Which Card Will Quietly Dominate and Why
The humble flash memory card quietly provides the storage for today’s electronic devices. Handheld computers, iPods and other portable music players, digital cameras, and even some cellphones and camcorders utilize flash cards. These cards are available in more varieties than Baskin Robbins ice cream flavors, and there’s always some new smaller card that just came out with some reported advantage. Thankfully, selecting a memory card format to invest in is not as random as selecting a roulette number at Vegas, and the key is putting the house advantage in your favor. This article reviews the current cards on the market with their potential advantages and uses, and highlights some future directions. No one likes choosing a dying standard, and I’ll point out the likely winners of this high wager business. After all, no one needs a drawer full of expensive, but outdated and useless memory cards.
Flash memory, in all varieties, is based on “non-volatile” storage. This means the card preserves its data without power (unlike your computer’s RAM, which stores no data when off). Flash memory is not affected by magnetic fields or light waves (as opposed to a floppy disk), making flash a very reliable way to store data. In addition, flash memory does not use moving parts (a hard disk drive, on the other hand, is constantly spinning), making them ideal to operate across a range of extreme environments. Additional benefits include silent operation and fast read and write speeds.
The original flash memory card is known as SmartMedia. It was developed by Toshiba and originally known as the “solid state floppy disc card.” The card’s small dimensions are 45 mm x 37 mm x 0.76 mm (very thin), and weighs only 2 grams. The cards are flexible and have exposed surface contacts, which demands the cards be handled with care to preserve their integrity. The cards were manufactured with capacities from 2 megabytes to 128 megabytes. Design limitations do not allow the cards to increase beyond the 128 megabyte capacity.
The cards were used Fuji’s and Olympus’ digital camera lineups, and also in some Olympus voice recorders. While you can still purchase SmartMedia, it’s about as popular as a Kodak Disc Camera and no one is currently making devices that use this memory standard. SmartMedia was replaced by the xD Picture Card for Fuji and Olympus cameras.
xD Picture Card
The spiritual successor to SmartMedia is the xD Picture Card, however they share no compatibility. Like SmartMedia, the xD Picture Card does not have an on board controller chip. The “xD” derives its name from “extreme digital.” The xD format was introduced in 2002, and features a diminutive size of 20 mm x 25 mm x 1.7 mm, with a weight of 2 grams. XD Picture Cards are currently available in 64 mb to 1 gigabyte sizes. The storage of xD is reported to scale up to 8 gigabytes for that very long vacation around the world with only one memory card. The cards reportedly feature a fast read/ write rate, and low power consumption to enhance battery life.
xD cards are only presently found in Fuji and Olympus digital cameras. One quirk with Olympus cameras, in order to use panorama mode, the xD Picture Card needs to be an Olympus branded card, forcing consumers to purchase the card from the camera manufacturer to use all of its features.
The cards perform well, but their limited device deployment insures they will remain as niche products only purchased within the world of Fuji and Olympus digital photography. Also, some of the older multiformat card readers do not support this newer standard. These cards are best left for the digital photographer who only uses these two brands of cameras, and does not intend to use their flash cards in other types of devices, because for xD, there aren’t any.
Compact Flash was introduced in 1994 by the SanDisk Corporation to improve on SmartMedia. It featured a controller chip which enhanced reliability and error correction. The cards are about the size of a matchbook at 43 mm x 36 mm x 3.3 mm, and weigh one half of an ounce. These cards originally gained popularity in the digital camera market. They are currently available in sizes from 32 megabytes on up to 4 gigabytes. As it is a popular standard, there are many companies manufacturing the cards, and this keeps the prices competitive low on the popularly sized cards (128MB, 256MB, 512MB).
This memory standard is still popular in Canon consumer digital cameras and the professional digital camera market. Compact Flash card slots are also found on many PocketPC handheld computers.
