LatticeWork Amber X Review
A visually stunning film may end up a disappointment because of a weak script. Cool hardware often suffers from poor software. And that is the issue with Amber X, a plug-and-play solution to paying for cloud storage subscriptions that doesn’t offer the same convenience as the services it seeks to replace.
So, here’s my paraphrase of the $249 Amber X‘s value proposition: Buy a device with expandable storage and put your important personal files in a private, encrypted environment you own, as opposed to buying a subscription to a cloud storage service. That’s pretty straightforward. I just wish the Amber OS implemented the vision as clearly as the marketing messages.
I’m not sure what to do with Amber X. It initially wants me to back up my pictures, but I don’t need my pictures backed up. All of my images are on OneDrive, Apple’s Cloud, and Amazon has also scooped them up. I don’t need yet another place to curate my images. The use case that intrigued me about Amber’s product was as a kind of cloud USB-Stick with prioritized files available to support travel, including videos and critical client files. Poor transcoding of videos and non-integrated files quickly squelched those aspirations.
I live on my iPad Pro. Any solution for me has to integrate smoothly with iPad OS. While an Amber app runs on the iPad, it does not integrate with Apple’s Files app. Running Amber on a PC or Mac does not improve the situation. Unlike OneDrive, DropBox, Box, GoogleDrive, iCloud and other offers, Amber does not behave as a drive that just happens to sit in the cloud; it behaves as a cloud storage solution with a proprietary interface that doesn’t integrate with anything else.
What we like
The hardware is pretty easy to deal with. Plug-in power, Ethernet (or not), and additional storage if you like. I have no issue with the hardware save its limited onboard storage.
Amber X does what it says it does, quickly connecting via a device for Bluetooth setup and then settling into a Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet connection to serve up files to authorized users.
Because you own Amber X, your files are yours, though Amber does offer their own actual cloud service as well in a minor way for backup. Their marketing literature goes heavy on privacy—that, unlike a cloud provider, on Amber, no one can read your data or leverage their knowledge of your activity. There are many ways to keep content from prying eyes, so make sure that Amber’s approach to file sharing fits your business needs and that you apply reasonable risk to cloud providers, many of which also tout privacy as a key component of their products.
Amber X also offers casting and local streaming through its own encoders. Further to its media ambitions, Amber X employs “Smart AI” to organize files and remove duplicates. It will, for instance, categorize people and animals. And again, in the product literature, they emphasize that this happens locally, without LatticeWork having access to the data. Unfortunately, that may limit learning from mistakes and make their less than elegantly named “Smart AI” less smart.
What could be improved
The biggest issue I have with Amber X is its failure to act as a drive in any of its environments. It doesn’t mount on a desktop. It does not integrate with Files on iOS, nor with the file structure of Android or Chrome. Adding an extra drive expands capacity but not in a unified way. It also only offers 500GB of internal storage, which greatly pales in comparison to the easily available multi-terabytes on many cloud storage plans when accounting for files and images.
And unlike cloud services that offer on-demand downloads or streaming, Amber X requires downloading a file to a computer if you want it locally, which then duplicates the file, removing all the collaboration benefits of shared cloud files.
The Amber iPad app also violates a core tenet of mine: I do not like (or want) iPad apps that fail to support a horizontal configuration. My iPad sits on a stand or is mounted on a keyboard case during the day. It is usually plugged in. I find apps annoying that make me pick up my iPad and change to portrait orientation. And guess what? Amber’s app falls into that category. We are just too far into the iPad’s tenure for developers not to understand the need for responsive iPad apps.
I’m also not sure why Amber’s OS goes out of its way to be overtly onerous. It is not possible to just drag and drop files to Amber X via a mounted drive. It requires an app or a web browser.
File movement is clumsy. I installed an SD card in the slot, and it displayed in the Amber app on the Mac, but it was not easy to figure out how or where to place the images on the card. Eventually, I figured out how to move or copy them from the card and place them in an album.
