Return to Digital Photography Articles
Review: Kanguru Slim FC-RW
Portable card-reader CD-ROM burner for digital photographers. Also doubles as a DVD player, MP3 player, and photo viewer.
In my quest for the perfect set of digital photography gear for those who travel, I have spent considerable time thinking about what gear might address our special needs. Besides losing all photos, it is clear that one of the worst situations a digital photographer might face on the road is one that prevents him or her from shooting. Battery life, storage and redundancy are important issues to solve. The adventurous digital photographer who spends significant time in remote regions, away from electricity, faces a difficult situation: what to do once the memory cards are full?
Kanguru has two products in their line-up which help address these issues: a portable card-reading hard drive (Kanguru Media X-Change 2.0) and a portable card-reading CD-ROM burner (Kanguru Slim FC-RW). This review will focus on the second of these, the portable CD-ROM burner.
Kanguru Slim FC-RW
The Slim FC-RW is the latest verison of Kanguru's portable CD-RW solutions (replacing the non-slim FC-RW) with integrated flash memory card readers. The product is designed to be a compact archiving solution for digital photos when away from a computer (in addition to many other uses). With such a product, a digital photographer is no longer restricted to the capacity of their memory cards. Instead, they can shoot as much as they like, limited only by the availability of CD-R media.
|List price||U2-FCRW-SL - U$249.95 (as listed on Vendor's site on Mar 2005)|
|Dimensions||8" x 6.25 " x 1"|
|Display||Black & white LCD (non graphical)|
|Card compatibility||Compact Flash / Microdrive (CF I/II), Smart Media (SM), Secure Digital (SD), Multimedia Card (MMC) , Sony Memory Stick / Pro (MS,MS-Pro)|
|Operating System||PC & Mac|
|Computer Interface||USB 2.0|
Like the Kanguru Media X-Change 2.0, the Slim FC-RW is styled with a modern grey and silver two-toned curved look. Somewhat larger than the size of your average portable CD player, it is still small enough to keep in one's camera bag on long journeys. The device has a plastic shell which feels reasonably strong, although it would be unlikely to survive a moderate drop. The underside has a lid for the removable battery and a few vents to help dissipate heat.
Besides the power button, there are only four other buttons on the device: Enter / Play, Previous, Next and Stop / Escape. While the buttons are not recessed, it would be hard to turn it on accidentally from movement within one's gear bag. The relatively small number of buttons belies the number of options and commands supported by the device. A good part of the FC-RW's viewer functionality is more easily accessed by the remote control. A volume wheel on the device might have made its use as an MP3 player more effective.
The display is very minimalist, showing a single word to indicate the current mode, along with an icon for the remaining battery life. In the bottom left corner, an icon shows which card slots are in use. As this device is intended to hook up to an external display (such as a TV), there is little need for an integrated graphical display. During a copy-to-CD transfer, a percentage of data remaining is shown. Near the top of the device, two LEDs indicate power and charge status.
In addition to a standard USB 2.0 connector, three audio-video ports are used to interface to a television set or headphones. Besides the "Audio / Optical" port, each uses a proprietary mini stereo plug connector. The package I reviewed included a composite RCA video + S-Video to stereo mini plug and a two-channel RCA audio to stereo mini plug. It appears that optional cables can be ordered which provide component outputs (for higher quality playback) and digital audio (eg. 5.1 Surround). With the included S-Video output, image preview quality surpasses that which can be driven from most digital camera's direct output options. The unit is powered by a removable Lithium Ion 7.4v 2000mAh battery pack. Access to a removable battery opens up the possibility of extending one's range with additional battery packs.
While not necessary for simple archiving card-to-CD operations, the remote control is a real necessity when using any of the viewing modes of the Kanguru device. The layout of buttons on the remote is tight and the similarity of shape meant that it was often difficult to know where important buttons were located without looking each time. Trying to find the volume button in a darkened room might be more difficult than one would like.
Focus of Testing
As this device offers a wealth of capabilities, the testing is divided into two sections: archiving / access and playback.
- Archiving / Access
Archiving is the most likely operation used by digital photographers on the road: copying photos from memory cards onto CD-R media. Along with the review of the archiving capabilities, I have included some notes regarding the ability of the device to act as a media access device (eg. standalone card reader or external DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive).
For the section on playback, I look at how the Kanguru Slim FC-RW can be used to view and play a number of different media types. Hooked up to a television set, one can watch DVD / VCD movies, play MP3s / WAVs, or watch a slideshow of photos from either a memory card or DVD / CD. As this review is directed towards evaluating the device's use as a tool for digital photographers, the focus will be primarily on the photography workflow operations.