One unique advantage of Compact Flash lies in the 50 pin connector. While all other memory cards have exposed contacts, Compact Flash has a series of tiny holes. There have been (rare) reports of memory cards getting erased when they came into contact with metal (eg: keys, coins, or paper clips in the pocket), but with no exposed contacts in Compact Flash this problem is avoided. In addition, the rigid structure makes this memory solution the most durable. In its specifications, it states that it is designed to survive a 10 foot fall.
There are High Speed, or Professional versions of Compact Flash that are designed for the professional digital photography market. They feature 12x and 16x write speeds. This is useful in certain cameras that are designed for very fast burst modes, enabling the camera to write a large amount of data quickly to the card. This is very useful in sports photography, for example. The 1x refers to 150 kb/sec, the original speed of a 1x CD-ROM drive. The 16x will be 16 times that speed, or 2400 kb/sec. However, two questions remain to know the usefulness of this faster media. First, what is the “x” speed of a regular Compact Flash card as 1x is an optical standard? Second, does the 16x refer to read, write, or both? (Writer’s Note: it would be nice if sandisk could provide us with some media and we could clarify this issue) In the right camera these cards do reportedly provide a benefit to the user to allow more pictures to be taken quickly. If you have a consumer level digital camera, or rarely shoot action, these cards will provide no benefit to you.
The above discussion pertains to Compact Flash type I cards. There is also a “Type II” card, also known as microdrives, most of which are not technically flash memory; they are actually miniature hard drives. Type II cards are physically thicker, 5.5mm as opposed to 3.3mm for their type I cousins. As early Compact Flash cards had small capacities, professional photographers used microdrives for their cavernous capacities. Microdrives, with their expensive costs, also suffered penalties of slower access speeds, increased power consumption, as well as moving parts. For these reasons, microdrives never became a mainstream product, and with the now-affordable multi-gigabyte capacities of flash memory available, there is no compelling reason to use the Type II cards.
In 1999, Sony Corporation released yet another whole family of flash card products, Memory Stick. The proprietary format was designed to work in Sony digital cameras, flash audio players, Sony Clie (Palm) handhelds, camcorders, and Sony notebooks with built-in readers. The Memory Stick weighs 4 grams, and is 2 by 0.8 by 0.1 inches in size. Presently, this format is only manufactured by Sony, Sandisk, and Lexar, which keeps prices higher than other formats. Still, it captures approximately a quarter of the flash card market.
The original Memory Stick is available from 32 mb to 256 mb. Memory Stick Pro was created in 2003 for higher capacities, and currently maxes out at a palacial 4 gigabytes. However, there are issues of backward compatibility with Pro Sticks working in older non-Pro device slots. Also, and this is important, to use the Memory Stick with copyrighted content in portable audio devices, it needs to be “Magic Gate” as opposed to “open” (which basically creates more compatibility issues). The regular Memory Stick cards will not work in the Sony audio devices. Finally, there is also a Memory Stick Duo which is slightly smaller than a Secure Digital card. The Duo is available in 64 mb and 128 mb sizes and are designed for Sony cell phones.
If everything you own and wish to own is Sony, than this is the flash card for you. With Sony leaving the Palm market, and no compelling flash audio mp3 player for the time being, this becomes harder to sell than a Mazda Miata convertible in a hurricane. On top of that, even within the Memory Stick family there are multiple different varieties of their flash cards. Moreover, for equivalent storage sizes, the prices are higher. Careful analysis reveals that unless you own stock in the Sony Corporation, or are in love with one of their cameras or camcorders, your dollars are better spent elsewhere.
MMC and SD
While technically two different card types, the Multimedia Card (MMC) and the Secure Digital (SD) card are very closely related and I discuss them together. The MMC was jointly developed by SanDisk and Siemens, and was introduced in 1997. The card is small, about the size of a postage stamp, and weighs 2 grams. Data is accessed through metal contacts found on one end of the card. Like SanDisk’s other project, namely Compact Flash, this card was designed for rugged use and survives the 10 foot drop test. The card features encryption to protect copyrighted material. The MMC Association is a consortium of diverse companies including Nokia, Sanyo, HP, Hitachi, Siemens and Palm which back this standard. MMC cards currently max out at 128 mb, but a 256 mb card has been recently released. (http://www.newegg.com/app/ViewProductDesc.asp?description=20-155-250&depa=1 ).
