It resembles an obese thumb drive. If you imagine two regular thumb drives side by side, the iXpand is a little larger. There's a clear plastic cover for the USB connector (which is easily mislaid in the absence of a retaining cord), and the Lightning connector is on a rubbery arm that can be prised out with a fingernail so it can plug into the iPad or iPhone, even when a case is being used.
Presumably due to the requirements of the Lightning interface, the iXpand has an internal battery that is charged via the USB interface. When travelling, you could simply plug it directly into the iPad/iPhone charger for a top-up, bypassing any cables.
Plugging the iXpand into an iPad or iPhone for the first time prompts a visit to the App Store to install the free iXpand Sync app. Subsequently, the alert changes to "iXpand Sync would like to communicate with the iXpand Flash Drive," and allowing that opens the app.
Camera roll syncing is a one-way operation, so only photos and videos that aren't already on the drive are transferred, but if you delete an item in the Photos app then the copy on the iXpand isn't removed during subsequent syncs. This makes the device eminently suitable for freeing up space on the iPhone or iPad. Just over half a gigabyte of data transferred in about 50 seconds.
Movie playback is done by an embedded version of VLC, if the text of one error message is to be believed. It seemed odd that there wasn't a a back or exit control in full-screen mode, but eventually we stumbled on the invisible back button at the top left of the screen.
SanDisk claims WMV, AVI, MKV, MP4 and MOV files are supported and we successfully played at least one of each, although one moderately large AVI file was problematic when we tried skipping forward: sometimes the video track disappeared while the sound continued, and on a couple of occasions the app reported a file error.
The Mac version of SanDisk SecureAccess V2 on the review device simply would not run, so we downloaded V3 from the company's web site. That worked, but only after we copied to the iXpand - that's possibly something to do with the OEM agreement between SanDisk and the developer of the encryption software. Talking of legalities, the licence agreement is displayed in particularly small print.
SanDisk SecureAccess has a very dated look and feel, but seemed to work OK. We're not qualified to comment on how well the encryption has been implemented, but from a usability perspective it is straightforward enough, especially as you can drag-and-drop files to or from the Finder.
But that application is only needed when accessing the encrypted 'vault,' otherwise iXpand is used just like any other USB storage device plugged into the computer. The files you put onto it are visible in the iXpand Sync app, which can also display certain additional types of content including text and PDF. And if you have another app capable of handling a particular type (eg, iBooks for PDFs), it's possible to select the file in iXpand Sync and then use the sharing menu's Open In command.
While there is a general assumption that apps don't need anything more than the most basic instructions, we did feel iXpand Sync needed more in this department. We've already mentioned the invisible control for leaving full-screen mode, and again it was only by chance that we found that sliding a filename left reveals a three-dot menu button (copy to folder, move to folder, lock) and a trash button to delete the item.
But what are the alternatives? The SanDisk Connect wireless flash drives are currently cheaper than the iXpand ($97 for 32GB and $149 for 64GB at Harvey Norman, vs $129 and $179 for the iXpand at Officeworks). Wi-Fi connectivity means they can additionally connect to Android devices, and to a maximum of eight devices simultaneously. The supporting iOS app is generally similar to that for the iXpand, though there's no sign of the encryption capability or the ability to play 'non-native' video formats.
And if you need a lot more storage and are prepared to tolerate significantly more bulk and weight to get it, there are devices such as the Seagate Wireless Plus (previously reviewed by iTWire). And the extra capacity comes at a price: $239 for 1TB, though added features include support for DLNA and AirPlay, plus and Dropbox and Google Drive synchronisation.
So iXpand is a handy way to offload photos and videos from an iPad or iPhone, conveniently protect them through encryption, copy arbitrary files from a computer to the device (ditto), and to play videos that are in formats not natively supported by iOS.