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Whoosh! Review: Samsung 830 series SSD kit

Is it worth replacing your laptop’s hard drive with a solid state drive instead? If you can put up with a few limitations (and perhaps a smaller drive) then it probably is. SSD is faster than a spinning disk, and you will notice this in the form of faster boot, faster application loading, and a snappier system in general. Battery life may improve too.

This review covers the Samsung 830 series 128GB SSD, specifically the laptop installation kit which contains all you need (except the screwdriver).

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Laptop drives are usually easy to replace physically, but migrating your operating system can be tricky. Samsung seems to be making an effort to simplify this, though it could do better. The essentials are here though, particularly a very handy cable that lets you connect your new SSD as an external USB drive. This means you can image your existing drive to the SSD, then replace the drive and boot as normal. The package also includes two CDs, one for Norton Ghost and the other for some utilities and documentation. Finally there is a short printed manual and of course the drive itself. Since it is thinner than a hard drive, a spacer is supplied which bulks it out to the size of a standard 2.5” drive if necessary.

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The laptop I picked for this test is a Dell running Windows 7 64-bit. It has a 160GB 7200 rpm Seagate drive – typical of a laptop which is a few years old.

Curiously, although all the kit is supplied to migrate from your existing hard drive, there is a note in the instruction leaflet that says “Samsung recommends that you do a fresh OS install to ensure an optimal operating environment for your new SSD”. Good advice, except that laptops usually do not come with Windows install media, and if they do it is recovery media with recreates the original install, which is not quite the same as a fresh install. Another problem with a fresh install is the time-consuming job of reinstalling your applications. There are many advantages to migration rather than clean install, even if the final result is not optimal. You can also tweak an existing Windows install for SSD so it is not that bad.

A problem with this kit is that although it does have all you need, it lacks a simple step by step guide. That is not for want of trying; someone has worked hard on the interactive manual on one of the CDs. Even so, with a printed manual that covers both desktop and laptop versions of the kit, two CDs, Samsung’s Magician utility as well as Norton Ghost, it ends up being a confusing bundle.

Most laptops only have one drive, and you may well find that there is more data on your current drive than there is space on the new SSD. I recall a note somewhere that advises you to delete unimportant data to make space. Alternatively, you could get Samsung’s 256GB kit for around twice the price. On a desktop, you would likely use an SSD drive for booting and for the operating system, but conventional hard drives for data.

Norton Ghost is not my favourite disk utility. It is a backup tool as well as a drive cloning utility, and has a rather complex and intrusive install. An alternative is to use the backup and restore built into Windows 7, which would work fine for this although you will need an additional external drive as well as a Windows restore CD or bootable USB device. There are also leaner tools such as Drive Snapshot which work well.

Still, for this review I decided to use the tools in the bundle and installed Norton Ghost. The Ghost install flashed many command prompts at me and then hung for ages doing apparently nothing. I gave up, tried to cancel the installation without success, and rebooted to find that the install had apparently succeeded. I did not trust it so did a repair install which did complete, giving me reasonable confidence that I had Ghost installed OK.

If you go the Ghost route, you should read the document called NortonGhost_Data_Migration_User_Manual_(English).pdf which is in the MagicianSoftware folder on the Samsung Magician CD. The main issue is that Windows 7 creates a hidden system partition which you need to copy to the SSD *first*, otherwise Windows 7 will not boot.

I then attached the SSD drive with the supplied USB cable and ran Ghost to copy the partitions. It took around two hours for my 100GB of data.

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I then switched the drive with the hard drive installed in the laptop. This was pretty easy, though I did need the supplied spacer in order to press the hard drive close enough to the case for the stubby screws to bite.

Booted up, and Windows warned that it had not been shut down properly. I chose a Normal start, Windows detected the new drive, reconfigured itself, and requested a further restart. That was it.

Well, not quite. I ran Outlook which decided it had to recreate its offline cached mailbox completely. Mine is huge so that took a while.

