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Tuesday, September 02, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 5/17/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

A cloud-free way to keep all photos in order, backed up

BY FARHAD MANJOO
NEW YORK TIMES

BLADE ILLUSTRATION BY TOM FISHER Enlarge

About a week ago, I installed a small device in my home office that has been working to collect and catalog just about every photograph and video I’ve ever captured with a digital camera.

I don’t envy the device. During the past decade, like almost everyone else on the planet, I went bananas for photos and videos. I estimate I’ve got more than 20,000 pictures and clips spread across phones, tablets, and a handful of far-flung folders on a handful of computers.

Over the years I’ve tried lots of services that claimed to get this mess under control. I’ve found some to be pretty handy — especially Google’s online photo service and its companion software, Picasa — but none has yielded photographic nirvana.

What’s nirvana? It’s the promised land we were all pitched when we first adopted digital pictures: constant access, everywhere. Imagine being able to quickly, easily, and securely call up any photo you’ve ever taken on any device, on a whim, whenever you pleased. Wouldn’t that be grand?

That’s just the promise that the new device, LyveHome, offers. And on the whole, it delivers — although it is not perfect.

LyveHome has lassoed my vast mess of images into a sensible collection I can access from just about anywhere. I can call up the Lyve app on an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Android phone and be instantly transported on a photographic journey into the past — adding a deeper layer of meaning and enjoyment to a set of memories that were once all but inaccessible.

Still, at $299, LyveHome isn’t cheap. And it is missing enough important features that I’d be wary of buying one until it is improved.

But as it is, LyveHome is intriguing, not so much because it works, but because of how it works. LyveHome does not store your photos in a huge database online, unlike Google, Flickr, Facebook, and Dropbox. LyveHome eschews the much-hyped cloud. Instead, in addition to copying all your photos to its central drive, LyveHome manages storage space across all your devices to create multiple redundant copies of your images.

When you call up a single photo, the system smartly routes the picture from one of your devices to another. In this way, every one of your photos is stored on a device you own, with the LyveHome sitting at the center, managing the flow of images.

For people who have craved wider access to their photos but who were worried about the privacy implications or the long-term cost of maintaining a large cache of storage space online, LyveHome’s system presents an ingenious alternative.

Tim Bucher, the founder and chief executive of Lyve, which makes the LyveHome, argued that a photo library built using people’s existing devices provided the convenience of a cloud service with an added layer of control that most people want.

“We want to give consumers the power to decide where they want to store their most precious data,” he said.

Yet in many ways, Mr. Bucher’s dream of a personal cloud is still more of a theory than a functioning idea, and the limitations should give users some pause about the safety and utility of any photographic stash stored on Lyve, at least right now.

When you install the system, Lyve’s well-designed software copies your pictures from each of your phones and computers to LyveHome, which has about 2 terabytes of data capacity, enough to store hundreds of thousands of photos. The system also creates a master index stored on the company’s servers online; the index contains data about your photos, like file sizes and a unique code to identify each image, but it does not contain the photos themselves. The initial cataloging process can take several hours to several days, depending on how many photos you’re storing.

Then, when you open the Lyve app on your computer or mobile device, it consults the master index, and it transfers your pictures from the LyveHome to your phone.

There are two problems with this setup. First, it’s slow. The Lyve app stores thumbnails — tiny versions of every photo — on each of your devices, so you can quickly scan through your images on your phone or tablet.

But if you click on any thumbnail to see a larger version, there’s a good chance the full photo will need to be transferred from LyveHome to your phone.

If your phone is just in the next room, the picture can take a split second to load, which isn’t so bad but isn’t quite seamless, either. But if you’re out of your house, pictures come up much slower — a second or two for each one, at least. There’s an even more excruciating wait to load videos.

Sure, you see a delay when you download pictures from cloud services, too, but the delay is often much slighter. Because large cloud companies have access to fat Internet pipes — they’ve got more bandwidth than the LyveHome at your house — pictures stored on Dropbox or Google load much faster than those on LyveHome.

The larger problem is redundancy. In some ways, Lyve is built for the future — when many of us will have enough extra phones and computers lying around that it will be possible to cobble together a robust personal cloud out of our own devices. Security will thus emerge from ubiquity. If enough of your pictures are copied on enough of your devices spread out in enough places, you might be able to lose any one device and not lose any of your photos.

Today, though, most people don’t have all that many devices. In its current incarnation, then, Lyve’s main storage component is the LyveHome device. This makes it the most vulnerable component too. If your house burns down, you will lose your LyveHome — and with it, many of your photos.

So even if you choose the LyveHome specifically to avoid online photo services, it would be wise to pair it with a cloud backup system like Mozy, Carbonite, or CrashPlan, which create online copies of your data that you can retrieve in the event of calamity.

There are other caveats with Lyve too. For now, the system works with Apple and Android mobile devices, and with Apple’s desktop and laptop computers.

Lyve’s Windows desktop app will be ready in a few weeks. I tested an early version of that app, and I found it worked well. But it is limited compared with the Mac version. The Mac app lets you view all the pictures you’ve got stored on Lyve, while the Windows version is only for cataloging the images on your computer and transferring them to the LyveHome. That is, for now, you can’t view your Lyve images on a Windows machine.

Are all these limitations fatal to Lyve’s cloud-free vision? I don’t think so. Mr. Bucher outlined coming updates to Lyve that may greatly improve it.

For now, at its best, Lyve is a terrifically easy way to sort through all your digital memories. Just remember that it is very much a work in progress.



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