Using a Google Chromebook as a digital camera backup device

My latest brilliant idea was to purchase a $200 Acer C7 Google Chromebook, which includes a 320 GB hard drive, and use it to back up a digital camera while traveling. “So much lighter than a laptop” I thought and also cheap enough not to worry about. (In fact, if you factor in the included 100 GB of Google Drive storage for two years plus the airline WiFi passes, the Chromebook is actually free.)

The device includes an SD card reader but not a CF card reader. I thought “This will still be easy. I’ll just hook up the Canon 5D III digital SLR via a USB cable and both the CF and SD cards (each a whopping 128 GB) will show up as additional disks on the Chromebook.” I tried that and nothing happened. To verify that the Canon was working properly I plugged it into a Windows 7 desktop computer and in fact both cards showed up. I tried the same thing with a Sony NEX-6 camera and the Chromebook said that the device was not supported. The Windows machine had no trouble mounting the camera as an external disk drive.

I was able to get an 8 GB USB drive to be recognized by the Chromebook, but not either an 8 GB or 128 GB SD card, exFAT format, plugged into a USB reader. The only card that the Chromebook could recognize was an 8 GB FAT32 card. Then I moved the 8 GB card into the Sony NEX-6 and the Chromebook was able to recognize the camera as an external drive. Then I had the brilliant idea of removing the SD card, in exFAT format, from the 5D Mark III, leaving only the FAT32-formatted CF card. The Chromebook still would not recognize the camera as a USB device, though again it worked fine on the Windows machine. indicates that Google is not supporting exFAT in their operating system, which makes the Chromebook pretty much useless in combination with modern digital cameras. It would be nice if they beefed up their operating system enough to recognize exFAT and say “This card is in exFAT format, which we don’t support. You probably don’t want to reformat it.” (instead of a cryptic error message and an offer to reformat, which will of course delete all of the owner’s cherished photos)

It seems that one fix would be to reformat the 128 GB cards as FAT32 rather than exFAT. Does anyone have any thoughts about whether that is a good idea? Does exFAT provide greater data security? Wikipedia lists a bunch of “advantages” for exFAT, but none of them seem relevant to a card inside a digital camera. The free space allocation stuff doesn’t seem relevant given that the card will be reformatted by the camera, probably, every month or so. The Canon manual says “Cards with 128 GB or lower capacity will be formatted in FAT format. Cards with a capacity higher than 128 GB will be formatted in exFAT format.” Both cards have been formatted by the camera, so the SD card should not still be in exFAT format, but perhaps that is because I’ve never done “low-level” formatting (an option on the 5D Mark III only for SD cards).

Considering that the Chromebook is supposed to be “computing that just works” for not-very-tech-savvy users, the failures to support a Canon-brand camera and a popular format for memory cards seem like huge ones. A person who was willing to go to the effort of figuring out FAT versus FAT32 versus exFAT and why a camera plugged in won’t mount is a person who is capable of running Linux.

[Separately, the Chromebook seems like a pretty nice device. Offline editing of a Google Doc worked well and the software was able to merge some changes made to an online version with the offline version. It didn’t do exactly what I expected but no text was lost. Power management is odd. The device does not seem to sleep when idle. If opened up, typed on for a bit, and then walked away from for hours… the device will still be awake, with a nearly dead battery, after 4 or 5 hours.]

11 thoughts on “Using a Google Chromebook as a digital camera backup device

  1. There’s no upstream Linux kernel support for exFAT, because it’s aggressively patented by Microsoft. I’d guess that Google decided that sufficiently few people want to use >64GB SD cards with the Chromebook, such that they should stick with the Linux default and save themselves the patent licensing fee.

    My understanding is that Windows will refuse to perform the 128GB FAT32 formatting for you — for no discernible technical reason, and probably for the social reason of increasing their exFAT patent license numbers — but you can get third-party software that does it.

    A difference between FAT32 and exFAT will be that there’s a max file size of 4GB on FAT32, which is the reason that Canon cameras will only record 12 minutes of video at once: that’s how much 1080p video you can store in 4GB. So maybe using exFAT would allow you to get past this limit, but FAT32 won’t?

