As one of the many hapless individuals stuck with a small-capacity iPhone, I’m always on the lookout for ways to extend its size and usefulness. Complicating this process is the fact that I’m hopelessly addicted to information. I crave it day and night, especially in audiobook and podcast form. So you can imagine my chagrin at being stuck with an 8GB iPhone.
I’ve been tied into the Apple ecosystem for a long time, often as an early adopter. Within relatively short order I’ve sported a first-gen iPod Nano and Touch, as well as a first-gen iPad purchased within a month of them coming on the market (my luck extends only so far, though, as I’ve never had the scratch for a Mac). The overwhelming majority of my music came straight through iTunes. I slogged through edu institution podcasts before iTunes U was a thing and then raided iTunes U on a weekly basis once it was. So, yeah. The platform works for me.
I spent years with Android phones, though. Didn’t have the money for an iPhone for a long time (I stuck primarily to prepaid carriers and would’ve had to shell out $600 up front for one). So for a long time I carried my Android phone and my 32GB second-gen iPod Touch.
Life got even better for a while. I worked a good job, made good money and decided to take the plunge back into wireless contracts so I could grab an iPhone; my first, a 5C 16GB “free” on contract. I immediately found the size constraining but made do for months on end shuffling things around and keeping a minimum of apps on the phone.
Life got worse. In December I lost my job of ten years and found it necessary to, embarrassingly enough, jump on my father’s wireless plan. But not to fear! We could get iPhones.
I ended up with a 5C, 8GB. I’ll spare you the details and just emphasize here that there is no way this device can meet my demands. Which is not its fault; and I’m not really complaining here. I’m damn happy to have a phone at all. But realities being what they are, I had to find a way around all this crap that didn’t involve carrying around 2-3 devices.
The SanDisk Connect Wireless Flash Drive entered my consciousness early this year with vague promises to cure my phone storage woes. “Stream music and videos straight from the device! Use on the go without a network around! Augment your phone or tablet with up to 64GB of extra storage!” And yes. I should’ve known better. But this seemed like a tailor-made answer to many of my problems. For some it was.
The Connect comes in two models: a 32GB model or 64GB model. Really, they’re USB/wireless chassis for Micro SD cards, but with an important distinction: the 32 only supports FAT32 formatting (you’ll see why this is a problem in a minute). The Connect also sports two modes: one where it broadcasts its own wifi network and you connect directly, or another mode in which you set it up to connect to a nearby wifi network so that you can maintain your mobile device’s connection to the internet while still accessing the Connect. The two different modes and the multiple connections they can service simultaneously are pretty neat.
Problems appeared as soon as I began to set the device up. The first? The Sandisk Connect’s default mode of operation is to broadcast an unprotected wireless network through which you must connect, via a mobile app, to set the device up. There is no way to set up the drive through a physical connection, no attempt at a unique generated key printed on the device or even a default password. Just an open wifi network until you work your way through the setup and reboot the damn thing into broadcasting a password-protected network instead.
The second problem is the app. Apps are available on iOS and Android, and both appear to be relatively buggy. The iOS app was worse, often inexplicably losing connection to the drive in either direct or indirect mode. This occurred over two different iPhone 5Cs, an iPad Mini, a Nexus 7 and a prepaid Android 4.4 phone whose make and model I’m forgetting at the moment. But was much more pronounced on iOS. The iOS app occasionally crashed or failed to see any drives, or simply failed to navigate or load folders on the drives. Manually killing and restarting the app often fixed these problems, but that’s no real fix at all.
