In the age of the smartphone, it's becoming less important to be near a Mac or PC to get work done. But if you're a serious photographer or videographer, you still need a hard drive to back up your copious amounts of data. Western Digital's My Passport Wireless gives you that drive without requiring a computer. Not only does it ditch the cords, it's got a built-in SD card slot that can automatically offload your work.
Many photographers will empathize with me when I say that it seems like I never have enough cards. No matter how much extra storage I bring along, I'm always saddled by the worry that I'll run out of space. With the MyPassport Wireless, you can pop in a card and the drive will automatically copy the full contents into its own folder. This is all completely wireless, thanks to the drive's rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The drive comes with either 1 terabyte of space for $180 or 2 terabytes for $230. That's a pretty huge premium over the normal MyPassport prices ($85 for 1 TB, $150 for 2 TB), so this isn't the drive to buy for general storage. You have to really want the SD card slot and/or the wireless capability.
It's also nothing new for external hard drives to allow access to their contents via Wi-Fi. The Seagate Satellite and the Corsair Voyager are just two examples of drives that you can connect to an app to stream content or download files. The MyPassport Wireless offers the same connectivity for things like streaming videos to your iPad at home or in a hotel room, or accessing a huge photo library from your phone. But the feature that no other drive maker provides is a built-in SD card slot. It's why I got so excited about the device, and jumped at the chance to review it.
As a desktop accessory, the drive isn't unlike most modern externals. It's about double the thickness of a regular USB powered My Passport drive, but is surprisingly light. I didn't notice its presence on my half-cluttered desktop most of the time. It's a simple design, made of plastic and adorned only with two LED indicator lights, a USB 3.0 port, and two buttons on the side for powering up the device and one for enabling WPS mode. Simplicity is nice, but this drive could benefit from a more fleshed-out interface. It's hard to remember what all the variations of colors and blinks indicate, and when you are dealing with data being transferred without a computer connected to see the progress, you want to be absolutely sure that you know what's going on. I usually didn't, and it can be a bit worrying.
The MyPassport Wireless definitely isn't a rugged device. I was a little hesitant to throw it in the roomy top section of my LowePro camera bag without something keeping it snug. Most drives are this way, but I use the LaCie Rugged drives a lot, which give me a bit more peace of mind.
Booting up the drive wirelessly is done with a press of the rear button. The thing takes quite a while to come to life—about 40 seconds to boot up. That's a whopper of a dull moment waiting for your data to be accessible. Imagine doing that in a pinch when you run out of card space and are frantically trying to back it up so you can continue working. It gives me the chills. Once it's up and running, you can use it as you will; connect it via USB just like any other drive, browse its contents wirelessly via the WD MyCloud app for iOS or Android, or pop in an SD card to back up its contents.
So, how well does that marquee SD card offload feature work? In theory, the process is easy. Pop in your card, wait a couple of seconds, and a blinking LED lets you know the data is being copied. Once it's done blinking, you can safely pop out your card. Next time you connect your drive via USB or browse it over Wi-Fi, you will see a folder called "SD Card Imports" which contains the complete contents of each card you copied.
The big problem with this in practice is that copying stuff from the SD slot takes absolutely forever. Like, insane amounts of time—more time than any card reader should take to transfer files. At times, I gave up on waiting for the blinking to stop before removing the SD card in frustration. UPDATE: I ran a quick test at our readers' request. Transferring 2.36 GB of data took 6 minutes. The same data transferred to my iMac via USB 3.0 took 30 seconds.
Western Digital has acknowledged that copying from the SD card does take longer than it would like, but claims there is a reason for that. The drive isn't simply copying and pasting the data from your card. To make absolutely sure that the data is safe and intact throughout the process, the drive performs additional tasks that verify that the transfer is going smoothly, which slow things down to a snail's pace. It's great to know that Western Digital is concerned with protecting your data. Unfortunately, it completely hampers the drive's usability.
Another really annoying thing is that the card reader isn't usable while the drive is connected via the USB port. When I wasn't on the go with the MyPassport, it was connected to my computer where I just wanted to use it as a normal SD card reader. Nope. Can't do it. You also can't offload an SD card like you can when the drive is disconnected from USB.
Using the drive's wireless file browsing is fairly easy. The WD MyCloud app is simple to navigate once you get your device connected. It's still a nuisance having to connect to the drive's Wi-Fi network every time you want to use it, but that's just the reality with many Wi-Fi devices these days. Browsing files is speedy if you're mostly storing smaller folders of JPG photos or MP3s. But if you're accessing larger files like video or RAW photos, expect to wait a few moments before the app is able to populate whatever folder you are in. I loaded up the drive with a 500GB photo library mostly composed of RAW images, and it wasn't fun going from folder to folder. Once you can see all your files, you can download them to your device, view photos in full res, delete or move them around.
The MyPassport's battery is not a strong point. It lasted about 4-5 hours of constant use, meaning a mix of viewing files on a mobile device and streaming video. In standby, it will stay on for quite a bit longer, about a full day. Honestly though, I don't think it's practical to expect a device like this to last super long, and I don't think the most common use-cases involve extended wireless use.
I should also note that I had some problems with the first drive that WD sent me. At times, the drive refused to mount on OS X, and had to format it a number of times. They sent me a new unit which worked fine, and user reviews are generally positive so far, so I can't really say whether it's a widespread problem or an isolated one.
Being able to wirelessly back up my photos from SD without lugging around a computer is a fantastic idea. The MyPassport is slick looking and fairly compact. The iOS app is easy to navigate and operate.
Transferring data from the card slot takes ridiculous amounts of time that no human should ever have to endure. The drive's operations, as indicated by colored lights, are confusing to interpret. Battery life is so-so.
Should You Buy It
Probably not. In the end, I never got comfortable using the MyPassport Wireless as a dependable way to offload SD card data wirelessly. Copying from the SD card took too damn long, and there were just too many vague signals coming from the device that left me worried about whether the drive was actually doing the job. Sometimes I would even get light patterns that weren't listed in the user manual! Is it still copying? Is it done? I HAVE NO IDEA. That's not what I want to be thinking about when it comes to my precious photos (or other data). The promise of being able to backup SD cards on the fly with no additional equipment is alluring, but WD will need to take a better stab at the idea before I'll want to buy one.