The original Gnarbox was an awesome idea that never quite delivered. Built for photographers and videographers, it’s a battery-powered, rugged hard drive that you can just pop an SD card into, and it’ll back it up. It was a great concept, but the execution? Not so much. It was slow, buggy, and bulky. Well, the $500 and up Gnarbox 2.0 is finally here and it finally works the way you hoped it would. Mostly.
I used the first version of the Gnarbox and it was a non-starter. More accurately, I tried it once, and found it so slow and annoying that I never turned it on again. About a month ago, I was sent the Gnarbox 2.0 ahead of its official release this week, and while the firmware / software wasn’t final, using it was still like night and day.
For starters, the new Gnarbox is slimmer and tougher. It would easily fit in a jacket pocket (or, shudders, cargo pants), and it’s water and dust resistant. It has a solid-state drive and better guts (an Intel quad core, 2.40GHZ CPU and quad core GPU, along with 4GB RAM) which makes backing up a lot faster, and it’s more shock-proof, too. It now has a built-in screen, so you have more control over how it’s working without having to fire up an app. The one thing that 1.0 had that 2.0 lacks is a microSD card slot. It has a full-sized SD card slot, two USB-C ports, and a micro HDMI port, but for microSD you have to use a USB-C card reader or an adapter sleeve that lets you use the SD slot. I asked Gnarbox why they ditched the micro slot and they said having that it made everything else slower, so it wasn’t worth the trade-off. I ended up taping a microSD adapter in a little baggie to the back of the device so I’d always have one on hand, which worked out fine.
Here’s how it works. When you’re out in the field and you’ve filled up your SD card with photos and videos, you just pop it out of your camera, power on the Gnarbox 2.0, slot the card in, hit Back Up, and that’s it. Backing up a full 64GB SD card (with checksum to verify the integrity of the backup) takes all of five minutes. You can use the app to create your own directory structure so it’s organized the way you want, and you can even have it sort files into subfolders by type, or leave it structured as it is on the card.
That’s really all you need to do. From there, you can pair the Gnarbox with your phone to sort through your images and videos and even rate them using a standard five-star system and / or add metadata tags. Later, when you connect the Gnarbox to your computer and transfer the files over to a hard drive, those ratings will be preserved when you open them in Lightroom or another editing software. You can also transfer the apps directly to your phone (including RAW formats) for instant posting. One of the coolest features is that you can attach an external SSD to the Gnarbox while in the field and back up to both simultaneously, for an immediate redundant backup without adding any time to the process. That’s huge.
That all sounds great, right? The reality is that it still needs a fair amount of work, mostly on the software side. There are two mobile applications you use for the Gnarbox: Selects and Safekeep. Neither of them are intuitive to use. Selects is for viewing images and videos as well as rating photos, but in order to do that, you have to select the photos, pull them into a separate Workspace, add stars, and then sync it back. It ends up being a pain.
By default, videos don’t really stream from the Gnarbox, instead just showing a few key frames so you can see what the file is without transcoding it. You can stream video to your device by pressing the stream button, or you can transfer the whole thing to your phone, but that will eat up a lot of storage. Safekeep is for tweaking the directory structure and adding preset profiles for backing up to the Gnarbox. I just don’t feel like this should be a separate app at all. Consolidate, my friends!
There also seems to be a bit of a power issue. While battery life is generally solid (up to six hours per charge, depending on usage), it requires a beefier-than-average charger to add power. The 18-watt USB-C charger that came with my Google Pixel 3 XL, for example, won’t stop the battery from depleting while in use. It does come with an adapter, and Gnarbox told me that 30 to 60W of USB-C Power Delivery is needed to charge from another source. That’s a lot of power for a storage drive and probably why it didn’t charge when plugged into the USB-C port on my laptop (late 2018 15-inch HP Spectre x360). As a result, it died on me while working with some images in Lightroom. Gnarbox is aware of these issues and hopes to address them in a future firmware update. In the meantime, I just used it as a backup, and would transfer everything to a different hard drive when I got home for editing.
Despite those dings (and the fact that you have to reboot the whole thing into Mass Storage Mode when you want to plug it into your computer, which takes a couple minutes), I love this thing and it really saved my bacon once already. I was in Alaska this summer and my dream came true when the northern lights came out to play. I was out taking photos all night, but I’d changed clothes right before I set out and accidentally left my spare SD cards in my other pants. The aurora doesn’t always last long, so when I ran out of space on my SD card I thought I was going to lose an hour to run to my van and get back out. But I had the Gnarbox 2.0 with me. I dropped the card in, backed it up with checksum verification, then took a deep breath, wiped the card, and kept shooting. I only missed five minutes, and was ready when the most intense part of the aurora started dancing. It was a total lifesaver.
It was also extremely helpful when I was on a six-day boat trip, shooting with multiple cameras, drones, and GoPros. I just set up a directory for each card, and it backed everything up flawlessly. I can see this becoming an essential piece of kit for wedding and event photographers. Yes, the apps need work, but the banner feature here is peace of mind, and you don’t even really need the apps for that. Pop in a card, back up, keep shooting. That’s priceless.
But, of course, it actually does have a price, and it’s not low. The 256GB model goes for $500, the 512GB for $600, and the 1TB for $900. That is a lot, especially when you can get fast external 1TB SSDs for well under $200. But still, if you’re a professional photographer or videographer, losing a card of data could cost you thousands of dollars. For them, this kind of insurance policy is worth it.
Correction, 3:05PM ET, October 2nd, 2019: An earlier version of this article said the Gnarbox does not stream videos to a phone — that’s not accurate. We regret the error.
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