Due to the restrictions of the test setup, I am only testing the following configurations:
- PC (Athlon XP 2.5GHz), no testing on Macintosh
- Compact Flash type II only (no other card reader formats). My testing is done with three different speeds of memory cards, ranging from the original Sandisk memory card through to the fastest Sandisk Extreme card.
- CD-R and CD-RW testing.
The advantages of archiving to CD
As a digital photographer, my main use for the Kanguru Slim FC-RW would be in archiving my images from the memory cards into blank CD-R media. This would then permit me to erase my memory card (with the digital camera's format function) and continue shooting. In situations where one is shooting for extended periods of time away from electricity / computers, the option to archive to CD-Rs is very attractive. In this scenario, long battery life is obviously an important feature — my results are shown below.
Not only does the burning to CD-Rs open up the possibility of virtually unlimited shooting (limited only by the number of CD-R discs brought on a trip), but it facilitates an extremely important characteristic: redundancy.
I am a strong believer in redundancy (especially when it comes to storing digital photos), and the ability to burn multiple copies of ones photos is a huge benefit. Not only does it prevent the loss of "all eggs in one basket" (a definite concern with portable hard drives or laptops), but it allows one to hide / store several copies in different places (or even send a set home).
Archiving performance of the Kanguru Slim FC-RW
Tasked with the duty of transfering digital photos from memory card to CD-Rs, the Kanguru Slim FC-RW performed well. The following results are from burning a full 512MB card of RAW images (avg 5.5MB each, total size: 508,887,040 = 485MB). The memory card used was a Lexar 40x 512MB Compact Flash. As the CD drive write speed is expected to be the bottleneck, using a faster memory card should not change the overall burn times.
|FujiFilm CD-R 700MB||Copy||7:20||1129 KB/sec (7.5x)|
|Memorex CD-R||Copy||7:25||1117 KB/sec (7.4x)|
|Memorex CD-RW 700MB 4x||Erase||0:52|
|Copy||13:55||595 KB/sec (4.0x)|
Performance: Battery Life & Endurance
Given that an expected use of this product is one in which the user is on the road, battery life is of significance (and generally more important than speed, as most people will have a second card to use while the first is being copied).
As the Kanguru Slim FC-RW has a user-replaceable battery pack, one could theoretically purchase an additional battery for extended travel away from mains power. The tests described below attempt to evaluate how much life and data could be transferred to CD before the unit would run out of power.
For devices in this category, a key measure of performance is how many gigabytes of data can be transferred from card to CD-R on a single charge? Some authors call this figure the degree of "autonomy". As the CD-RW drive has a fixed write speed, it is expected that different memory cards will produce similar transfer times and rates.
When operating as a portable DVD player, battery life during playback is also a consideration. However, DVD playback necessitates some sort of powered TV or display device, so it would be fair to assume that most users will have access to power and longetivity is of little concern.
The following results indicate the total amount of data transferred before the device ran out of power from the internal battery.
|Media||Transfers||Total Data Transferred||Total Time|
|CD-R||12+||12 x 485 = 5820 MB||1 hr, 41 minutes|
|CD-RW||6||6 x 483 = 2898 MB||1 hr, 38 minutes|
As one can see in the above table, burning to CD-RW media might limit the amount of data one can transfer before running out of power. Burning to rewritable CD-RW often requires an erase phase in addition to a slower write speed. Both of these contribute to longer burn times, using up the available battery life faster for the same amount of data transferred.
- Overall battery life (CD-R burning) : Approximately 1 hr, 41 minutes (1.7 hrs) of active use, or nearly 6 GB of data
- Overall battery life (CD-RW burning) : Approximately 1 hr, 38 minutes (1.7 hrs) of active use, or nearly 3 GB of data
- Overall battery life (DVD player) : Approximately 1 hr, 53 minutes (1.9 hrs) of active use
What happens when power runs out?
In trying to squeeze as much use out of the drive as possible, one will likely encounter a situation where the drive runs out of power while burning a disc. Killing a burn part-way through causes a number of problems. Typically it will cause a disc to be unreadable, but at the very least it will corrupt the files in progress.
The user will hopefully recognize that the drive ran out of power, recharge the batteries (2+ hours), and re-burn the photos to a new disc. It is critical that the photos are transferred again to a new disc, as the previous disc will often be unreadable.
It would be nice if there was some way that the user knew that the device had run out of power, and not simply finished burning and powered off after a timeout. Obviously, making the wrong assumption could cause a photographer to lose a lot of data. A possible solution for a future version of the product might be to have the device eject the disc as soon as it is complete. This way the photographer will easily recognize that the power is off and with the disc still inserted (removing the disc at this point simply requires a paperclip).