I also used the Samsung Magician utility to optimize Windows for an SSD install.

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This utility tweaks a few settings, such as disabling Super Fetch. It also recommends disabling the Windows indexing service. The idea is to reduce the number of disk writes, bearing in mind that SSDs gradually wear and their capacity reduces as data is deleted and written.

There are other Windows tweaks you can make to optimize for SSD. Tom’s hardware has a handy list here. Note that there are trade-offs. Disabling the indexing service may be a good idea for the SSD, but can be inconvenient, particularly if you use Outlook whose search depends on it. Disabling System Restore means you lose its benefit if something in Windows gets corrupted and will have to resort to other restore methods.

Was it worth it? Here are the PassMark before and after results:

  Old 7200 RPM HD New SSD Drive
Disk Mark 234.7 2186.9
Sequential Read 31.4 241.2
Sequential Write 31.2 205.4
Random Seek + RW 2.31 158.2

and here are the results of the PassMark advanced drive test, showing that disk speed improved from 3.7 MB/Sec to 34.8 MB/Sec:

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A glance tells you all you need to know: the SSD is much faster. The Disk Mark improves by 931%.

In use the laptop feels like a new machine; everything happens faster than before. It is worth the hassle.

    

Nokia gradually fixing Lumia 800, battery life much improved

Nokia has rolled out several updates to its Lumia 800 Windows Phone. The latest is version 1600.2487.8107.12070, which for many users has greatly improved battery life, probably the biggest problem with the phone.

Whether you have this update pushed to you automatically depends on operators, region and who knows what. I followed the unofficial instructions here in order to get the update early and it worked fine for me; but try this at your own risk.

In my case battery life improved from needing to charge daily to running for several days with light use. Results do vary though. You can see how you are doing by running the Nokia diagnostics app and checking battery status.

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Check the figure for Discharging. If it is 70 mA or less you are doing well. If it is up at 140 mA or higher your phone will not last long on a full charge. Note that for some reason the screen capture utility I use bumped up the battery drain, which on my Lumia hovers around 74 mA since the update.

Some have found that disabling 3G in the “Highest connection speed” setting, under Mobile network substantially extends battery life. Worth a try if you care more about battery life than getting the highest data speeds.

Of course users should not be having these kinds of problems; but despite some hassles – the will not turn on issue is the worst for me but I hope is now fixed – I like the phone increasingly. The feel of the device in your hands is excellent, it is responsive, email works well with Exchange, and the Nokia Drive turn-by-turn directions are proving useful, to mention a few things.

There are still a few annoying bugs. The camera is not as good as it should be, bearing in mind Nokia’s boasting about the Carl Zeiss lens, and a future update may improve the colour balance. There is a volume bug introduced in the latest update, that blasts your ears if a call comes in and your volume is set below 14.

App availability is still limited on Windows Phone. I would like to see a Dropbox client, for example.

Nevertheless, Nokia has created an excellent smartphone and seems to be serious about maintaining and improving it.

The meta-story here is that Microsoft’s success depends on the commitment of its hardware partners. Although Windows Phone was available from others such as HTC and Samsung, who no doubt made a substantial investment, those companies are more committed to Android and that shows in the quality of the devices and the way they are marketed.

Will this story repeat when it comes to Windows 8 tablets, particularly on ARM, which to my mind is the critical platform here?

The best ear buds I have heard: Wolfson’s Digital Silence DS-421D with noise cancellation

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month I caught up with Wolfson Microelectronics, who make digital converter chips and other audio components. They do not sell many products to end users, but are making an exception for the Digital Silence range of noise-cancelling headsets.

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The origin of the technology here is in the company’s 2007 acquisition of Sonaptic Ltd, specialists in micro-acoustics, or in other words getting good sound from mobile devices.

The Digital Silence range is unusual among ear buds in including noise cancellation. In other words, microphones on the outside of the buds pick up external sounds, phase reverse them, and add them to the input signal so that you hear more of the music (or voice, if listening to a call) and less of the external sound.

