, there’s a nice brief little printed User Guide on how to get set up. Once you’ve connected to the meDrive via an iOS device, you’ll immediately see links to three very handy PDF help pages, “iOS Setup”, “Mac/PC Setup” and “iWork Setup”, which go into more detail and give nearly all the information you’ll need. For more information, go to the Kanex website. The Features page is very clear and includes an excellent short instructional video by one of the developers. The Specs page includes compatibility lists, and has links to the Support forums. The FAQs page includes a form for you to post a question, which they promise to answer in a “timely manner”. There’s also a Downloads page where you can get the latest firmware and also download the PDF help pages referred to above.
As a local WiFi cloud solution for mobile devices with limited storage space, in my tests, the Kanex meDrive worked brilliantly. It transfers small files very quickly and large audio and video media files stream with hardly any delay, and multiple devices can stream media from it without any apparent buffering problems. The free iOS File Manager app is easy to use and gives you the power to do most reasonable things with your files, such as organising them into folders, ordering them in different ways, moving them around and re-naming them. The iWork functions generally worked well. The only thing was that the app was a bit fragile and quit on me a few times, and one or two functions such as uploading iWorks documents didn’t always work on my iPad 2. Hardware and software installation and set up are very quick, and if you follow the instructions, should be painless. Without any moving parts, the device should last very well, and as an expandable storage solution, it’s extremely flexible. At just under £80, the meDrive is good value for money.
Kanex meDrive File Server for iPad, iPhone & Mac – £79.00 – http://www.kanexlive.com/medrive
Amazon.co.uk: Kanex meDrive Cloud Storage Server – £79.99 – http://goo.gl/JE9Uk
Apple CEO Steve Jobs Live at D8, June 1, 2010 – http://allthingsd.com/20100601/steve-jobs-session/
MacWorld podcast #350 – http://www.macworld.com/article/2033686/discussing-the-business-ipad.html