ExoDrive Brings SD Card Support to Everyone
Today we saw the beginning of an interesting future product aimed at solving a substantial smartphone woe.
One of the biggest problems that the modern smartphone suffers is the lack of storage. While our files keep getting bigger, our storage hasn’t really grown all that much in the past few years. Sure, you’ve got plenty of cloud services around, but being dependant on having a connection, be it wi-fi or mobile, can hurt the use-cases of many users. With smartphones and tablets being further integrated into our lives – and specially our work lives – the mere probability of being left without access to an important part of our work, research, textbooks, projects, media or whatever we need when we need it should be a focus of every manufacturer and service provider.
This is reflected in the desire of users for increasingly stable and dependable operating systems. Security breaches, sudden-deaths or even minor annoyances like stutters or crashes are now a primary concern for serious consumers. You see it on the application stores’ comments and reviews, you see it on forums, on the usual boycott against a service or manufacturer… And at the core of a good software experience lies data: our files, independent of where they are stored.
But internet connections haven’t reached the point where they are available to everyone, at all times. And with the restrictions of the typical carrier, mobile internet really doesn’t cut it. Internal storage remains a fundamental part of the Android user experience. But the problem is that many phones are very limited in capacity, with some flagships still offering a 16GB entry version. Even Google’s own flagship tablet, the Nexus 9, comes with 16GB of storage… a tablet, the electronics entirely designed around consuming media that once again get bigger and heavier.
Another problem is that many manufacturers are moving away from external micro SD support, which nowadays can typically add up to 128GB of storage for a few dollars. That’s 8 times the storage capacity of the entry Nexus 9. The best part about SD cards is that they are very easily transportable and interchangeable. But fewer flagships see them, specially Google’s Nexus line-up, as Google even limited micro SD support in KitKat and for a time killed much of the benefits of such an offering. In Android’s earlier days, external SD cards were needed because some phones came with as little as 2GB of storage, and that simply wasn’t enough. Now our screens have 12 times the amount of pixels of those now-ancient days, and our file-sizes scaled accordingly. Wouldn’t it make sense to have more than 16GB at this point, by this metric alone?
And now, we see ExoDrive.
What is it?
ExoDrive is a smartphone case that allows you to plug in a micro SD card to phones like the Nexus 5, which don’t feature the ability, and grant you access to the additional storage. In essence, it is that. Sounds simple, and sounds useful, right? Well, it is!
While it is sad that we’ve gotten to the point where we need third-party solutions like this to alleviate the impact of the backwards evolution of smartphone storage, this brings a practical solution to the problem. Before, you had the ability to use Android’s USB On The Go (OTG) capabilities to plug in external drives though the USB OTG cable. This worked fine for many users, but the problem was that it was a very bulky and clunky system, as to access your files you need the cable plugged into your phone and drive at the same time… hardly something that would fit in your pocket all at once.
The additional functionality is simple: you plug in a micro SD card, and your device reads it as an OTG USB drive, allowing you to move files across your phone and external storage much like you would with native micro SD card support. However, the device goes beyond just that, and features a “switching-hub” system that makes it so that your computer, when plugged into the micro USB port of the case, can detect both your smartphone’s storage as well as your micro SD. Just as if you had real external storage support.
As far as battery drain goes, the developers claim that it is very optimized towards not draining any more than it should drain. The switching-hub is only active and draining when you plug your phone into a computer, too. And if you want, you can disable the functionality of the case altogether when not in use.
What’s the catch?
If we leave scepticism aside and trust the possible good will of the developers, there will be little to worry about. While they have yet to provide substantial evidence to their claims or documentation of the actual workings of their system, they seem to have a working product. They have supposedly been working on it for almost two years, in their Australia-based company.
So far, they’ve shown 3D-printed prototypes that are meant to be taken as just that. They claim that the rough edges or general untidiness of the prototype are issues to be addressed when funding is complete, and mass production will be done with the more professional injection moulding of plastic components. They only have a design blueprint for the Nexus 5, which will allegedly be expanded upon once they finish their funding.
But there are obvious complications and it doesn’t take a genius to spot them. The most notable problem this concept would face is the wearing out or breaking of the micro USB port found in your smartphone. With the cable plugged in and tightly attached by the case’s pressure, any drop or heavy tumble could be fatal to the integrity of the port. Loose or broken charging ports are one of the most common problems with all smartphones, and having a case that actively increases the probability of it happening even further doesn’t sound like something really enticing. The developers claim that they will provide extra protection to your phone, but given they have shown us no real documentation, evidence or track-record, and given how this is a big flaw in the concept, I remain sceptical.
I want more storage
While this Kickstarter could be a great way of getting extra storage, we still don’t know how long it’ll be until it is ready for mass production and shipping to your house. And realistically, the outrage of consumers against the storage options provided and their according pricing schemes is growing and growing.
Reiterating on what was already said, 16GB just isn’t enough. Especially on manufacturer skins like TouchWiz which can take a solid 66% of that. Then you’ve got megapixel counts rising, resolutions being bumped for video recording and media consumption, ART runtime increasing the size for every application to pre-compile it, and games becoming bigger and bigger. There’s just no way you’ll fit all of that in the bit of space left after accounting for all the bloat or system resources that come pre-installed in the flash storage.
Android enthusiasts are gathering up and trying to change this, and journalism is doing its part in promoting this progression in paradigms. While it could be said that Google wanted the cloud services – like its own Drive – to replace physical hard-drives, and thus moved away from these practices, it is clear consumers don’t want that just yet as it is inconvenient and unreliable.
Can ExoDrive deliver?
I really am not sure. But it is always nice to see little start-ups offer solutions to problems we have that the people offering us their faulty services refuse to improve upon or even acknowledge. The fact that crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter allow for a democratization of the industry – where the investments are based directly on consumer need and vote and not plans for profit maximization – is one of the great things that came from the internet in recent years, and it serves as tool to shatter the barriers of monopolization that hold back entrepreneurs from providing us their dreams and ideas in a physical form factor.
While ExoDrive does look relatively unpolished, and its presentation leaves a lot to be desired, the concept is a neat work-around of a major consumer concern. And if this doesn’t pick up, a company with more experience or capital might pick its place. In the end, the existence of these projects benefit consumers either directly (we get ExoDrive) or indirectly (wake-up call to OEMs telling them that we want more storage and if they don’t give it to us someone else will).
Let’s hope that in the future we won’t need battery cases, storage cases, or whatever add-on we are forced to come up with due to the constraints in our devices. Maybe our voices will be heard and we’ll get our external SD cards back on every phone, or at least bigger (and not significantly pricier) internal drives.
You can find ExoDrive on Kickstarter.