The new Digital Silence range has three models, of which I have been testing the DS-421D, which is set for general availability shortly.

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What you get is a stereo headset with clip-on controller, spare ear foams, mini-jack adaptors to cope with the fact that some mobiles wire up their 4-pole mini-jacks differently, USB charging cable, and a black zip-up carrying case. As with most headsets, there is also a built-in microphone and answer button. By default they are iPhone-ready, but will work with pretty much any mobile or player with a standard 3.5mm mini-jack output.

The controller has a rechargeable battery, charged by a USB connection, and specified to last for 14 hours of playback. A switch on the controller enables ANC and lights a green LED to show that the battery is OK. The ear buds work without ANC as well, so if the battery gives out you still have music. In a quiet environment, you might also prefer not to use ANC in case it adds artefacts to the sound.

A button on the side of the controller marked Monitor has a dual purpose. Press it to mute the sound; or press and hold to change the ANC filter. There is no display, but the unit plays one, two or three beeps to indicate the selection:

General: 20dB cancellation across a wide frequency band

Aeroplane: Low frequency cancellation such as found in an aeroplane is emphasised.

Office: Speech frequency cancellation around 200Hz – 1kHz is emphasised

Other products in the range are the DS-101A (around £30.00) and the DS-321D (around £50). I do not have a price yet for the DS-421D itself but was told “Under £100”. The DS-101A does not have selectable filters or a call/answer button.

Sound quality

Enough of the technology, how is the sound? This is what counts, and I am impressed. The DS-421D headset sounds excellent even without ANC engaged. No amount of noise cancellation would make them good if they were poor to begin with, and I suspect this fundamental good design is actually more important than the clever processing.

I used a variety of ear-buds for comparison. My regular set are Shure SE210 noise-isolating (not cancelling) ear-buds which I find easily out-perform the ones that come free with smartphones and iPods. I was taken aback by how much better the 421D sounded. The biggest difference is in the bass extension, but the sound is also smoother but without loss of clarity. These are the first ear buds I have used where you do not feel you are compromising by not using over the ear headphones.

The noise cancelling works. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, these will not deliver “digital silence”, but they will substantially reduce the noise. It is a bit like shutting it behind a door. There is also a slight change in the quality of the sound, for the better in my opinion, being a little richer than before. I used the DS-421D on an aeroplane and on the London Underground and had worthwhile results in both cases. I could have the volume lower and still enjoy the music.

I also compared the DS-421D to a set of Sennheiser PXC 300 foldable noise-cancelling headphones. The PXC 300 was slightly more effective in killing background noise, but the reason I tend to leave these at home is that they are bulky and use two AAA batteries which give out if I forget to switch them off. The DS-421D is more convenient. As for sound quality, it is close and I might even give 421D the edge.

The DS-421D is mainly for music, but I found the headset functionality useful too. I used it for Skype on a Windows 8 tablet and it worked much better than using the built-in microphone.

Design

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The design of the DS-421D  is excellent in terms of technology, but I am not so sure about the ergonomics. The length of cable between the ear buds and the controller is short, so you cannot clip the controller to your belt. It must be on your collar or perhaps top pocket. You could leave it dangling, but it is heavy enough to be a nuisance if you do.

Visually, the design looks a bit geeky to me; not unattractive, but I can imagine the DS-421D losing out among the more fashion-conscious purchasers.

Conclusion

Regular traveller who likes music? I recommend you give these a try. Now you can have noise-cancellation and high quality sound and a small, light headset.

Technical addendum

Wolfson’s noise-cancelling system is called myZone ANC (Ambient Noise Cancellation) which the company says uses “feed-forward, rather than the usual feedback systems”.

What is that then? I hunted around and eventually found Wolfson’s white paper on the subject*. Here is an illustration of feedback versus feed-forward:

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The figure on the left is a feedback system where the microphone is placed between the loudspeaker and the ear. In the feed-forward system the microphone is external so that the external noise is detected, inverted and added to the input. An advantage is that this does not require a sealed enclosure around the ear.