  2. I had this come up with a large (64GB) flash drive that my car’s audio system (a Honda Odyssey, which we partially bought based on your excellent review and recommendation!) would not recognize at all unless I formatted it as FAT32, not exFAT.

    Turns out this is possible, but.. odd. You end up with very large cluster sizes, which means the minimum *effective* file size becomes something absurd like 32kb or 64kb.

    “The maximum disk size is approximately 8 terabytes when you take into account the following variables: The maximum possible number of clusters on a FAT32 volume is 268,435,445, and there is a maximum of 32 KB per cluster, along with the space required for the file allocation table (FAT).”

    But that probably doesn’t matter so much when the device will only store large digital photos anyway. So I say it’s safe.

  3. This is an interesting post as I am thinking of purchasing a Chromebook myself. However, it would not have occurred to me to buy one to store photos. In my mind the Chromebook is for people who can live with what it is possible to do in Chrome — which actually is much of what I do. I really like Chrome and I love Gmail and Google Docs. What interests me is the Chromebook with SSD. But I can’t find one on display to look at and try.

  4. The problem is that exFAT is very much patented and as such, can’t be accepted into the mainline kernel branch.

    Not really a technical problem – there exists many solutions to read/write exFAT, but negotiations will have to take place between MS and Google to allow them to ship it.

  5. Assuming the Chromebook had been able to read the memory card/camera, what tools would you have used to browse and organize the photos? Picasa?

  6. Did you consider converting it into a Linux box? It’s not hard, just tedious. So far only Ubuntu has been packaged ready for the Chromebook boot and hardware configuration. (It’s not a standard PC BIOS or hardware.) It works, although I quickly replaced their Unity window system with XCFE. Not only did I dislike Unity, but Unity puts too many demands on the CPU. It was rather glitchy.

    After that, it’s a cheap Linux laptop, and does all the things you would expect of a linux laptop.

  7. J. Peterson: What would I do with the photos? Although the Chromebook can display JPEGs, mostly I would just leave all of the JPEG, RAW, and video files on the Chromebook until I returned home. Then… Oh that is a good question since I don’t think it can mount an NAS. I suppose that I would use a 64 GB USB drive to copy the files back off and then onto my desktop computer.

    rjh: I did not consider turning the device into a Linux box. Would it then understand the exFAT file system? Or be able to talk to the 5D Mark III camera? Drivers for lots of consumer devices seems to be more of a Microsoft passion than a Linux passion.

    David: I wouldn’t buy this tiny Chromebook for day-to-day use. The keyboard is a little too cramped. A 13-inch laptop seems like a better size for real typing. SSD is obviously a lot better for most applications, but not for backing up 128 GB memory cards!

  8. I’ve seen exFAT listed as available as an add-on. I’m not familiar with it, so I don’t know whether this is a fragile toy implementation or something robust and reliable.

    I’ve only connected my Nikon Coolpix 3100 to it so far. Most of my work is with a Windows desktop using ACDSee and a full size display. But the Coolpix lives in my briefcase, and I’ve connected to it. The hookup to camera devices may be clumsy, although the Coolpix was real simple. I used one of the Linux photo applications and it recognized the device. I don’t recall which one, since I just wanted something to gather the photos, let me look at them, and later transfer them to the system where I do the bulk of my photo work.

    I use it as an expendable toy for travel and risky uses. I use much more capable systems with large screens for production work. Since it’s a real Linux, the issues of NAS, FTP, rsync, etc. are all solved.

  9. Philip,

    Have you considered a regular, low end Windows laptop? The cost is not that much greater than a Chromebook (perhaps $250-300 instead of $200).

    You can still get the benefits of a Chromebook (minus the free cloud space) while having Windows handy for when you need it. It also works nice as a dual-boot machine with Linux Mint.

  10. Jagadeesh: A big point of the Chromebook was to save weight and size. I guess I could revert to a low-end windows laptop. I suppose that I could also find a laptop to borrow. Just carry a few USB drives use someone else’s laptop to copy the data. In the rush for every device to be SSD-based it seems that this particular application (backing up large amounts of photo/video data) has actually become tougher to meet. (And I don’t think that it is easy to find a $250 Windows laptop. Dell’s cheapest is $400 and weighs a clunky 5 lbs.)

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