If you’re taking a laptop with you when you travel, it’s easy enough to back up your photos. Add a small portable hard drive and you have a pretty robust backup system to ensure your photos get home safely with you.
But what if you’re traveling without a laptop? Because, let’s face it, it’s simply not always convenient to lug a laptop along for the ride. I like to travel light, and unless I really can’t do without it, I’d just as soon leave the laptop at home and just take an iPad with me. I can’t do everything with an irPad that I can do with a laptop, but if I’m traveling I’d prefer to be spending my time out and about rather than behind a computer anyway.
So I like to use a portable memory card backup system on the road. It allows me to copy my photos from the memory card to a hard drive. And it’s battery powered, so you can do it anywhere, whether you’re back at the hotel room or riding a chicken bus.
I also like to create a second backup copy, and for that I also carry a pocket-sized hard drive. With that system, I can have up to three copies of my photos on different media in different places (well, sort of). Things would have to go seriously pear shaped not to come back home with at least one copy of all my photos.
Years ago, I used to use a backup system that backed up directly from a memory card to writeable DVDs. As digital photo files got bigger and hard drives became more portable, I moved to a Wolverine PicPac 7500. It was my trusty travel companion on many trips. In a tiny package it combined a 250GB hard drive, an 11-in-1 memory card reader, and basic but reliable backup options. I then moved onto a ColorSpace HyperDrive, but it was an older model predated SDXC memory cards (that is, SD cards larger than 32GB), so the newer, larger cards won’t work in it, and there was no firmware update to fix it.
The one I’ve been using for the past couple of years is the NextoDI ND2901 portable backup drive.
I’ve been using the 500GB version. There is also a 1TB version for another $100. Another option if you’re feeling thrifty is to buy a NextoDI with a small drive (or bare, if you can find it), and then add your own 1TB drive. You can find good ones for under $60. It’s worth noting that if you decide to go this route, you’ll have to break the Nexto’s unusually prominent “Warranty Void if Removed” stickers.
The system is pretty straightforward. It combines a hard drive, a battery, and a card reader in a portable package. Its purpose is to copy files (typically photos and videos) from a memory card to the hard drive.
The ND2901 works with SD cards (SD, SDHC, and SDXC) as well as CompactFlash. You can copy from microSD if you use an SD adapter that comes with many of the microSD cards, but you can’t put a microSD directly into the device.
You can also plug in an external USB hard drive and make an extra backup to that.
How to Use
The most basic workflow is to insert a memory card, turn the device on, and hit Fast Copy. It’ll then copy the files from the memory card to the internal hard drive and tell you when it’s finished.
For extra peace of mind, there’s also a Copy & Verify mode. That does the same copy as the Fast Copy mode, but then it compares the copied version with the original on the memory card. The verifying takes about the same amount of time as the copying.
You can Fast Copy now and do the verifying later, but you’ll need to have the memory card inserted and not have made any changes on that card.
There also an Update file copying option, which is an incremental backup.
If you continue shooting on the same memory card and then put it back into the device, you’ll get the update option that only copies the new files. You can find more details of the specific requirements for the incremental update here.
And a June 2016 firmware update added the feature of being able to power by USB (including external power brick) during the backup process, something that wasn’t possible before. It adds a “Use USB Power” option when you connect a battery pack or other USB power supply to the Computer slot on the device. But it still won’t let you use that when using an external hard drive–you’ll still need to use the AC power adapter for that, unfortunately.
If you decide you want to make an extra backup to another external USB drive, you need to plug the NextoDI into an AC outlet and then connect the external drive. You can’t use the external drive function without AC power to the Nexto.
One thing I like is that if the device turns itself off after you’ve done an operating like syncing, the next time you turn the device you’ll get confirmation of success or failure of the operation. It’s a good peace of mind feature and means you don’t have to be sitting there watching the operation complete. You can just let it run and do its thing without having to monitor it. If it fails, you’ll get a red screen that looks like this:
You can also set it to automatically copy when you insert a memory card, saving you from pushing a button.
Once the files are copied you can browse the images on the screen. It’s not a great screen for doing that, but it’s possible. It’s compatible with the most common RAW formats.
You can also format your memory card from within the NEXTO, although that’s typically something best done in the camera.
Once you get home, you can plug the NEXTO into a USB port on your computer. The NEXTO behaves like any other USB mass storage device (that is to say, an external hard drive), so you can import directly into whatever software you’re using to select, process, and manage your photos.
