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Review: M.I.C. CF Card Reader for iPad and iPad 2  
Thursday, April 28, 2011 | by Rob Galbraith
If you're jazzed about Photosmith, the new app for managing photos on Apple's iPad and then syncing them to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, but you're also bummed that Apple's Camera Connection Kit doesn't include a module for CompactFlash, read on. We have a review of the CF Card Reader for iPad and iPad 2, a new accessory from Chinese accessory reseller M.I.C.

M.I.C. CF Card Reader for iPad and iPad 2

The CF Card Reader for iPad and iPad 2 is comprised of a CompactFlash slot, USB port and dock connector in a single housing. It accepts CompactFlash Type I cards; thicker Type II cards won't fit, which rules out this reader for use with Microdrive-type CompactFlash or even SD cards inside a CompactFlash adapter, as they're all Type II in thickness.

The USB port is for connecting a USB device, such as a digital camera, and importing pictures from that. It serves the same purpose as the USB module in the Camera Connection Kit from Apple. It's similarly limited to devices that either require very little power or are self-powered; iOS 4.2 and later severely limits the current an attached USB accessory can draw from an iPad or iPad 2.

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Importer: The M.I.C. CF Reader for iPad and iPad 2 connected to an iPad 2, left, and with the SD Card Reader module from Apple's Camera Connection Kit, right. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

This is M.I.C.'s third iPad memory card reader offering. In 2010, they released the 3-in-1 Camera Connection Kit, which is comprised of an SD slot, microSD slot and USB port in one module. In 2011, they shipped an updated version. We have both the 2010 and 2011 iterations, and while they both basically work and are capable of roughly the same transfer rates into the iPad as Apple's equivalent in the Camera Connection Kit, in testing the M.I.C. products were sporadically flakey. For example, a card that had been successfully recognized a dozen times before would, all of sudden, not be recognized. That is, the iPad's import interface wouldn't automatically appear, which means the iPad was no longer detecting the connected card and reader.

One solution was to remove and reinsert the M.I.C. module, or restart the iPad. And that's what we did to get through testing. But a better solution is to just use the SD Card Reader module in the Apple Camera Connection Kit, which has worked superbly both during extensive card compatibility checking here and in real world use too.

Apple doesn't make a module for CompactFlash cards, however, so we had high hopes for the M.I.C. CF Card Reader for iPad and iPad 2, which arrived in the mail this week as part of the first wave of units the company began shipping out earlier this month. And while it does work, the new CompactFlash-compatible reader from M.I.C. suffers from both flakiness and compatibility problems. Here's what we've figured out.

Design, transfer times and compatibility

Design The M.I.C. reader is reasonably well thought out, with one exception: the distance from the CF slot's opening to the contact pins at the back of the slot is short. This is an all-too-common flaw in card readers these days, one that can lead to bent contact pins, a damaged CompactFlash card or both. Fortunately, the slot is just deep enough to allow the guide rails to direct the card onto the pins correctly, as long as you insert the card straight in and not slightly askew. There's little room for insertion error, so beware.

Transfer times The table below shows the time it took to import 75 Canon EOS-1D Mark IV RAW+JPEG pairs into an iPad 2 with the card and reader combo listed. The "camera reader" in the table was a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV linked via USB cable to the USB module of the Apple Camera Connection Kit. The iOS version was 4.3.2.

mic_cf_reader_table_2.jpg

As you can see, the times are all about the same: the M.I.C. CF reader isn't particularly faster or slower than other ways of transferring the same set of photos into an iPad 2. This means that transfer times will probably be roughly similar with almost any CompactFlash card made in the past several years, since the throughput bottleneck appears to be the iPad 2 itself. This also means that transfer times, while far slower than is possible with a computer, will still be acceptably quick, at least for how we tend to use an Apple tablet for picture import in the field.

Compatibility The table below shows whether the card, while inserted into the M.I.C. CF reader and plugged into an iPad 2, was both recognized by the iPad 2 and able to successfully transfer 25 Canon EOS-1D Mark IV RAW+JPEG files. The iOS version was 4.3.2. See after the table for an explanation of the results.

mic_cf_reader_table.jpg

Of the 30 cards tested, three were incompatible: the iPad 2's import screen refused to appear when these cards were in the M.I.C. CF reader. Those are marked with an X (and no checkmark) above. Three more, the Delkin CombatFlash 675X 16GB, Lexar Platinum II 200X 8GB and SanDisk Extreme 32GB, got both an X and a checkmark because we had two units of each card, secure erased, formatted and loaded with pictures the same way, and yet one of the two units was compatible and the other wasn't.

Why this occurred with the Delkin and Lexar cards is unknown. The two units of the SanDisk card, however, contain different firmware versions, so that's the likely explanation for one passing the compatibility test and the other not. We tested two units of twelve other cards in the table but did not experience the problem of one being fine and the other not with any card pairing other than the Delkin, Lexar and SanDisk already mentioned.

mic_error.jpg
In addition, we witnessed an intermittent bit of weirdness with the SanDisk Extreme Pro 16GB. This card can work just fine in the M.I.C. CF reader, which is why it got a checkmark in the table above. But after testing was done, while trying to load a batch of freshly-shot Nikon D3S pictures from this card, we stumbled over the problem of the iPad 2's import screen not coming up. Then, while pulling the card/reader out of the iPad 2, the message at right appeared.

We'd seen this message before while using the SD Card Reader from the Apple Camera Connection Kit, and it can be telling the truth about the state of the inserted memory card. Not this time, however. The iPad 2 had already successfully imported pictures from this SanDisk card during the compatibility testing, and was able to import this new batch of photos just fine after restarting the iPad 2. But until a restart, no amount of removing and reinserting the M.I.C. reader from the iPad 2, or the card from the reader, made a difference. In fact, the same error message popped up repeatedly during troubleshooting, every time we removed the reader.

A day later the problem happened again, even though the card had been reformatted and a different set of pictures was on it. This time, we put the card back into the camera and then ran a USB cable from the camera to the M.I.C. CF reader's USB port, to see if the iPad 2 would find the pictures that way. No dice. Again, it was necessary to restart the iPad 2 to restore proper function to the M.I.C. CF reader.

Whether this problem is restricted to the SanDisk Extreme Pro 16GB is anyone's guess. We'd have to do a whole lot more testing to figure that out, but have no plans to since the M.I.C. CF reader has already told us everything we need to decide about its dependability.

Conclusion

Until a CompactFlash card module for Apple's tablet emerges from Apple itself, or from another company with a track record of producing reliable card readers, products from unknown vendors like M.I.C. and their CF Card Reader for iPad and iPad 2 will come along to fill the void. The upside is that it has performed, if not flawlessly, just well enough that it's probably worth gambling US$29.90 + postal shipping for you to see if it will work properly with the CompactFlash cards you own. But,  you'd be unwise to expect it to be free of flakiness. Or, to go on assignment without at least one alternate method for getting pictures into your iPad or iPad 2.

The M.I.C. CF Card Reader for iPad and iPad 2 is available now, direct from M.I.C.'s online store.
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