The main problem with implementation is time-aligning the cancellation signal with the input signal. Wolfson’s solution:

By placing microphones at the rim of the headphone, the ambient noise signal can be acquired and driven to the loudspeaker in advance of its arrival at the eardrum, thus compensating for the intrinsic response time of the loudspeaker.

The illustration in the paper shows a ring array of 5 microphones around each headphone, but since the DS-421D is a small earbud I doubt it has such an array. There is only one visible microphone aperture. Still, this gives some indication of the technology used.

Wolfson did not invent feed-forward as far as I know, so its innovation is in the area of how to achieve accurate time-alignment of the cancellation signal.

*The paper is called Ambient Noise Cancellation for Headphones and Headsets. I cannot find a direct link, but if you go here and search for resources for the WM2002 you will find it.

Images from Mobile World Congress – Huawei’s SmartPhone horse, a Lego robot that collects trash

There are some striking artifacts at Mobile World Congress this year. One is Huawei’s winged horse which stands proudly above one of the fountains.

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It is made of smartphones, as this close up of a leg shows.

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Impressive, though it is an expensive way to make a statue and I cannot help being reminded of the anti-capitalist protestors at the gate. Perhaps these are factory rejects.

Another amusing piece is this Lego robot which collects trash and drops it in the bin.

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Unfortunately I cannot remember what this is promoting!

Ford Microsoft car makes an appearance at Mobile World Congress

At the Showstoppers event just before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona it was hard to miss the Ford car emblazoned with SYNC Ford Microsoft.

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So what is this all about? Apparently, the European launch of in-car computers that hook up to Ford’s cloud services. Cue all the jokes about “if your car ran Windows.”

You have to provide the connectivity, for example by docking your smartphone. You can then stream music with voice control, make calls again with voice control, or if you hear a funny noise, send a diagnostic report on your car to Ford or perhaps your dealer.

Why bother with an in-car computer running Windows embedded, when you could just dock a smartphone and let that do all the work? That was my question too, though there are integration benefits. Some details are being held back for an announcement tomorrow.

By the the way if you think the picture is rubbish, blames the Samsung Slate 7, which was used to create this entire post.

Nokia Drive on the Lumia: it works

Over the weekend I took the opportunity to try out Nokia Drive, a turn-by-turn navigation app which comes bundled in the Lumia 800 I have been testing. Well, it was not so much “took the opportunity” as “try anything”, since the Tom Tom the driver was relying on had lost its signal somewhere in the depths of rural England.

I fired up Nokia Drive, entered the destination, and was impressed. It picked up a signal, displayed a well-designed screen stating what was the next turn and how far away, showed our location and progress complete with the road name, and spoke out clear instructions in a voice that was less robotic than some.

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I was a passenger in this case; how does this work if you are the driver? It turns out that Nokia Drive disables the screen saver (which developers can do with a couple of lines of code – check out UserIdleDetectionMode) so it runs continuously. This is a battery drain, so for longer journeys you will need some sort of car kit; you can get by with just a bracket to hold the phone and a standard micro USB power supply.

For basic navigation this seems to me as good as a Tom Tom though there are a few things missing. You cannot calculate a route offline, it does not show time to destination, and it does not have speed camera warnings.

Nevertheless, a significant benefit for Nokia’s Windows Phone users.

Microsoft puts carriers before users in new Windows Phone update which you might not get

Microsoft has posted a new update for Windows Phone, update 7.10.8107.79. The list of fixes is here, not huge, but including one fix for an issue that has irritated many users:

On-screen keyboard. Fixes an issue to prevent the keyboard from disappearing during typing

But will you get the fix? The real news in Microsoft’s blog post announcing the release is this:

The update, available to all carriers that request it …

Microsoft is also discontinuing its Where’s My Phone update site:

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Why? Microsoft General Manager Eric Hautala is blaming growth in the number of model, country and carrier variations. That makes the site more work to keep up to date, but no less useful for users.