The CompactFlash port is significantly faster than the SD port. That’s pretty typical. To compare them, I filled up a 64GB CompactFlash card and a 64GB SDXC card with the same RAW files–about 59.5GB of image files in real terms. Both were the current generation of SanDisk EXTREME Pro; the CompactFlash version is rated for a read speed of up to 160 MB/s while the SDXC version is rated for a read speed of up to 95 MB/s. In neither case did it approach the maximum speeds of the card; the difference is due to the reader hardware not the cards.
NEXTO rates the device as being able to copy up to 4.5GB per minute using the CompactFlash slot and up to 2.5GB per minute using the SD/SDHC/SDXC slot. In my real-world I get under that, but still impressive speeds (and much faster than the ColorSpace UDMA2 or the Digital Foci Photo Storage II).
Overall, copying and verifying take about the same time. So if you’re doing the Copy & Verify function, about half of that time is consumed with copying and the other half with verifying. Or, looking at it another way, you can transfer about twice as much data if you use the Fast Copy function without verifying.
You can also use an external card reader with the device (but it still requires the main device to be plugged into AC). That can increase compatibility with other types of cards, but I found the transfer rates to be relatively slow even though it’s supposed to be over USB 3.0 and using a fast USB 3.0 reader.
When I first started using the NextoDI ND2901 I was using it with an HDD installed. These speed results refer to that setup.
CompactFlash: With the CompactFlash I get about 3.3 GB per minute in the Fast Copy mode. Transferring a full 64GB card takes about 18 minutes at an average speed of 57.7 MB/s. It slows down a little–by about 2 MB/s–as the drive gets full and the battery lower. I can copy about 357 GB on a single charge.
SD Card: With the SDXC card and using the Fast Copy mode I get an average transfer speed of around 34.9 MB/s or about 2.1GB per minute, with a full 64GB card taking just under 29 minutes to fully back up. It takes a little over double that time with the same files using the Copy & Verify mode. On a single charge I can transfer about 190GB in Fast Copy mode or about 100GB in Copy & Verify mode.
I’ve since upgraded to using an SSD. Specifically, the Samsung 850 EVO. Most of the time I shoot with CompactFlash, and using that I’ve found the SSD to be about 42 percent faster. But because I rarely use SD as the primary memory card, it wasn’t until I went back to run some tests that I realized that I was actually getting much slower results with the SD and SSD combination. I don’t have a good explanation yet for why that’s happening but will update here if I ever figrue out what’s going on. But in practical terms, the CF transfer rate is noticeably quicker, and I like the extra security of the SSD.
NEXTO claims you get 90 minutes of usage on a full charge. But more useful is to know what you can accomplish.
In practical terms, I almost got through a full copy and verify on the 64GB card twice, but the battery died when the final verify was about three-quarters done on the second run. (In that case, you get an error that the copy failed, which is sort of true, but more precisely it’s the verify that failed–the images did copy fine.) If you’re only doing the fast copy without the verify, you’ll get through quite a bit more data.
Because the CompactFlash slot is a lot faster, I’m able to back up about six full 64GB cards in Fast Copy mode on a single charge (or about three in Copy & Verify mode).
During these operations, the device became warm, but not so much that it was cause for concern.
There’s also an external battery that’s available. You’ll need that for some types of internal SSD. (See below for details on which SSDs don’t need the external power supply.)
There’s one button in the top right that controls everything. It’s the power button as well as a kind of simplified joystick for navigating the menu items.
The button is surrounded by an LED that is green when powered on and idle and red when it’s busy copying or charging.
The method of using the controller takes a little getting used to but is simple enough. There are two types of input. One is either a short or long press on the button, denoted in the on-screen instructions as S for short or L for long.
The other input type is levering the button up or down to navigate through the menu items or to confirm things like formatting commands.
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the controls. Yes, they work, but it’s not very intuitive. And there’s a very fine line between pressing in and pressing up and down, especially if you’re on the go in a car or train. To my mind, a simpler system of three basic buttons arranged vertically would probably be better.
The LCD screen is small and it’s color. It’s very much a utilitarian screen and isn’t really designed for viewing photos. For one thing, it’s small, measuring 1 inch by 1 inch of display space (the manufacturer claims it’s 1.44 inches by 1.44 inches, but that’s an exaggeration that includes a wide silver border that’s not usable display space).
