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Hands-on: AirStash drive solves smartphone, tablet storage problems

Running out of space? Maxell's clever wireless flash drive gives your mobile device room to spare -- but it ain't cheap.

The Maxell AirStash adds extra storage to just about any mobile device. But be prepared for sticker shock.
The Maxell AirStash adds extra storage to just about any mobile device. But be prepared for sticker shock. Maxell

Suppose you're taking a long trip and want to stock your smartphone or tablet with a bunch of movies.

Just one problem: there's no room at the inn. A Kindle Fire, for example, famously has only 8GB of storage, with no option for expansion. Same goes for any iDevice you own: once it's full, it's full.

Maxell's AirStash offers storage salvation. It's a USB flash drive that also happens to be wireless, meaning it can store files and stream media to a variety of mobile devices. It's an effective solution, though not an inexpensive one.

I've been fiddling with an AirStash for the past couple weeks, and for the most part I like it. You plug the drive into your PC, then copy over whatever files and media you want to bring along. Because it relies on inexpensive SDHC cards (rather than fixed storage), you can pop in an 8GB card, a 16GB card, or even a 32GB card, and swap them as necessary for virtually limitless space.

It's too bad Maxell didn't opt for smaller microSDHC media, though, because the AirStash is necessarily wide to accommodate the larger cards -- meaning it has trouble fitting alongside other USB devices. Don't be surprised if you have to temporarily unplug other gear while using the drive.

Your smartphone or tablet connects to the AirStash via its own little Wi-Fi network. You then browse and play your stuff via the AirStash app (which is available for Android, iOS, and Kindle Fire), though you can also connect to the drive right inside your browser. That means it's compatible with just about any device that has Wi-Fi and a Web browser. If you use the app, however, you can export photos to the drive, a convenient backup option.

Interestingly, the AirStash also works with a number of third-party apps, including CineXPlayer, iWork, GoodReader, and Air Sharing. And up to three eight devices can connect to it simultaneously, meaning one person can, say, watch a movie while another listens to music.

One big caveat to connecting to the drive is that your device no longer has access to the Internet (because it's connected to the AirStash network instead). Thankfully, a firmware update (still in beta) overcomes this problem, effectively allowing access to both the AirStash and a Wi-Fi network. In my tests it worked well.

My big problem with this gizmo is its price. The AirStash A02 with an 8GB "starter" card sells at Amazon for $124.42, and elsewhere for its list price of $149.99. The 16GB version lists for $179.99.

That's just crazy-expensive for what is essentially a Wi-Fi-enabled SD reader. Make no mistake, the AirStash is a great device to have around, especially if you have a storage-challenged mobile device. But I suspect most users will balk at the price.