Iomega’s SuperHero Has Feet of Clay

By  |  Monday, March 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Backing up an iPhone, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a hassle. You do the job via iTunes, but it’s not a particularly intuitive experience, nor one that’s as automated as it should be. (The syncing that happens automatically when you connect an iPhone via USB falls very short of a full backup.) Unless you’re a lot more careful than I am about protecting your data, you probably don’t back up your iPhone as often as you should.

Enter Iomega’s SuperHero, which I wrote about when it was announced at CES in January. It’s an iPhone charging dock–it also works with the current version of the iPod Touch–that aims to make backup so easy that you’ll actually do it. Or contact and photo backup, at least–the SuperHero can’t protect apps, e-mail, calendars, and other items because Apple provides no way for third-party products to get at this data. Iomega provided a unit to me for review.

The SuperHero takes up about as much space on a desk or table as a coaster: It’s not much more than a little box with an iPhone connector, a slot for an SD card (Iomega supplies a 4GB card, but you can swap in a larger one), and a jack for its AC adapter. It works with a free SuperHero backup program, available from the App Store. Launch the app, pop the iPhone into the SuperHero, and it will charge your phone and automatically back up contacts and photos, so they’re safe if you accidentally lose them–or lose your iPhone, period. If you install the app onto multiple iPhones and/or iPod touches,  you can use them all with one  SuperHero dock, although backups are assigned cryptic names such as “1ED0132A,” and I couldn’t figure out a way to change that to something friendlier like “Harry’s iPhone 4.”

When I tried backing up my iPhone 4 with the SuperHero, my 1700 contacts transferred over in a few minutes. Fine. Then the software started transferring my 658 photos to the dock. Backing up each photo took longer than I expected.

Much longer than I expected.

Like, around two to five minutes per five-megapixel photo.

Which means that backing up 658 photos might take close to two days. Or, if I kept the SuperHero on my nightstand and got it going right before I went to sleep–the iPhone app is smart enough to pick up where it left off if you interrupt a photo backup–four or five nights. Even if you don’t let photos linger on your phone like I do, backing up a day’s worth of snapshots might take hours, not minutes.

By way of comparison, Apple’s iTunes can back up my iPhone–contacts, photos, apps and all–in less than ten minutes over a USB connection.

An Iomega representative explained that me that the SuperHero talks to the iPhone via iPhone Accessory Protocol, a feature Apple created to let car stereos and other external devices control iPods and iPhones and download track information and cover art. IAP was never meant for transferring humongous files like digital photos;  sending iPhone snapshots back and forth over it is the equivalent of shoving blueberries through a drinking straw. Iomega says it can only transfer photos at about 6-Kbps, a speed so slow I’m amazed it’s associated with any product manufactured in this millennium.

There is good news, sort of: Apple has recently increased the throughput of iAP. Iomega expects to have the new version implemented by summer, which it says will make the SuperHero ten times faster. But it’s so sluggish that even a 10X boost will only make it less slow, not fast.

Now, using a SuperHero won’t always take eons. Once you’ve done your first backup, subsequent ones only transfer new photos, not the ones which are already on the SuperHero’s SD card. And if you back up your photos to a computer fastidiously or don’t take all that many in the first place, a SuperHero backup would go a lot more quickly. But the fewer photos you keep on your iPhone or more often you transfer them to a computer, the less attractive a proposition SuperHero is in the first place. And even in a best-case scenario, it’s useful only for supplementing backups via iTunes, not replacing them.

I still like the idea of SuperHero. An iPhone dock that did a reasonably speedy, reasonably complete job of backing up your phone’s contents could be a winner, and a decent deal at $69.99. I wish Apple would give third-party manufacturers the access they need to build such a gadget. But given that there’s no way for the SuperHero to protect all your data, or to transfer the data it does have access to at a respectable speed, I can’t help but conclude that Iomega had a good idea that it can’t currently turn into a good product.

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