Perhaps the biggest conundrum with Amber OS is the need to export files to make them visible. Again, rather than acting as an available drive through the app, the exporting process must be completed before files on the drive are visible, even to the account owner’s mobile view.
“Exporting” in this way is a new metaphor that feels clumsy next to the well-tested approaches to file management from Apple and Microsoft. Owners should be able to create a shared folder and offer a link. Don’t make it any more difficult than it needs to be.
Starting the app also proves less than intuitive. Upon opening the app on an iPhone or iPad, users are presented with a little information that takes up a lot of space. Cards offer information about storage and activities. What I want is my files. At least the designers included a way to hide the cards.
It can be argued that I should not backup my DVDs. But I have. And I like to take some of the files with me when I travel, usually on a USB drive. They do not exist on public clouds. I do not share them. And while I can access them via Amber X, the experience is not a good one. Playback, over WiFi, was OK with MP4 but unwatchable with non-copy protected m4v files. I also found it annoying that content takes over the Amber UI to the point that closing the content window (video or images) closes the app. By default, content should open in its own window.
The backup feature, aimed at backing up local files, cannot be scheduled and requires running the Amber app. Again, a deeper connection to the OS is required for this to be a useful feature.
LatticeWork also needs to put the Amber iX in the Mac Apps store to automate app updates.
Drive compatibility is also an issue, as I don’t seem to have a drive that the Amber X will recognize in its USB port, and while my 8GB SanDisk Ultra SD card works in the slot, the iOS app reports it as unsupported. The Mac app makes no such determination.
When the what could be improved section of a review becomes the focus of the review, I recommend caution. My issues with Amber X come down to a solution that purports to compete against something, in this case cloud storage, with a product that offers an inferior experience despite addressing a few meaningful flaws in the cloud storage model. Unfortunately, I don’t think Amber X benefits outweigh its deficiencies.
Note, much of the online documentation and support threads appear out of date, with the names of functions and screenshots making it difficult to map advice to the current apps.
Amber X: The Bottom Line
Any product that makes it hard for me to imagine how I would use it makes for a tough review. I had a mental image of Amber X and how I would test it and use it, but despite marketing that aligned with that image, the product failed to deliver on my expectations.
What I wanted was a pool of storage that integrated with my desktop and mobile experiences. I wanted personal cloud storage, secure and encrypted, but I didn’t want to overtly manage the process, the curation, or use outside of my normal, day-to-day file management practices. I’m fine with an Amber OS, but I shouldn’t need to know anything about it when using MacOS, Windows, or iOS. Amber OS should integrate and complement, not take me out of my main experience.
LatticeWork has a choice to make. They can remain a niche peripheral, or they can look, as their pure cloud rivals do, at how best to integrate with native operating systems. iCloud, OneDrive, DropBox, and Box all respect existing workflows and experiences while offering additional value. Amber OS offers alternatives that do not respect current workflows or experiences. To use Amber X, you need to decide whether the value of a personal cloud storing some files exceeds the inconvenience of managing files through an alternative user experience.
For most casual users, I would say Amber X will be one of those good-in-theory buys that feels too complicated pretty quickly. More sophisticated users may find a use case that buries the extra work in some perceived value, but I think a pure privacy play makes for a hard tradeoff compared to commercial cloud services that deliver secure access to any device using existing workflows.
Yes, you do need to keep paying for cloud services, but most would rather pay for a service that delivers than a device that overpromises. And once you have a piece of hardware, at some point, it becomes obsolete–and as we have seen over the last decade, cloud services continue to evolve with reduced cost per terabyte pricing, increased access to capacity, and complementary features for collaboration and security. That’s going to prove a hard market to compete in, even with more industrial versions of LatticeWork’s products like an Amber Pro.
LatticeWork provided the Amber X for review. Images courtesy of LatticeWork.
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