The MMC was largely replaced by the Secure Digital card. SD features a very similar form factor, and was jointly developed by Matsushita Electronics (Panasonic), SanDisk and Toshiba. Most devices with a SD slot can use a MMC in that slot (mp3 players are the notable exception). SD cards feature high transfer rates, and cryptographic security to protect data. The SD cards get used in many consumer digital cameras (Nikon, Kodak, HP, Minolta, Panasonic and others), both Palm and PocketPC handhelds, data voice recorders, most flash based mp3 players, and even some camcorders. Some notebooks, notably those made by Toshiba, feature integrated MMC/SD card readers. With so many different companies making products across different market segments, SD is very popular as well as affordable. They are currently available from 64 mb up to 2 gigabytes, with 4, 8, and 16 GB capacities in the planning stages. With so many companies producing SD cards, competitive pricing keeps them very affordable.
While both MMC and SD cards share a similar appearance and function, there are some minor differences. First, only SD includes a “write protection switch” to protect data from being overwritten. While MMC cards transfer data at a max of 2.5 mb/sec, SD is faster at 10 mb/sec based on released specs. SD cards are slightly thicker making them a little more rigid and durable. Finally the SD card has “cryptographic security for protection of copyrighted data” to protect the data on the card from being copied. Reportedly, this security uses almost a megabyte of space on the card.
Probably the only drawback of these cards is their small size which makes them very easy to lose. Even in a plastic case, these cards are still prone to be misplaced in the bottom of a camera bag. Rest easy though; there are now some even smaller versions of both the MMC and SD available! The “reduced size” or RS MMC is available in a 128 mb capacity. Similarly, the “mini SD” is being sold in the 256 mb size. Both of these cards are being marketed for cell phones, and have adapters to use them in more conventional MMC/SD slots. Time will tell if either of these standards become popular, but with increasing numbers of cell phone models featuring cameras, one is bound to gain at least some niche popularity, and perhaps wider acceptance.
USB Flash Drives
While not technically a flash card, these employ the flash memory technology. These drives don’t get inserted into devices, but rather directly into a computer via the USB port. They are currently available from 64 mb, on up to 2 GBs. Early ones were USB 1.1, the newer ones are use the faster USB 2.0 standard. These drives work in Windows ME, XP, and 2000 without even requiring a separate driver (using the USB storage class driver built into Windows). To shuffle data from one computer to another, this is just about the easiest way to do it. In my opinion, these drives put the final nails in the coffins of floppy drives as well as Zip drives. They also have a “way cool” factor to them as they get featured on the show “Alias” and the movie “Collateral.” With their small size, and utility, every geek should keep one on their key chain.
Flash card media evolved considerably over the last ten years. This market segment has trended towards smaller form factor cards with more capacity, increased durability, and better data security. Digital cameras with increasing megapixel and corresponding file sizes, in ever-smaller bodies drove the market for some time; and flash-based mp3 players are pushing it even further. The cards originally promised to enable data on removable memory to be shared across a variety of devices.
Even with WiFi and Bluetooth networking becoming ubiquitous, moving data between devices still requires flash memory in most cases.
The memory card standard which is supported between the widest variety of devices and manufacturers is Secure Digital media. Additional benefits of diminutive size and durable form factor further augment its position in the marketplace. For the user looking to acquire a collection of electronics all using one memory card, Secure Digital is your best choice. This is a very active marketplace, and it remains to be seen over the next few years how this will all sort out. A few new products, a new memory card standard, or even an adapter can change the whole situation in a few short months. However, for the here and now, SD flash cards and compatible devices remain a safe, solid choice.