The days when one can complain that the iPad doesn’t have a memory card slot are essentially over because there are so many ways to add additional storage capacity through the Lightening port. One of the best of these is the SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive.
It is sold in 16 GB, 32 GB, 64 GB, 128 GB capacities, with prices ranging from $50 to $150.
UPDATE: SanDisk has introduced an updated version of this accessory that’s smaller and offers faster data transfer speeds. Be sure to read our review of the second-generation SanDisk iXpand.
Build and Design
This item is a flattened rectangle that’s 2.5 x 1.4 x 0.46 inches (64 x 37 x 12 mm), making something that will go easily in a pocket or bag, but small enough to be clipped to a keychain. The look is very professional, in sliver and black.
On one end of the iXpand is the usual USB Type-A plug that everyone has been familiar with for over a decade. This is ubiquitous on PCs and laptops… although it will eventually be replaced with USB Type C.
Rather than putting the Lightning plug on the opposite end, SanDisk chose to put it on a short, flexible stalk that points the same direction as the USB jack. While this initially comes across as odd, it’s actually quite logical: the Lightning port is so small it doesn’t provide a very stable base to hold up an accessory like this one that weighs several ounces, especially with the device in landscape mode.. The flexible stalk holds the iXpand against the size of the iPad, helping to hold it in place.
This accessory has a quirk some might not be expecting. Apple’s Lightning port doesn’t provide enough power to run a USB drive like this one, so the iXpand includes an internal battery. This is charged whenever the device is plugged into a USB port, so it’s going to be necessary to do this every now and then.
There’s a tiny green LED on one side that turns red to indicate when the battery is low. This also blinks to indicate when data is being transferred, so the user doesn’t inadvertently unplug it at the wrong moment.
The SanDisk iXpand functions in two very different ways, depending on whether it’s acting as a USB drive, or as a Lightning Flash Drive.
USB Flash Drive
When connected to a PC or Mac, it acts just like any other flash drive. It will appear as a removable drive, and files can be copied back and forth.
It uses USB 2.0, giving it a max transfer rate of 60 megabytes per second (MBps). The exact speed will depend partially on the computer doing the transferring, but in our tests the transfer rate was under 20 MBps, indicating that this isn’t a very quick drive.
Lightning Flash Drive
When this accessory is plugged into an iPad or iPhone, an application called SanDisk iXpand Sync automatically opens. If it isn’t installed already, the user will be prompted to download it. The app is necessary because iOS doesn’t have a user-accessible file manager like Windows or OS X, so this software takes on the role.
The app lets the user do all the tasks one would expect of a file manager on a PC or Mac; files can be copied, moved around, renamed, and deleted.
The main iXpand Sync screen shows the contents of the flash drive in a logical manner, with files and folders displayed in a left column and the rest of the screen devoted to displaying the contents of files. It can display a wide range of common file types: such as images, PDF, video, Office documents, MP3, and more.
Pictures can consume large amounts of a tablet’s or phone’s internal storage capacity, but iXpand Sync allows these to be easily copied off to the flash drive. The software can even automatically copy every image in the Camera Roll whenever the drive is inserted – that’s why the word “sync” is in the name.
Another category that can eat of storage space is music, but this app can play songs right off the drive. Naturally, it can play music in the background, allowing the user to do other things while listening.
Most iPads don’t have the capacity to hold more than a couple of movies, but the 64 GB or 128 GB iXpand versions can hold quite a few, and these can be played directly from the drive in full screen, as long as they are in a common video format. Plus, videos shot with iPad’s camera can be copied to the drive as well, freeing up space for more.
There is a limitation here, however. This drive is formatted in FAT32, which means the largest file it can handle is 4 GB. Any movies larger than 4 GB can’t be stored on an iXpand.
File transfers through the Lightening port aren’t blindlying fast, but they should be quick enough for most people. In our tests, transferring a 200 MB file took under 20 seconds.
Business users are almost certainly going to need edit documents stored on this drive. iXpand Sync supports the iOS “Open in…” function, allowing files to be transferred to other applications, where they can be modified. For example, a .DOCX file can be opened in Microsoft Word to be edited. Once editing is done, “Open in…” can be used to copy the file back to iXpand Sync and the flash drive.
A handy feature is the ability to make a backup of the iPad’s address book and restore it with a push of a button, in case of disaster.
One of the reasons people keep files on flash drives rather than cloud services is to be sure they are kept secure. Beyond just keeping files safe by storing them locally rather than on the Internet, iXpand Sync can encrypt files stored on the drive so that they are password protected.
The SecureAccess feature is much more basic than dedicated encryption software; all files have the same password, and have to be stored in one folder called “SanDiskSecureAccess Vault”.
Accessing secured files on a PC or Mac requires installing software on the desktop or laptop. Without this, not even the names of the vault can be read.
The $50 pricetag for the 16 GB version of the iXpand doesn’t work out to be very cost effective. However, paying $100 for the 64 GB one is a bit more reasonable. That said, there’s no doubt that adding the iPad/iPhone Lightning function adds significantly to the cost of the flash drive.
There’s an old saying that one can never be too thin or have too much storage capacity. The SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive could be just the right solution for anyone whose iPad or iPhone is feeling a little cramped: it’s simple to use and not too slow.
And it has lots of other uses as well. Storing sensitive files on a drive is always more secure than putting them in the cloud, and SanDisk’s encryption software is a nice addition for occasional files.
And it can always be used as a fool-proof method of transferring files from tablet to phone or from PC to tablet, albeight not one as elegant as AirDrop.