Disc spanning: Burning more than 700MB
With the size of current flash memory increasing rapidly, one will eventually need to burn more than the 650MB or 700MB capacity of most CD-Rs. Disc spanning is the process of burning content across multiple discs. The Kanguru Slim FC-RW has no problem splitting the contents of a large memory card across as many discs as are necessary (up to 4, giving a maximum usable card size of just over 2GB). Once the first disc has completed it's burn, the user inserts another disc and the burning process continues.
Connecting the device to my Windows XP SP2 system, the Kanguru Slim FC-RW was immediately recognized and mounted four drives: one for the CD-RW drive, and three representing the various memory card ports.
The following results shows the performance when using the Kanguru Slim FC-RW as a standalone card reader. In each case, approximately 100MB of data was transferred (18 RAW files of about 5.5MB each). Transferring large files should give optimum performance (as the overhead associated with handling each individual file becomes less significant).
|Card > PC|
|Card < PC
|Sandisk Original 1GB||2:47||614 KB/sec||3:03||560 KB/sec|
|Lexar 40x 512MB||2:44||623 KB/sec||2:57||579 KB/sec|
|Sandisk Extreme 1GB||2:36||662 KB/sec||2:56||587 KB/sec|
The performance is ok, but certainly not up to USB 2.0 standards for standalone card readers. For comparison purposes, my Sandisk ImageMate CF SDDR-91 transfers the same data in 10 seconds, achieving a read speed of 10323 KB/sec and a write speed of 6882 KB/sec.
As this is not expected to be the primary mode of operation or use for the device, it is not likely to be an issue for most users.
Performance as a standalone CD-ROM drive
The Kanguru Slim FC-RW operated well as a standalone external CD-RW drive. A sequential read of a 460,100KB file took 1:37 (4743 KB/sec or 31.6x). As these drives operate with constant angular velocity, one would expect that read performance for files near the outer radius of the CD to approach the peak rate of 48x (ie. 7200 KB/sec).
Performance as stated on
Although I was more interested in the archiving functionality of the Kanguru Slim FC-RW, the versatile device offers a wide variety of playback capabilities that some might find extremely useful. The unit can display JPEG images (no RAW formats, though), MP3 or WAV music files and DVD / VCD videos. In all cases, a custom output port allows connection to a TV set or standard headphones. An added plus is that for photo or video playback, options are provided for both S-Video and component output, in addition to the standard composite analog video. Similarly, an option exists for digital audio to a compatible audio receiver.
With all of these playback functions added to the original set of archiving operations, the device boasts a very wide range of commands. All of these are accessible through the "Smart Navi" menu screen. The input source for the system is either a Flash Memory or a Disc. In the Flash Memory mode, a two-column display shows the folder hierarchy on the left and the files on the right. A total of 8 files per page are shown, but it can be scrolled to reveal the rest of the entries within a particular folder.
Each file type is represented by a different icon, and most media types (eg. audio, video, photo) can coexist within the same folder. Navigation through the folder hierarchy and during playback is done through the included remote control. The user can either press the Arrow Up / Arrow Down buttons to scroll through the list a line at a time (although holding down the button doesn't repeat the action) or press the NEXT / PREV button for faster page-at-a-time movement through the index.
Moving up and down through hierarchy was a simple task, thanks to the traditional directory browser. In the future, it would be nice to see the selection point resume at the parent directory's position when going up the hierarchy, rather than reset to the first entry in the parent's directory. This would improve one's ability to search through directories recursively for a particular file.
For digital photographers, the most common mode will be image playback. Whether this is used to present the images to friends as a slideshow, or to verify that the images have been burnt correctly to CD-ROM, the image viewer is quite useful. Perhaps the biggest advantage of this viewer over the built-in slideshow output mode from most digital cameras is the option of higher resolution display outputs (ie. S-Video and Component). Most digicams only provide a composite analog video out.
A slideshow mode can be activated with the RESUME button, which steps through all photos in the current folder. Each image is displayed for a couple seconds and then one of a dozen transitions can be selected for advancing to the next image. When manually stepping through the images, the load-to-display time was in the order of about 3.5 seconds per photo. Pressing the SHUFFLE button allowed random play of all media types within the folder.
The EXIF orientation flag is respected, meaning that for digital cameras with an integrated orientation sensor, portrait / vertical photos are rotated automatically for viewing. Only the JPEG file format is supported (ie. no RAW formats), but this is to be expected. Camera RAW file formats change routinely with each new model, and keeping abreast of new releases would require constant firmware updates.
