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SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive review: Your iPad's best friend

SanDisk announced today the iXpand Flash Drive, a thumbdrive that has a Lightning connector to work with an iPhone or an iPad as a media storage space or a backup destination. Here's CNET's full review.

Dong Ngo
Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
5 min read

The idea behind the SanDisk iXpand Flash drive is simple. Essentially a USB thumb drive that's equipped with a Lightning connector, it's all you need for an excellent storage expansion for your iPad (or iPhone).


SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive

The Good

The SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive instantly adds up to 128GB of storage space and it can work as a USB thumbdrive. Its iXpand Sync mobile app works very well both for media playback and content backup.

The Bad

The drive can't hold files larger than 4GB and only supports USB 2.0.

The Bottom Line

The SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive is a must-have accessory for those with a newer iPhone or iPad.

In my testing, the iXpand proved extremely easy to use and worked flawlessly as intended. I could plug it into my computer using the standard USB connector, transfer data to it, attach it to my iPad Mini , and transfer the data again.

It does have a few shortcomings. Storage is limited (up to 64GB), it lacks support for USB 3.0 and the FAT32 file system has limited file size support. But the iXpand is still an easy recommendation because it's so cheap. In the US it costs just $60, $80 or $120, $192 for 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB respectively, while in the UK the same sizes will set you back £40, £60, £80, or £134. Australia only gets the 32GB and 64GB versions for AU$129 and AU$179, respectively. It's not only fun and convenient to use, but also makes a great gift these coming holidays.

For more storage expansion options for your mobile device, check out this list of best mobile drives on the market.

The iXpand Flash Drive is basically a regular thumbdrive with a Lightning connector. Dong Ngo/CNET

Simple yet affective design

In the world of storage expansion for the iPad, the iXpand is the first I've seen that uses the Lightning connector (the rest use Wi-Fi to transfer files). The Lightning connector brings a few advantages: it's much faster than going wireless, it's easier to use and much more reliable. There are a few trade-offs, however. Also, since you're using the Lighting port, you can't charge your iDevice at the same time.

Though the iXpand is conveniently small, keeping it that size means the amount of available storage won't be gargantuan. In this case, though, simplicity trumps capacity. It's preformatted in FAT32 so it will work right away with either a Windows or a Mac computer (just like any thumbdrive). On your iPad, you will need to download the iXpand Sync mobile app first. After that the app instantly recognizes the drive when you plug it in. Also in my testing, there was no connectivity lag at all and I could quickly find anything stored on the drive.

Al of those points give the iXpand a huge boost over Wi-Fi-based storage expanders that require you to connect the iPad to the specific Wi-Fi network and run the mobile app before it can retrieve information on the wireless drive.

The Lightning connector is flexible enough to connect to the iPad/iPhone from different angles. Dong Ngo/CNET

The iXpand Sync app is a cinch to use, despite the fact it doesn't automatically organize content into groups; it just displays the folder structure that you use on the drive. But since it's so responsive, finding things isn't a hassle at all. There's also a helpful search function in case you need to quickly jump to a file. The app also lets you select multiple files or folders. You then can perform a few tasks such as backing up, deleting or locking files with a password.

Excellent content support and stellar playback capability

With the iXpand Sync mobile app, the iXpand Flash Drive has the best content playback I've seen. For example, an entire high-def video file loaded immediately once I tapped on it. What's more, there was no lag or buffer time during the playback. You can thank the bandwidth of the Lightning connector for that.

Most importantly, the iXpand Sync app also supports virtually all video formats that I know of, including the rarely supported Matroska media container (MKV). The app even supports subtitles, including subtitles embedded within the media file. Playback support for other file types, including photos, music and documents is also excellent. I could view and play virtually all types of content with ease.

Updated on April 20th 2016: After firmware updates, now the drive doesn't support some popular sound encoding methods, including DTS and AC3.

In all, viewing content stored on the iXpand is as easy and as fast as as viewing content stored locally on the device. Also impressive is that because the iXpand has its own battery, the drive doesn't affect your iPad's battery life. SanDisk says that the battery, which charges itself when you connect the drive to a computer, has enough juice to power the iXpand for days on end of usage. In my trial, after three days of casual use with just an iPad, the device's battery still showed as full.

The iXpand has its own battery and can also works as a great backup drive for the iPad/iPhone. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Convenient backup function

Apart from backing up individual selected items, the iXpand Sync app can automatically sync the entire Camera Roll from your iDevice with the iXpand Flash Drive. Once you activate the feature, the sync will start immediately when you connect the drive. The performance here is quite good, too. On an iPhone 6 , it takes about a second to back up each photo.

During the sync, you can still use the drive for other functions, such as playing a movie. That's very handy. In my trial, the movie took just slightly longer (about half a second) to start during a sync. On top of that, you can also back up your contacts to the iXpand. I tried backing up some 2,000 contacts, which took just 2 seconds. Restoring contacts takes the same amount of time.

A few shortcomings

As much as I like the iXpand the way it is, I wish it supported other file systems, such as NTFS, NFS+ or exFAT. You can format the drive into any of these file systems, but then it works only as a regular thumbdrive. In order for it to work with the iXpand Sync app, you'll need to format it using FAT32.

FAT32 is a common file system for thumbdrives and is fully supported by both Windows and Mac. However, it can hold single files of just 4GB or less. Since most feature-length HD movies require more than 4GB to store in a digital format, there are many movies you can't bring with you using the iXpand. SanDisk says it's contemplating the issue and, depending on user demand, might consider making the iXpand Sync app support exFAT in the future.

The second shortcoming of the iXpand is the fact that it doesn't support USB 3.0. In my testing, as a flash drive connected to a computer, it registered the copy speed at just 12MBps for writing. This is about half the typical performance of a USB 2.0 portable drive. At this speed, it'd take an hour and a half to fill up 64GB of storage.

Finally, its top capacity of 64GB is comparatively quite limited. Other full size storage expanders can offer up to 2TB. Hopefully, the new version of the iXpand will have 128GB or even more. Or maybe it will come with an SD card slot.


While not perfect, the iXpand Flash Drive is one of the best storage accessories for the iPad I've seen, thanks to its ease of use and stellar media playback performance. The fact that it also works as a convenient backup device for your user-generated content adds that much more to its value.

It's really too bad that, for now, you can't use it to bring large movies with you, but if you want to carry a few seasons of TV shows or extra books/music/podcasts for a long fight or a road trip, this is by far the best accessory you can get for your Lightning-based iPhone or iPad.


SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 8Performance 6Support 6
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