Equipment Review: Gnarbox 2.0

Disclaimer: I was given the GNARBOX 2.0 to try out on a recent climbing expedition and subsequently was told I could keep it by the fine folks at Gnarbox. As a result of this trial, I have also become a member of the GNARBOX Pro Team. With that said, I would not post a review of a product if I didn’t like it and see a use for that product. Take from this what you will, but as usual, I want my readers to know what is going on in the background behind my reviews. I was not paid to write or post this review.

On a recent assignment, while filming on a climbing expedition to Cholatse (6440 m, 21,130 feet) in the Khumbu region in Nepal, I had the chance to test out the GNARBOX 2.0 (shown above). On this assignment I had so much climbing and camera gear–and we were in such a remote area–that taking a laptop to download and back up content seemed overkill. Usually on trips like this I take a few dozen high capacity memory cards and deal with it on the back end. But by chance I ran into the guys at GNARBOX a few months before my trip while teaching for the Summit Photography Workshops in Jackson, Wyoming. They showed me the GNARBOX and it seemed to be the answer to all my problems. They were kind enough to give me one of the 1 TB GNARBOX units to take on my trip and test out.

Backing up, way back in 2004–in the early days of digital–I remember buying an Epson P2000 (for an exorbitant amount of money I might add), which was a similar device with a whopping 40 GB of storage. Back in those days we were shooting with 6 to 8 MP cameras and had 2 GB cards in our cameras. Those 2 GB CompactFlash memory cards also cost a small fortune at that time. The Epson served as a way to back up memory cards so you could then re-format the card and keep on shooting. It was a key device for many of my extended backcountry trips where taking a laptop wasn’t feasible. It worked well but the battery didn’t last very long and it was super slow to download a card–especially back in the day when everything was a lot slower. After the Epson P2000, there were a few other devices that did the same thing but none were as nice as the Epson and sadly Epson subsequently never updated that device. Hence, the GNARBOX 2.0 is a much needed update to that ancient Epson P2000 with massively more functionality and in a much more durable enclosure.

Since I am working with the FUJIFILM GFX 100 as my main camera these days, that giant 102 MP sensor spits our huge image files that can fill up memory cards alarmingly fast. Having the GNARBOX in my pack just allows me to start the downloading process that much faster, i.e. on the way home or back to the hotel. In remote areas, like on this expedition, it allows me to download images and clear my cards if needed to free up some memory card space.

Here in this review, I won’t go into all of the details about how to use the device since the GNARBOX support page on their website has tons of information on their website on how to use the device. My aim is to give a real world look at how the GNARBOX works in the field and in a workflow once you get back. Let’s start off with the exterior. The GNARBOX 2.0 is built to withstand anything that might be thrown its way. The casing literally seems bulletproof and is certainly crushproof. You can toss it into your pack without having to worry about it. There is a small screen on the front of the device, that is ample for downloading images and sending them where you want–and organizing them into folders as needed. The ribbing on the device is designed to help dissipate heat and also allows you to hold onto it–even with big gloves–quite easily. The GNARBOX is highly water resistant and can be dropped without worry of damaging the SSD hard drive. It is relatively small and weighs just under a pound.

What may not be obvious at first is this is not just a hard drive in a fancy case. The GNARBOX 2.0 is basically a mini computer with an Intel® Quad Core 2.40GHZ CPU and a 4 Core Intel® HD Graphics GPU inside the case. It also has 4 GB of RAM and fast WiFi built-in. On one side you have a flip down gasket-sealed door (shown below on the left) that hides a Micro HDMI port, an SD memory card reader and a USB-C port, and on the other end–under another gasket-sealed flap–is a second USB-C port for charging or connecting an external hard drive to the device. The battery pops on to the back of the GNARBOX in a very elegant way, which means you can carry spare batteries and change them out as needed.

Because it is essentially a mini computer you can rest assured that it is transferring your images and content over to the hard drive in the safest manner possible. Once the backup is complete the device also runs a full verification–both on the GNARBOX SSD and also on any external SSD hard drive attached to it. Unless you are using software on your computer, like Carbon Copy Cloner or similar apps, then your computer doesn’t even have the same backup capabilities that the GNARBOX has. Once back at a computer, it is easy enough to put the GNARBOX into “Mass Storage Mode” so that it acts just like any other external hard drive for transferring images to your computer or if speed is of the essence working straight off the GNARBOX hard drive.