So what is going on? When Microsoft ditched Windows Mobile for Windows Phone, it sought to learn a lesson from Apple and to provide consistency in user experience, hardware and software. One important part of that is to control updates, so that users do not have to wait for carriers to authorise updates (or not to bother), but get them in a timely manner. This is a potentially a selling point against Android, where users have difficulty getting updates, especially on older devices.

In March last year, Hautala said:

There’s one more thing I want to clear up. I’ve seen a lot of speculation on blogs and forums lately about whether carriers can “block” an update. We work closely with carriers to test and schedule updates. They may ask us for a specific date to start an update. They may ask for updates to be bundled together. But you should ultimately receive all the updates we send out [emphasis mine].

Microsoft now seems to be back-tracking on this commitment, though we need clarification. It is possible that all devices will eventually get the fixes, though not necessarily in this release but in a future roll-up. Check the comments though: users fear the worst.

For background, I recommend you read my piece from February 2010, before the launch of Windows Phone, where Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Joe Belfiore and Andy Lees discuss the partner problem.

One further thought: if Microsoft is losing control over its partners, this represents an opportunity for specific partners to make the commitments that Microsoft is backing away from. How about it Nokia?

Update: Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore tweets:

ps – on updates, pls don’t overreact, our focus is on users first! As greg said “nothing has changed” in how we work w carriers on updates.

Greg is Greg Sullivan, Senior Product Manager on Windows Phone.

This still strikes me as a worrying development for users though. The disappearing keyboard bug is troublesome. How can a user find out when they will get the fix? “Ask your carrier” is all very well, but many find carriers unresponsive on this kind of issue.

An Apple iPad Christmas

The Apple iPad had a stunning Christmas – at least, it did in my part of the world.

A key factor was that EA Games decided to offer a range of classic board games adapted as iPad apps for 69p ($0.90)  each. So for less than the cost of a takeaway pizza I downloaded Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk.

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The games are not perfect – Scrabble accepts all sorts of odd words and US spellings, for example – but they are official licensed versions, nicely implemented, and a lot of nostalgic fun, which is the idea after all.

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Trivial Pursuit supports in-game purchases for extra questions, so that could work out more expensive eventually, but nobody could complain about the value.

It is not quite the full board game experience, with wine spilt on the pieces, junior tipping over the board in disgust, and game abandoned early because it is time to visit grandma, but the changes are mostly for the better.

One thought: this is another example of how well a tablet substitutes for physical things. A book, a board game, a photo album: the iPad is a better replacement than a PC or laptop, easily passed round, long battery life, no flapping screen, and a more natural user interface.

I am not sure what are the economics of selling games at 69p, but no doubt EA has drawn the graphs. Currently EA 69p games occupy four of the “Top Paid iPad Apps” category slots in the UK store.

Of course I am interested in the big picture. Looking at user reviews of Android equivalents like Monopoly I get the impression that there are more bugs, partly because EA has a dedicated iPad verson for these games whereas the Android versions are universal across multiple screen sizes, and partly because there are more OS versions and hardware differences to accommodate.

What about other tablets or new entrants to the market like Windows 8 in 2012? Prising users away from their Apple devices will not be easy, though I still think Microsoft has chances if it plays to its strengths in business applications.

What will it take to make Windows Phone a success?

Microsoft made a splash in New York City yesterday with a giant Windows Phone in Herald Square.

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The idea I guess was to show how each “Live tile” is a window into a feature of the device, with a special emphasis on “people” – the way Windows Phone aggregates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Windows Live and more into a single feed and tile.

This is the kind of stunt you get when a huge corporation with a lot of money to spend is trying to muscle its way into a market.