For another thing, it doesn’t display much detail and isn’t very useful for browsing photos beyond visual confirmation that the photos are indeed on the hard drive. It has nothing like the resolution we’ve become accustomed to on the back of cameras or on smartphones.
But for providing the pretty simple menu that the NextoDI has, the screen works quite well.
Charging & Battery
It comes with a switching 110-240V AC power adapter. You can also charge it by USB using a regular USB A male connector. Charging a fully depleted battery to full charge takes somewhere around 5 hours or so. When you have external power connected you get a small icon on the display reflecting which USB port you’ve connected to.
You can also plug in an external battery, something you’ll need to do if you want to put an SSD inside (see below for details).
The battery is a Li-Poly (lithium-polymer). NEXTO says that you’ll get 90 minutes out of a fully-charged battery, and in my testing I’ve found that’s reasonably accurate, but it depends on what operations you’re running.
Li-Poly batteries don’t suffer much from memory effect, so in general you can charge the battery without first having to fully deplete it. But they also don’t last forever–the internal battery is rated for 400 charges. The manual recommends contacting a NEXTO dealer if your battery isn’t lasting as long as it should and needs replacing, which suggests its not something that’s user replaceable, but you should be able to find third-party replacement batteries and do it yourself. I suspect it’s the same battery used in, previous models but haven’t confirmed that. And, again, you’d have to break the prominent “Warranty Void if Removed” stickers to get inside.
Internal Hard Drives
The NextoDI shell is essentially a fancy housing for a hard drive, and that means you can switch out hard drives if you like. Although to do so you’ll need to break the prominent seal that says you’re voiding the warranty.
While it’s straightforward enough to do, it’s not really designed as something to do regularly. To get inside you have to open up the case by removing some tiny screws. Once inside, the hard drive simply slots into place.
The NextoDI can be used with 2.5-inch SATA hard drives from any manufacturer. They do provide recommendations for a couple of 1TB drives. The stock-standard issued drive that comes included is the standard Western Digital WD Blue series models WD10JPVX or WD10JPVT.
It should also work well with drives from other major manufacturers, with an important gotcha for Seagate drives. They also recommend against using Seagate drives if your computer is based on USB 2.0 because the ND2901 with a Seagate drive won’t be detected on the computer’s USB 2.0 port.
If you use different drive, be sure to make sure the NextoDI firmware is up-to-date. A March 2015 firmware update fixed some compatibility issues with different hard drives. And you can find the latest firmware updates here.
You can use an SSD drive in it. Since SSD drives use flash memory that is less bothered by bumps and knocks, it’s a handy feature for a device you’re taking traveling. But if you’re looking to install an SSD drive, there are some caveats. When the device was first released, NextoDI said that any SSD drive meant that you had to use it with the device attached to external power. Since then, SSD technology has improved, and there are now SSDs you can install that won’t require that. NEXTO recommends the Samsung 850 EVO series, which are available in 120GB, 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB configurations. That model has been tested by NEXTO to not require external power. That’s the drive I’ve installed in my ND2901, and it’s working well without the need to attach external power. It’s also completely silent, and the drive itself weighs about half of a regular HDD. And what might be the biggest benefit–it’s fast. With a fast UDMA 7 compact flash card I can get a transfer rate of about 89.1 MB/s. With a regular HDD, I get about 77 MB/s. Both are much faster than any of the ND2901’s immediate competitors.
If you choose a different SSD, you’ll need to run it with an external battery (available for purchase separately) because of the different way that SSD drives draw power. You can find more details here. So unless you’re committed to using an SSD drive you already have on hand, my recommendation is to stick with the Samsung 850 EVO series–I know from personal experience that it works.
One of the features I like most about the ND2901 is its ability to backup to a second hard drive. There are a few similar devices from other manufacturers, but this feature alone is one of the main reasons I lean toward the NextoDI (the HyperDrive can also do it, but it requires a sold-separately adapter).
What this feature means is that you can have at least two copies in the field–and more if you want. These days, I tend to a pocket-sized Seagate Seven, which is so slim that I can slip it into my camera bag or a pocket and carry it around easily all day without any issues. So if my hotel room gets ransacked or my backpack gets raided I still have a copy of all my photos. If you’re feeling particularly paranoid, there’s nothing to stop you from backing up to even more hard drives.
The external drive has to be formatted as exFAT to work.
