Better Living Through Dedicated Computing: The GNARBOX

“Check this out! In glorious 4K. I edited it on my phone.” My wife’s double-take (exactly the reaction I was looking for) was evidence enough of the novelty inherent to the GNARBOX, but there’s enough utility behyond that to make it a real winner.

The GNARBOX is a Kickstarter-funded product designed to eliminate the need for photographers and videographers to carry a laptop. Since you’ll be able to get them at Mike’s Camera later this month, I got a chance to play with one for the last few weeks; here are my findings. The 2.0 version was also announced on KickStarter last week, but in a lot of ways I think the 1.0 might be a better fit for most enthusiast shooters… more on that later.

The GNARBOX

The GNARBOX is about 2.5 CD cases thick, for anyone else who still uses those.

A little bigger than a standard USB hard drive, the rugged shell houses a tiny pseudo-laptop: 1.92 GHz quad-core processor, 2GB RAM, WiFi antenna, 4-6 hour battery, and either a 128 GB or 256 GB SSD. Two water-resistant flaps cover an SD card slot, microSD card slot, USB 3.0 port, USB 2.0 port, and microUSB port. With the flaps closed, there’s not much to see on the unit itself except a small power button, two indicator lights, and a handsome green logo.

The GNARBOX provides two essential services for the on-site photographer: backup and processing oomph. The built-in SD card reader was an obvious choice, but (since I’ve been shooting more with my Sony Action Cam and Mavic Pro Platinum lately) I really liked having a dedicated microSD reader and not having to worry about an extra adapter. For everything else, the USB ports allow you to connect whatever variety of card reader is necessary. Anyone who shoots raw stills and/or video may find the SSD space a little tight, especially on the 128 GB version (around 100 GB of which is useable, meaning that you could only dump a 64 GB card one time), but fortunately the USB ports also allow you to plug in an external hard drive and back up to it using the GNARBOX as an interface. That’s one more thing to carry, but it also still means you don’t need a laptop to transfer files off of your working cards.

Of course, there are other devices which can provide mobile backup. Where the GNARBOX is, to my knowledge, completely unique is its ability to serve as a brain pack of sorts for your phone or tablet. While smartphones are not designed to process a card full of raw photos and UHD video, they are certainly powerful enough to work as a remote and monitor for a “computer” that is. Here’s a video I created (again, in 4K) from a collection of short clips I took when visiting New Orleans.

That took me about an hour and a half, but I did a lot of tweaking to bring the transitions closer to matching beats in the music. If I were less picky, it would be an extremely quick process, as there are no transitions or complicated video editing features (yet) to bog you down. At least until the new apps are released later this year (which will work with the 1.0 unit, as promised by the GNARBOX crew) you can only control the color/exposure and in/out points of the clips. This is plenty for on-the-fly vlogging or making high-quality action compilations to share immediately, and the 2.0 software promises to allow export to common desktop video editors (so you can have an outline already laid down before you would normally even start transferring your footage).

The import process was easy. Click “Devices”, select the desired card or hard drive, and then you can select individual files or groups by day.

One feature I’ve long wished for in other camera remote apps is evident here: the ability to choose to browse by list rather than by thumbnail. If you know what you want, it’s so much faster; thank you for including it!

Once you’ve imported your selections, it’s easy to start editing. Still shooters will find the available options familiar and quick to use.

In any gallery view, you can filter out video files, image files, audio files, or “other” (see the beginning of the next video). Once you open a video, it starts playing a preview; hit “Edit” and you’re off to the races.

I don’t think that what I did was especially complicated or out of character for the target market for this device, nor is my phone on the lower end of the spectrum (Sony Xperia Z5 Compact), so I think I got a good picture of the elusive True User Experience. The Bad first:

  • Rearranging clips was a very laggy process and required me to back out and reload the timeline to update the preview.
  • Once a clip is trimmed, that’s the way it is forevermore. If you want to use more/less/a different section of the original clip, you have to delete that one, trim a new one, and move it into place in the timeline. When trying to sync to the music, I found myself wishing I could retrim them on the fly to match better. Fortunately, GNARBOX has specifically promised this feature in an upcoming software update.
  • To add a song to the mix, I had to physically move it onto my microSD card in order to import it into the GNARBOX. My understanding is that iPhone users can plug their phones into the GNARBOX to transfer content, but it’s kind of a bummer for those of us using Android-based systems. At least it will charge any phone!
  • Adding music is an odd, though innovative, process. You choose “Hit Points” in both the song and Highlight Reel, and they are synced up. This way you can make sure the beat drops when you hit the slope (for example), but it makes fine-tuning a finicky process as you can only adjust Hit Points, not move the audio file around on the timeline.

…however, it was very intuitive to add a song and shift the audio balance completely away from the video clips’ audio. This was an example of what The Good really comes down to the fact that the GNARBOX crew understands its target audience completely. While it won’t replace a desktop editing suite, everything you would likely want to do on a mobile platform is laid out logically, almost inevitably, which meant I spent hardly any time figuring out how to do what I wanted to do and instead simply followed the flow.

Exposed! Note that cards and USB plugs are inserted upside down. Quirky, but no less effective!

As promised, let’s come back to the elephant in the room: GNARBOX 2.0. At first, I was a little disappointed to feel a generation behind. However, after examining the differences, I don’t think that 2.0 is inherently a better choice for most photographers. What’s different, anyway?

  • Upgraded 2.4 GHz processor
  • 512 GB and 1 TB versions available, with upgraded 4 GB of RAM (128/256 GB versions will still have 2 GB RAM)
  • Replaceable battery
  • No microSD reader, one USB-C port instead of two USB-A ports
  • Built in screen/interface for one-touch backups with checksum verification (awesome!)
  • IP67 certified
  • Ships in December (projected)

Definitely an upgrade in a lot of ways. Considering my real-world usage, though, I think the GNARBOX 1.0 is really a better fit. Here’s why:

  • For on-the-go card dumps, I’d rather save the money that a larger SSD would require and use a HDD.
  • While I admire careful use of space in technology, I loved not needing a microSD to SD adapter. I have a plethora of regular SD cards and tend to shoot digital photos with the economy of film; it’s my microSD-based devices that seem to burn through memory.
  • I am a fairly technology oriented kind of guy, yet somehow I remain completely outside the USB-C ecosystem. Someday, USB-A will take its place alongside PS/2 and serial ports, but for now, that port would be useless to me without an adapter (one more thing to lose).
  • The GNARBOX crew has promised access to the new apps to its 1.0 customers.
  • And, of course, 1.0 is available NOW. It’s a really addictive freedom. In the not-too-distant past, I found myself in a Huddle House, keeping my netbook from going to sleep and praying that the files from my memory card finished copying before my battery died. Having a rugged device to take care of that while on the go is an experience of a completely different caliber.

I’m not saying the 2.0 is not an upgrade, and I hope we’ll find ourselves stocking it just in time for the holidays, but I don’t think waiting would do me any better than taking advantage of the unique little beast available right now! Order your 128 GB or 256 GB version online today, or drop by your local Mike’s Camera to check it out in-person.

3 comments

    1. John, you can plug a USB CF reader into one of the USB ports. Not as convenient, but certainly easy to sneak one into your bag as well.

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