In terms of battery life, I was quite impressed with the performance of the GNARBOX batteries. Even in the incredibly cold environment at 16,000 feet (4900 m) the battery lasted quite a while–easily for several downloads before I had to recharge it or change it out with a spare backup battery. Note that in every case, I was always downloading to the GNARBOX and also to an external G-technology 2 TB SSD drive simultaneously, which did not seem to use up much more battery power than just downloading to the GNARBOX itself.

Some might ask, why isn’t there a larger LCD screen on the GNARBOX? In this day and age, we all carry a smartphone around with us a good chunk of the time and with the super fast WiFi built into the GNARBOX it makes sense that they would have a few different apps to see what was downloaded (or being downloaded) to the GNARBOX and any hard drives attached to it. The SafeKeep App (available for both Apple iOS and Android devices) connects to the GNARBOX 2.0 quickly and easily, and allows for scrolling through and seeing all the images on the hard drive. I have to say that the ease with which you can connect the GNARBOX is exceptional. All of the big camera companies could learn a lot by looking at how GNARBOX does this. It makes for a seamless workflow to check that everything is downloaded and then eject the card and get back to work. The Selects App, which is powered by Photo Mechanic, allows for adding metadata, making selects and choosing your best images. From there you can use Lightroom and other photo (and video) editors to work on those images. For my workflow, I generally don’t worry about editing or working up my images in the field. I usually wait to edit and up work up images when I am back in the office and can see them in all their glory on a high-end, color calibrated Eizo monitor. But for those that want to work up their images on a iPhone or iPad in the field and post them to social media, this is a great solution for traveling light.

On my recent expedition, every few days I would download images off my still cameras onto the GNARBOX and my external SSD hard drive. As shown below, I connected my 2 TB G-Technology Mobile Pro SSD hard drive to the GNARBOX and then selected the “Multi” option to download images off the SD memory card to both the GNARBOX and the G-technology SSD at the same time. This gave me two backups of everything in case I needed to format the memory cards later on. And even though the GNARBOX is only one terabyte, you can also choose to bypass its SSD drive altogether and just copy over the images directly to the external hard drive as if the GNARBOX was your computer. On this expedition we were downloading our video footage to separate hard drives (and I was not in charge of that) so I had ample room for my still images on the GNARBOX’s 1TB hard drive. For future trips where I might need more than 1 TB of storage space, as when shooting video and stills, it is easy enough to copy that extra content to a larger hard drive with this system.

Having used the 1 TB version for a month now, I would love to see an even larger storage capacity. I realize that may cost a lot more but having 2 TB would be nice. Perhaps this is a moot point if you can attach and external drive as shown above. I have the latest and fastest Sony Tough 128 GB SD memory cards for my GFX 100 and they seem to download a bit slower on the GNARBOX 2.0 compared to a fast card reader. I am not sure if this is the card reader built into the GNARBOX, the computing part of the GNARBOX or the care with which it copies over your images files. This is a small thing to nitpick–and in the end it doesn’t matter that much anyway. Lastly, it would be nice to see a faster SSD drive built into the GNARBOX, similar to the 2,800 MB/s G-Technology G-Drive Mobile Pro hard drives, but I fear that would make the GNARBOX massively expensive. I don’t see any of these as negatives. These are just some observations comparing how fast the GNARBOX is versus some of my other wicked fast hard drives. To be sure, the SSD built into the GNARBOX 2.0 is no slouch and even if we did have a faster SSD in it the copy speed would be limited by the read/write speeds of the memory card.

In conclusion, the GNARBOX 2.0 does exactly what it says it will do–and much more than you think it can. Once you get a feel for the menus, it is very easy to use and as I have said the WiFi feature and the associated app are incredibly easy to work with. Being able to see exactly what is on the hard drive via the WiFi app is also quite reassuring that your images are indeed on the device. Overall, the GNARBOX 2.0 is a home run. It will always be in my camera bag so that I can download images on the run and be ready for the next step in the workflow once I get back to the hotel or my office. The GNARBOX 2.0 is kind of a no-brainer product. It is easy to use and does exactly what it needs to do with very little fuss.

My thanks to GNARBOX for their generous support on this last assignment and for adding me to the GNARBOX Pro Team.

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