Is it enough? It does feel as if Microsoft has managed the re-launch of Windows Phone better than its first effort around a year ago – the first devices went on sale in October 2010. The operating system has been tweaked, the new devices are more imaginative, and partner support seems better. I actually saw some window displays for Windows Phone in my local small town though they were gone a few days later.

It still feels as if Microsoft is fighting an uphill battle. There is not much wrong with the phones now, but what is the killer feature that will sell it alongside Android and iPhone? Personally I like the SharePoint integration, but Microsoft is still primarily going after consumers rather than business users.

There is also the matter of the tiles. They work well, but look at the photo above: are they beautiful? Not really; and it is unfortunate in some ways that all the Windows Phones look like this.

That said, I enjoyed my few minutes with an HTC Titan; it has an exceptionally large display and a great camera but does not feel too bulky, and I can see it doing well if the marketing is right. Nokia’s Lumia 800 looks good too.

Microsoft came late into this market though, persevering with its old Windows Mobile for too long, and it is not going to be easy to catch up.

Kingston Wi-Drive extends iOS storage, but not hassle-free

I have been trying out the Kingston Wi-Drive, which expands the storage of an iOS device using a pocketable wireless solid-state drive.

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The unit is about the size of a mobile phone, but smoother and lighter, and available with capacity of 16GB or 32GB.

The drive comes with a minimalist instruction leaflet which tells you to charge it by attaching the USB cable to a PC or Mac, add content by accessing it as an external drive, and then when charged, download and run the free Wi-Drive app on your iPad or iPhone.

I got this working without too much trouble. I added a movie to the drive and was able to watch it on an iPad, which is handy given that there is no DVD drive, though if it was sourced from a DVD you have to work out how to rip the DVD to a file first. I also added some documents and pictures, and was able to view these on iOS without any issues.

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The app seems to be designed primarily for iPhone, which means it looks a little odd on an iPad, though it does run full-screen. There is a thumbnail view, for images, and for documents there is an option to open them in apps that understand the file format. For example, I could open a Word 2010 document in Pages.

So far so good; but I found some annoyances. The first is that when you connect to the Wi-Drive, you are no longer connected to the Internet unless you also have 3G. The solution is to go into the Wi-Drive settings and configure your normal wi-fi connection as a bridge. The leaflet does not mention this, but it is explained here.

The bridge did not work at first. I had to change my Netgear router so that it is WPA 2 only, rather than supporting both WPA and WPA 2. This is mentioned in the FAQ:

Wi-Drive’s bridge function supports a single security protocol only: WEP, WPA, or WPA2. These may also appear as WPA ONLY, WPA2 ONLY, etc. Wi-Drive does NOT support mixed mode.

I also configured security on the Wi-Drive wi-fi connection. By default, it is wide open to your neighbours; and if you have the bridge enabled, bypasses the security of your home wi-fi connection as well. On the other hand, the fact that up to three users can connect is a good thing if, for example, you wanted to share some files with friends or colleagues at a meeting.

If you are using the device on the road, in a cafe or airport for example, it would be difficult to connect to the internet as well as to the drive. If you are flying, the airline will probably not allow you to use the Wi-Drive.

Most annoying is that when the device is connected to a computer, the contents become inaccessible. Even connecting to a USB charger seems to be enough to disable it. When it is not connected to a computer, the battery starts running down; it only lasts 4 hours.

This means that you should not think of the Wi-Drive as permanently attached storage. Rather, think of it as something you can switch on when needed.

Poking around on the drive, I noticed that it has the Apache web server installed. When the bridge is operating, you can browse to the device from a web browser on your computer and access the contents or change the settings.

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This is a handy device; but it could be better. I would like to see a memory card slot – and Kingston would benefit as it sells memory cards – as well as a longer battery life. Kingston also needs to fix it so you can use it on iOS while it is connected to a computer and charging. The Wi-Drive app could do with a bit more polish too, particularly the iPad version.

As it is, the Wi-Drive is great if it exactly fits your need, but make sure you can live with it before parting with your money.

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