The file browser limits its display of filenames to 11 characters with no extension (ie. no real long filename support). While this is probably fine for viewing and locating images that were generated by a digital camera (ie. on the memory card, generally appearing as IMG_####, 8 characters), it didn't work well with the images that I had renamed with my full naming scheme. My file naming scheme concatenates an 8-digit date (YYYYMMDD) along with a separator character and the four-digit original sequence number, requiring 13 digits. My filenames were truncated, causing them to appear identically in the Kanguru's file browser.
While viewing individual photos, pressing ZOOM and then FR / FF enables To-Fit, 25%, 50%, and 100% enlargement views. Within a particular zoom setting, the arrow buttons allowed for fast panning throughout the enlarged photo.
One area that I felt was missing is the integration with an image's EXIF metadata. It would have been nice to press the OSD (On Screen Display) button and be presented with a file information overlay (instead of a blank Chapter Remain / Elapsed line). In particular, the display of aperture, shutter speed and filename (or image number) is fairly standard in most photo viewers and would have greatly increased its usefulness.
Pressing the MENU button rendered a thumbnail index of the next 9 photos in the folder. I felt the thumbnail creation was too slow to be useful (36.5 seconds for a 9-image thumbnail page), and that vertically-oriented (portrait) photos did not use up the available space as well as they could have.
When in individual viewing mode, the arrow buttons rotated or flipped the images (only for display purposes). The rotations were very fast, making this a useful feature. Repeated presses of the NEXT / PREV triggered the next image to be loaded / decoded immediately (but shown until it had been fully decoded). A minor bug in the device causes a corrupt image to be displayed if one advances quickly to the start or end of a folder (this exists in both the individual photo display and thumbnail index modes).
CD / MP3 Player
As an MP3 player, the Kanguru Slim FC-RW worked well, starting songs immediately after selecting a title and pressing ENTER. While the arrow keys were intuitive in moving through the file hierarchy, it would have been nice if pressing the ENTER key or an Arrow key caused a song to stop playing, rather than having to press the STOP key. Similarly, as the volume buttons are rather difficult to find on the remote, a thumbwheel on the device itself would have allowed the unit to be used without the need for a remote control. Much like the file browser navigation, holding down the Volume + / - buttons did not automatically repeat and there was some delay in the adjustment taking effect. The playback speed of the song can be adjusted both forwards and backwards from 1x-8x.
The Kanguru Slim FC-RW also operated as a portable CD-player, although the current track number is not displayed.
The Kanguru Slim FC-RW operated perfectly as a fully-featured DVD player. All standard DVD playback functions are provided via the remote control. After a full charge, the player lasted for 1:53:40, which is quite reasonable for a portable DVD player.
The device also supports the playback of MPEG, VCD and SVCD video. During playback, the speed can be adjusted to 1x, 2x, 4x, 6x and 8x in both directions. Overall, the Kanguru Slim FC-RW certainly fit the bill as a complete DVD player, with all the features one would come to expect in today's mid-range player.
The Kanguru Slim FC-RW easily met its purpose as a digital photographer's archival tool. There were numerous extras that turn it into a nicely integrated package. If I had to make any suggestions, there were a couple features that I would like to see included in a future revision:
- Optional verify mode after a burn is complete. Ensures that images have been transferred successfully before deleting them off the card. This would of course come at the expense of battery life.
- EXIF image information overlay when viewing JPEGs in image browser mode. Improved thumbnail viewing in image browser (increase speed and increase size of portrait photos)
- Re-mapping and layout of buttons on remote control in image browser mode for ergonomics.
- Thumbwheel for volume control.
- DVD-burning version.
The Kanguru Slim FC-RW is a great addition to a traveling digital photographer's arsenal. The ability to burn a set of digital photos to multiple CD-ROMs allows for excellent redundancy. Keeping one CD copy on hand and mailing the second copy back home enables secure shooting in difficult environments, far from home. If one were to use the device in dusty environments (eg. Africa), one might have to keep it sealed in a large Ziploc bag, as CD-ROM drives are typically more sensitive to dust than the portable hard drive alternatives. All digital photography uses aside, the unit doubles as a very capable portable DVD player.
Archiving digital photos to CD greatly expands the number of photos one can shoot, with no worries over the capacity of the memory cards themselves. Although the ability to write to DVD-R would be nice, the durability and stability of CD-Rs has been well established. The disc spanning capability enables the device to be used with full memory cards as large as 1GB or 2GB, creating multiple linked discs in the process.
With a battery life of 12 copies from 512MB card to CD-R, most users will have more than enough capacity for a day on-location, while still ensuring robust redundancy for their data. In summary, the Kanguru Slim FC-RW satisfies a niche market that will be of great interest to those digital photographers who are looking for a portable archival solution.