September 16, 2013, 4:47 PM — When you've burned through the available storage on your smartphone, tablet or laptop, you have two basic options: Delete old stuff to make room for new, or upgrade to a new device that offers more space. The former is a hassle; the latter, expensive.
Consider a third option: The wireless media hub. These compact devices let you add your own storage in the form of SD cards and USB drives, thus affording you lots of extra space for your documents and media. In this roundup, I review three of these useful products: the Apotop Wi-Copy, the Iogear MediaShair Hub and the Kingston MobileLite Wireless.
(Computerworld's Lucas Mearian recently looked at two similar devices from SanDisk: the Connect Wireless Flash Drive and the Connect Wireless Media Drive.)
For mobile workers, hubs make it possible to stream movies, music, photos, slide decks and more to a storage-strapped smartphone or tablet. They also allow you to upload memory-hogging photos and videos to higher-capacity memory cards and drives, thus freeing up space on your phone or tablet. And as an added bonus, these three hubs double as mobile chargers, providing supplemental power at the same time they're supplementing your storage. Two of them can function as mobile routers, too.
If you're merely looking for added storage for your laptop, check out my recent roundup of 7 mobile hard drives. However, the USB-powered models are for laptops only, so they won't help your overstuffed phone or tablet. And except for a couple of drives with built-in Wi-Fi -- the Corsair Voyager Air and the Patriot Aero -- they can be used with only one device at a time. The hubs reviewed here let you connect multiple devices simultaneously.
Indeed, a hub serves as its own Wi-Fi access point of sorts. You connect your phone, tablet, or laptop to it the same way you'd connect to any wireless hotspot. The hub's app -- all three support iOS and Android -- not only allows you to access your stored files, but redirects your device to the main Wi-Fi network so you can continue getting Internet access. Some hubs are better at this than others.
I tested the hubs with my iPhone 4S and a rooted Kindle Fire tablet running Android 4.2. For media I used several generic SD cards and USB flash drives, along with a Seagate Slim portable hard drive.
Carry Technology's Apotop Wi-Copy is an ambitious product marred by mediocre apps. The matte-black drive, which closely resembles an old-fashioned memory-card reader, not only slings data from SD cards and USB drives, but also recharges your mobile devices and serves as a Wi-Fi extender.
The 3.6-x-2.9-x-0.9-in. device is the heaviest of the three hubs -- although at 5.6 oz., that doesn't make that much of a difference. A sliding switch toggles the Wi-Copy between off, charge and Wi-Fi modes, this last allowing you to connect it to Android and iOS smartphones and tablets.
Stocked with a 5,200mAh battery, the Wi-Copy can run for 14 hours -- nearly three times as long as Kingston's hub and 50% longer than Iogear's. (But if you forget to turn it off, tough luck: There's no auto-off feature to preserve the battery after a period of inactivity, as I discovered the hard way.)
And like those units, it can deliver power via its 2A USB port, a great way recharge your gizmos (tablets included) on the go. You can also plug in an Ethernet cable and turn the Wi-Copy into a mobile wireless router -- handy for hotel rooms that lack Wi-Fi.
Although every feature I tried worked as advertised, the Wi-Copy app (which is what enables media streaming and file management) suffers from some issues.
First and foremost, there's no simple pass-through option -- no way to reconnect to a Wi-Fi network after you've connected your phone or tablet to the Wi-Copy. It's possible, but only by venturing into the browser on your mobile device and manually accessing settings that should be available within the app. And this confusingly named "Wi-Fi Repeater" mode is described only in the full manual, which is available only online, not in the included quick-start guide.
The Wi-Copy app lacks a search option, and it's terrible at streaming music. You can choose individual songs to play, but not playlists or even just folders. There's no shuffle option, and on my iPhone I couldn't get the next-track function to work. What's more, although I had an easy time offloading photos from my Camera Roll to an SD card, all of them revealed upside-down thumbnails when I viewed them in the Wi-Copy app.
Another nit: SD cards are left protruding way out from the front of the Wi-Copy, instead of tucking all the way in like they do on the Iogear and Kingston drives.
With its big battery and impressive feature set, the Wi-Copy deserves consideration. But Carry Technology definitely needs to improve its apps before it earns a full recommendation.