The third problem hit me where it hurts. As stated above, these are simply chassis for Micro SD cards, so I grabbed a SanDisk 64GB microsd and put it into the lesser M model. No dice: it wasn’t formatted FAT32. So I format the card, through a whole lot of data on and everything’s going swimmingly. I now have *two* 64GB Connect drives. Wanting to see how one of SanDisk’s major selling points worked, photo transfers from phones, I began the (relatively easy) process of uploading saved iOS photos to the drive Connect. Here’s the problem: formatting microsd cards over 32GB as FAT32 can lead to data problems. So when I tried to download the photos *from* the Connect, I began getting significant errors. I was able to salvage 20 out of 132 transferred pictures. Admittedly I was pushing the boundaries of the lesser model, but if one push merits unrecoverable data…
The fourth problem occurred when I engaged with the music/audio functions of the Connect. On iOS this requires playing through the Connect app rather than the native Music app. I often go to sleep listening to audiobooks of books I’ve previously read so I set my iPhone up to stream one off the Connect, locked the screen and laid back. Some time later silence prematurely descended and I realized the book had stopped. Perplexed, I checked my iPhone and realized that the wireless connection had quit and the Connect app only played until the end of the cached file rather than continuing to the next track. Confirmed in a conversation with a SanDisk rep the next morning: once you lock the device it will only play until the end of the file. Streaming is not maintained despite a number of apps (think Pandora or other radio) having figured this out long ago.
SanDisk has known about this problem for several years, as the message board postings I’ve seen go back that far. And apparently have no plans to fix it.
So, okay. I can download whatever book I want to listen to that night *into* the Connect app on my phone instead. It’ll take up room and is a little more cumbersome but it means one less device (an audiobook-heavy one) to lug around. This worked only passingly because the SanDisk Connect app is the most spartan app I’ve seen since “Yo.” You can download files to your phone or tablet, even create folders and subfolders. But you can’t arrange tracks or set up playlists at all. The files are simply *there.* And given that more than a few times the app arranged tracks in an odd order, that meant that multi-track listening was out unless the order was inherently correct OR I just wanted to listen on shuffle. There’s no way to port tracks to the native iOS Music app from Connect, so you’re stuck dealing with their simple no-frills player and half-cocked file organization structure.
Not surprisingly, Android did not have this problem. Once you’ve downloaded an audio file into the Connect app from the wireless drive, Android indexes it and automatically adds it to the native Android music app. This approaches pretty passable functionality and had my experience only been on Android it would be much more glowing.
Where the Connect did help significantly was my podcast habit. I’m subscribed to about forty podcasts at this point and try to listen to at least one or two a day. An 8GB iPhone interferes mightily with that as I regularly have less than 1GB of space left at any given moment. What I’ve found is that I can download all my podcasts via iTunes on my PC and simply transfer the Podcasts folder to the Connect. From there I download a few a day directly to the phone and play through the (ugh) SanDisk app. But the workflow does make the process simpler.
Management of other file types felt surprisingly better. Grabbing a PDF from the Connect and opening it in any app of my choice worked well, as did ebooks, word processing files and comic book files. I could throw my digital/non-DRM comic book collection on the Connect in its entirety and while on the go decide to read any of them within about a minute.
You can access it by way of computers, too. Unfortunately SanDisk has failed to provide any kind of app to support the Connect for computers so you’re stuck accessing it through a slightly convoluted web browser mode that only allows you to browse the drive and download. No uploading at all. Which seems…pretty shortsighted.
I had such high hopes for the SanDisk Connect Wireless USB Drive. It could have supercharged my iPhone like nothing else I’ve found, in so many ways. But after engaging with it deeply, dealing with streaming and playback issues, app and wireless flakyness and even some inherent limitations of iOS I find it to be seriously hampered.
If it worked on iOS like it worked on Android: B
If streaming worked like the marketing suggested: a goddamn A
Half a grade taken off for:
-iOS being hampered but that not acknowledged in the least in marketing material
-Inability to do much wirelessly from PC
-Broadcasting unprotected by default!
Full grade taken off for:
-No background streaming
-The lack of thought, design and operability in the mobile apps
-SanDisk’s lackluster response to the streaming issue
Full grade GIVEN for:
-how easy it makes my podcast habit, given the storage-handicapped iPhone
-Good for dealing with non-audio/video files such as PDFs, digital comics
Which leaves what could have been a remarkable, beautiful device like the SanDisk Wireless Connect USB drive with a grade of: D.
I know I expect a lot. And I push things harder than they’re meant. But I expect a hell of a lot more than that, SanDisk.