Instant-syncing between devices is the new norm. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all promise us a world where our files can exist simultaneously on our phones, our tablets, on the cloud, and on our primary computers.
While photo syncing is often easy to set up, the experience isn’t always seamless for larger files like documents and long videos. We still have to occasionally resort to workarounds like sending a file to Dropbox, then switching machines and downloading it. Or, heaven forbid, emailing files to ourselves.
Physical transfer devices are still necessary sometimes, and they’re handy. For some time now, Android users have had access to physical solutions like dual-USB flash drives—small, dongle-like devices with both a standard USB connector for your computer and a micro-USB port for your mobile. They let you load up files onto the flash drive from your computer, then plug the drive into your Android phone and transfer the files over.
Since these devices use micro-USB, iPhone and iPad users were left out in the cold until just recently. Now, at least three companies offer flash drives equipped with iOS-friendly Lightning connectors.
We looked at three of these new dual-standard USB flash drives from Leef, SanDisk, and Hyper. Each are offered in various capacities between 8GB and 128GB. Each requires its own companion app from the App Store to get full mobile functionality—without the apps, they act like conventional USB flash drives.
Because the three products all work the same way, I was able to judge each one by the same criteria: price, the ease of use afforded by the physical design of the hardware, and the versatility and quality of the iOS apps. I also found that a couple of the devices offered more features than I expected. Here are the results.
The half-ounce Leef iBridge ($60-$400, 16GB-128GB, RATING:8) is U-shaped. One end is short and has a Lightning connector that slips easily into iPhones and iPads, even ones with thick, protective cases. The other end is longer and terminates with a USB 2.0 plug. Both of these connectors are exposed, and the device comes with a connector cover that transforms the little hook-shaped thing into something resembling a carabiner.
The iBridge iOS app launches automatically when the Lightning connector is inserted to your mobile. The app’s interface has a handful of intuitively titled functions separated into three sections: Transfer Files, Content Viewer, and iBridge Camera. The last one lets you take photos which are then saved directly to the iBridge’s memory, bypassing storage on the iOS device. This feature is unique to the iBridge, and not found in the other apps I tested. It’s handy, but not built for spontaneity since you need to have the iBridge attached and you must proactively open its app to access this camera function.
The iBridge will, on command, back up your camera roll and move files off your iOS phone or tablet. And you can do the reverse, loading files—videos, photos, music, or docs from your computer—onto your mobile. The iBridge doesn’t have a function for backing up your contacts, something that was found on the other two devices I tested.
You can also just keep your media stored on the iBridge and view it on your phone or tablet. I loaded the iBridge with some videos and played them without a hiccup. Any video, audio or document format supported by the iPhone or iPad can be played from the iBridge. The drive does drain a little bit of power from the mobile device, but only when the drive is in use. So you can leave it plugged in if you want. And when it’s plugged in, it curves neatly around the back of the device where it stays out of the way.
The SanDisk iXpand ($60-$200, 16GB-128GB. RATING: 7) is a one-ounce, handsomely designed device about the size of a Tic Tac box. It comes with a clear plastic cap to cover the USB connector, something that’s too easily misplaced. The Lightning connector is on the top, unfortunately attached to an inch-long stiff cable that just bends slightly upwards. This makes attaching it to an iPhone and iPad awkward at best.
Unlike the iBridge, the iXpand is armed with a rechargeable 3.7v lithium-ion battery inside, which recharges automatically when the iXpand is inserted into the computer’s USB port. A small LED on the unit’s side indicates battery strength, and it lights up when syncing or streaming is in progress. The benefit of the drive’s battery is that no juice is sucked out of the phone or tablet.
The iXpand Sync app loads as soon as the drive is inserted in the lightning port. The app has a drop-down menu that also includes handy icons showing remaining battery life, and remaining space on both the iOS device and the drive. The “Camera Sync” function swiftly copies all your iPhone’s photos to the iXpand drive. It’s intelligent enough to copy over only the shots taken since the last sync. You then have the option to delete the images on the phone to free up more storage memory. There’s also an option to backup your contacts, which are saved in the vcard format. With a little fuss, vcard files can be imported into your computer’s address book program.
Playing videos and music stored on the flash drive worked seamlessly. The files played as perfectly as the ones already saved on the mobile. Any file format for videos, music, images, and documents native to iOS open instantly directly from the drive. Transferring files in either direction requires just a few taps to select the file(s) and the intended new location. A built-in encryption tool, SanDisk SecureAccess lets you password-protect files on the drive. The encrypted files can be transferred to a Mac or PC, but viewing them requires the free SanDisk app, where the files are decrypted.
Bottom line on this one: Even though the iXpand’s Lightning cable is a tad clumsy to use, its intelligent software more than compensates for its external shortcomings.
Hyper iStick Pro
The black or white plastic hardware of Sanho Corporation’s Hyper iStick Pro ($80-$350, 8GB-128GB RATING: 5) surpasses the other dual-device flash drives in the simplicity of its design and use. The one-and-a-half-inch case has a slider button on top. Depending on which way you push it, the USB or lightning connector pops out from either end. But like the proverbial cow that kicks over the good pail of milk, the iStick’s thick body makes it nearly impossible to insert the Lightning plug into iPhones and iPads with thick cases.
The iStick handles the same functions as the other flash drives—backing up contacts, transferring photos, and moving files in either direction. But it’s hobbled by perfunctory software. The basic file transfer process initially requires some confusing trial and error. Backed-up contacts are saved in a proprietary format which cannot be read if transferred to your computer. Restoration is accomplished only with the iStick app. Incremental additions or deletions of contacts are not supported; instead, duplicate full backups are created. When transferring photos, the thumbnails on the iStick are identified only with generic alphanumeric names, not images, which subtracts any efficiency.
At least streaming media from the iStick is flawless. Like the other drives, the iStick handles any video, audio, image or document format iOS can handle. In fact, streaming is the easiest, most intuitive function of the iStick. However, be warned: as long as the iStick is connected to your iPhone or iPad, it is drawing on the mobile device’s battery power, no matter if the drive is in use or not.
Sanho’s iStick is the U.S. licensed version of the Gmobi iStick from the Taiwanese PQI Group. Support for the software is redirected to the China-based Gopod Group. Actually getting any support other than a user manual download is an exercise in frustration. This product is an example of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
The convenient iBridge Camera function alone sends the Leef iBridge to the head of the class. The accompanying iOS app has a short learning curve, and the hardware is well-engineered. Competitively priced and featuring an excellent out-of-the-box experience, this the best dual flash drive of the lot.