When it comes to portable, computer-less media backup, there are precious few options. Gnarbox sprang into life to address this very need, raising over half-a-million dollars on Kickstarter for its first product, a rugged backup solution designed to go anywhere built around a solid-state drive. But now, LaCie — a subsidiary of hard drive manufacturer Seagate — has entered into the segment with the new DJI-branded Copilot. That’s right, this thing has three brand names attached to it.
Built around a spinning disk of unspecified rotational speed, the Copilot is the first product in LaCie’s BOSS line, which stands for Backup On-Set Solution. It is battery powered and features an SD card slot, USB 3 Type-C and Type-A connectors, a built-in monochrome display, and comes with USB-C, Micro USB, and Lightning cables for plugging in your smartphone (which will charge while connected).
By using a traditional hard drive rather than an SSD, the Copilot’s most apparent advantage over the Gnarbox is capacity. At 2,000GB, it’s nearly eight times larger than the highest-capacity Gnarbox (256GB). The trade-off, of course, is transfer speed and physical size. However, due to the lower cost of hard disks versus SSDs, you can pick it up for just $350 — $50 cheaper than the 256GB Gnarbox.
But that’s not the Copilot’s only competitor. Western Digital also makes a line of battery-powered backup drives with built-in SD slots, both in SSD and HDD variants — although the SSD version isn’t terribly fast. Its 2TB HDD version sells for just $179, but lacks the screen and rugged design of the LaCie. It does, however, function as a Wi-Fi hotspot, support backups of phones and tablets via an app, and can even stream content to a TV using Plex. But the Copilot’s reliance on hardwired connections may actually be better suited to its target user of professional content creators.
Design and interface
Measuring 5.3 x 4.4 x 1.4 inches and weighing 1.2 pounds, the Copilot is about an inch wider, nearly half-an-inch deeper, and just slightly heavier than the Gnarbox. With its gray rubber bumpers, it looks like a more mature, business-ready version of LaCie’s Rugged-series drives (which sport much more eye-catching orange exteriors). One side of the bumper can be removed, revealing the ports behind it. A groove running around the perimeter of the device cuts through the bumpers and makes room for the phone-connector cable. It’s a smart way of fitting a longer cable without cluttering up the main port bay.
The status display completely vanishes when turned off, but blinks into existence at the press of a button, showing battery life and available capacity. There’s only one button (the “action button”), which, aside from waking the device, can be used to control the Copilot by essentially answering yes/no questions. Copy all data from memory card? Short press for yes, long press for no. (A short press is anything up to 1 second, while a long press is defined as 3 seconds.)
The capabilities of the system are further expanded via the mobile app (more on this later), but we can’t help but feel that a two-button interface on the device itself would have been simpler than the short-press/long-press solution that LaCie went with. Also, should an issue ever arise that requires you to reset the device, make sure you have a thumbtack or paperclip on hand, because you’ll need to insert it into a pinhole to trigger a reset. Luckily, we never had any problems with the unit, but it seems like a simple power switch could have sufficed — although, presumably LaCie wanted to avoid this in order prevent accidental shutdowns while the Copilot is bouncing around in your backpack while copying data as you bomb down a rocky singletrack trying to look epic for your DJI Inspire 2 flying above.
Fortunately for the action sports minded, the device should be able to handle rough conditions, and is drop, splash, and dust resistant — although, LaCie does not offer any specifics about how high of a drop or how much water and dust it can take.
No computer? No problem
Despite the DJI co-branding, there is nothing specific to drone flying about the Copilot — anybody who produces media in the field can use it to offload their memory cards. Drone pilots are one such demographic, but all manner of photographers and videographers can potentially benefit from this type of device.
The selling point is its completely computer-free backup. A regular external drive requires a computer to actually run it, which means you have to lug a laptop around with you to use it in the field. The Copilot has its own battery and runs its own operating system so that it can copy data from an SD card all by itself. Simply plug in your memory card, press the action button, and when it prompts you to copy the card, press it again. Alternately, you can connect the drive to your phone to initiate transfers via the DJI Copilot BOSS app.
By using a hardwired connection, you can also browse and manage files from your mobile device without any cumbersome Wi-Fi setup. Create folders, view and delete images and videos, and even transfer files for offline viewing. This all works really well, and while the Copilot keeps your phone’s battery topped up, take note that its own battery won’t last forever. Don’t run it too low until you’re done backing up all of your files for the day.
In our testing, we copied 58 gigabytes of data from a UHS-II SD card in roughly 7 minutes, for an average write speed of about 138 megabytes per second (the card was rated at 200MBps). In that time, the battery dropped 8 percent, so you should be able to back up around 725GB on a single charge.
While 138MBps is about what we would expect for write speed — and is, in fact, faster than the 100MBps write speed of the Gnarbox — the Copilot slowed to a crawl when transferring data to a computer. Here, we averaged just 39MBps over USB 3.0, which isn’t great. LaCie does not specify the read and write speeds of the Copilot, but perhaps this is why. Compared to the 270MBps read speed of the Gnarbox, this is probably the Copilot’s biggest drawback.
Given that transferring files to a computer from the Copilot is considerably slower than transferring straight from an SD card (assuming you have a relatively new and fast card), our advice is to use the Copilot primarily as a redundant backup and keep all of your media on your memory cards whenever possible. Naturally, sometimes you just won’t be able to do this — and part of the appeal of a device like the Copilot is the ability to keep reusing your same memory cards — but just keep in mind that you may endure some long ingest times when you finally return from the field. Also, particularly for high-bitrate 4K content, editing straight from the Copilot may not be possible.
Is it worth it?
As with insurance, the most valuable aspect of the Copilot is the peace of mind it brings you. For content creators who spend days or weeks at a time without the safety net of the internet or the ability to power a computer, getting 2TB of ruggedized, on-the-go storage is a big deal. LaCie also throws in a one-month Adobe Creative Cloud All Apps plan, valued at $53.
But not everyone will need so much storage in the field, and the Copilot’s less-than-stellar export speed could be the deal breaker for such individuals. Here, the 256GB Gnarbox may be the better buy. As expected, some people have also raised concerns about the presumed risks of using a spinning disk, with all its sensitive moving parts, in rough field conditions. Rubber bumpers or not, nobody wants to risk dropping a hard drive. We encountered no issues, but beyond tossing it into a backpack, taking it on a hike, and letting it slide around the back of a car, we didn’t exactly try to push the limits. If consumers feel safer with solid state media — and if peace of mind is what they’re buying — they may choose to pay more for an SSD.
However, for those who need a high-capacity, portable backup system, SSDs may just be too costly. That said, with the much cheaper options from Wester Digital, the LaCie DJI Copilot may also be too costly. If you like the idea of its splash and dust-proof design, built-in screen, and hardwired phone cable, that could make it worth it, though. It is also easy to use, includes some practical connectivity features, and while it’s not exactly fast, it will get the job done.