One slightly disappointing aspect is that external USB devices like hard drives or card readers will only work if you plug the NextoDI into power using either the supplied AC adapter or an optional car power adapter. If you just try to plug in the USB hard drive and run from the Nexto’s battery, the external drive won’t be recognized and you won’t be presented with an option to use it. You also can’t power the device by USB and use the external drive, because they both use the same USB slot. So if you want to use an external drive, you’re stuck with having to use the AC power (or optional car power adapter).
But if you’re using a USB hard drive that’s powered by USB–as most of the current portable hard drives are–they will work find and you don’t need to use a hard drive that has its own power supply.
The way it works is essentially backing up the ND2901. It doesn’t copy the photos from the card to both devices at once. You copy the images from the memory card to the NextoDI and then, in a separate process, you mirror the NextoDI to an external USB hard drive.
It uses USB 3.0, so if you attach a USB 3.0 drive the sync process is quite zippy. If you attach a USB 2 drive, it’s significantly slower but still works.
In real-world usage, I get a transfer speed of about 20MB/s from the ND2901 to the Seagate Seven, which is very close to the figure the manufacturer claims of 24MB/s. So I’m getting about 1.2GB or so per minute from one to the other.
If you’re using an external drive larger than 2TB, be sure that your NextoDI firmware is at least v.1.08. That version added support for 4TB drives. You can find the latest firmware here.
What’s in the Box
- Main device
- Leather cover. Nearly all of the controls and ports are accessible with the cover on. The exception is the CompactFlash slot–you’ll have to open the top of the cover if you want to use that. The cover fits the device snugly but does not have anywhere to store the charger. There is a belt clip on the back and an elasticized loop on the side that is designed to hold the external battery (sold separately) but is too tight to fit the charger.
- AC charger Model FJ-SW05020000DU, 100-240V~ 50/60Hz, 0.35Amax, output 5V 2000mA
- USB cable
- Don’t try to use the CompactFlash and the SD slots at the same time. Have a card in one or the other but not both at the same time. You can get some odd behavior if you have cards in both as the system gets confused.
There are a few areas where I see room for improvement in the next generation:
- Better USB-standard Charging. Carrying a dedicated AC adapter around is a pain. So many other devices now use the USB standard for charging, and it would be much more convenient if this did too.
- Control joystick. The current control mechanism–a button that rocks up and down–is too clever by half, and it’s too easy to accidentally press the button in when you’re trying to push it up or down.
- Improved screen. The screen is functional, but it’s not especially useful for viewing photos. Tools like histogram overlays, like the ColorSpace UDMA3 has, would also be very useful.
- Wifi. The ability to view photos on a smartphone or tablet via wifi would be very handy. Or, better yet, add wifi hub capabilities, essentially including the features of something like the RAVPower filehub.
Native SSD support that doesn’t require the external battery.This has since been addressed with newer versions of SSDs. See above.
- Availability of a case-only version that doesn’t void the warranty if you open it up to add your own hard drive.
- Dedicated microSD slot. This would be especially useful for all the GoPro and other action cam users out there. Sure, it’s easy enough to use a microSD-to-SD adapter, but it adds just one more small moving part that’s all too easy to lose.
The NextoDI ND2901 works well, but it feels a bit dated. I suspect because the market just isn’t big enough, most of the portable memory card backup solutions I’ve used have tended to have the feel of yesterday’s technology. Back in the day, the Epson P-7000 was an exception (but isn’t available anymore and Epson never replaced it). And there are one or two new innovative solutions that tackle things a bit differently (stay tuned for my review of the RAVPower FileHub). There are also exceptions in the high end models designed for the demands of field storage for video shooting.
In short, there’s room for improvement, and I keep on the lookout for someone to launch a Kickstarter campaign that would take advantage of current technology and workflows to really advance the ball. Something that is also tiny and portable and reliable but that also charges by USB, uses an internal SSD drive and can back up to another external drive, has a top-notch LCD touchscreen, and has a built-in wifi hub for external connectivity. Of course, trying to fit that to a price point that the market would support is a big ask, especially since large-capacity SSD drives are still pretty pricey.
But until that perfect device comes along, the NextoDI ND2901 is serving my purposes well. I’m using it mainly while traveling, but it would be equally useful to wedding or event photographers looking to create a safety backup while shooting.
Size and Weight
The face of the device is approximately the size of a passport. It’s just under an inch thick (the case adds a little more).
Dimensions: 128 mm x 77 mm x 23 mm (5.0″ x 3.0″ x 0.9″)
Weight: 230 g (with hard drive) (8.1 oz)