The 4-oz. MediaShair looks like a miniature router, an apt description because it doubles as a mobile access point. And, like the other two hubs in this roundup, it triples as a mobile charger. But Iogear's device, which measures 2.8 x 3.7 x 0.6 in., has the best design of the three, from its beautiful glossy white finish to its large LED icons that clearly indicate battery, Wi-Fi, Internet and SD status. Amazingly, it's also the most compact of the hubs, even if it does weigh a fraction more than Kingston's MobileLite Wireless.
Iogear promises up to nine hours of operation from the MediaShair's 2600mAh battery. You can also plug your smartphone or other device into the hub's USB port for charging -- which would also inevitably shorten the MediaShair's own battery life. (Iogear conveniently supplies a cigarette-lighter adapter for recharging the hub itself in your car.)
There's also an Ethernet port; plug in a LAN connector and you can turn the MediaShair into an access point, just like the Carry Apotop Wi-Copy. That's a great perk for travelers who spend a lot of time in hotels. And if you routinely travel with others, you'll appreciate the hub's support for up to seven simultaneous connections.
The Iogear mobile apps (available for Android and iOS) rival Kingston's, at least in terms of versatility. Though a little clunky-looking, with a slight learning curve for navigation, they include ample tools for sorting, searching, viewing and managing files. However, the music player lacks a play-all option, and a couple of the video files that played properly on the MobileLite and Wi-Copy failed to load here, or played with occasional pauses. But documents of all stripe (PDF, PowerPoint, etc.) popped up just fine.
The MediaShair Hub offers a near-perfect blend of good looks, smart design and useful features. It's the standout in this group.
Price: $59.99 (retail)
Although it's the lightest media hub in the group, Kingston's 3.5-oz. MobileLite Wireless is, at 4.9 x 2.3 x 0.7 in., also the longest, consuming roughly an inch more space in your travel bag than the Apotop and Iogear models. That's hardly a deal-breaker, but the MobileLite's capabilities don't quite match up with its generous dimensions.
Indeed, although it packs a rechargeable battery that's good for up to five hours of operation, it contains an 1800mAh cell -- the smallest in the group. You can top off mobile devices by plugging them into the MobileLite's USB port, but there's simply not a lot of extra juice. The other two hubs offer at least 50% more.
The other hubs also support USB hard drives; the MobileLite is limited to USB flash drives and SD cards. Plus, there's no Ethernet port, meaning no router/access-point functions. The good news is that if you don't need those options, your wallet will thank you: Kingston's hub is the bargain to beat at $59.99.
And it's arguably the best device at managing mobile media. Kingston's companion apps run on Android and iOS, with an easy-to-enable pass-through feature, an excellent music player, photo sharing to Facebook and Twitter and support for up to three simultaneous connections. You can even access DRM-protected iTunes purchases, though the iOS app doesn't support this directly; you have to connect to the drive via your Safari browser.
It's disappointing that the MobileLite doesn't support USB hard drives, because that's a fairly major limitation. Its lack of Ethernet/access-point capabilities keeps it behind the competition as well. But if all you need is an inexpensive mobile-storage unit, this one makes a fine travel companion.
If you need more storage for the road, whether for streaming media to your mobile devices or clearing out photos and videos to make extra space, a wireless media hub will definitely do the trick. And don't overlook the benefits of mobile charging, a perk offered by all three hubs, and Wi-Fi access points, offered by two of them.
Kingston's MobileLite Wireless is the most affordable, but also the most limited. Carry's Apotop Wi-Copy offers all the desirable media-hub features, but also has the highest price and least appealing apps.
The winner, then, is Iogear's MediaShair Hub, a compact, attractive, versatile device that rivals Kingston's apps and Carry's capabilities. It's an excellent option for endowing your mobile devices with more storage, while at the same time bolstering their batteries and sharing Ethernet connectivity.
Rick Broida has written about technology for nearly 25 years. He pens the popular Cheapskate blog and writes for Computerworld, PC World, Popular Science and Wired.
This article, 3 wireless media hubs: Extra storage for mobile devices, was originally published at Computerworld.com.