Mighty Mini Media

The capacities of flash memory and small storage formats are skyrocketing--and you may have to live with more than one type

By Scott Spanbauer

Flash memory cards are tiny, powerful, and even sort of sexy looking. And if you're considering buying one of the newest wave of cool electronic toys--a digital camera, personal digital assistant, or digital audio player--you won't be able to live without them.

There's plenty of good news for buyers: Larger capacities in everything from CompactFlash to Secure Digital media should decrease the number of cards you have to carry by letting you load up far more music, photos, and other files per card. What's more, even the smallest of cards are getting smarter--the postage stamp-size Secure Digital cards have recently added I/O functionality, opening the door to new types of add-in cards for compact audio players and cellular telephones, as well as to multiple slots on larger handheld devices such as Palm and PocketPC PDAs.

In a perfect world, you'd be able to use a single type of flash memory card in all of your devices. But there are five major formats, and you can't take one type of card and stick it into a slot designed for another, with one exception: You can use MultiMediaCards in Secure Digital slots, but not vice versa.

So unless you want to juggle a bunch of memory cards in competing formats, it will be worth your while to do a bit of homework. Before buying that new digital camera or handheld to add to your gadget hoard, find out which memory card it uses, and whether you can use that same type of card in the devices you already own. The price of the memory cards, of course, should factor into your decision as well.

MORE MEMORY. A part of flash memory's strength is its increasing capacity, coupled with its ever-decreasing size and cost. Just one year ago, CompactFlash cards topped out at 512MB or so. Today, these commonly used cards can hold about a gigabyte of data--that's hundreds or even thousands of digital photos, depending on their resolution and compression, or dozens of CDs' worth of compressed audio.

Though other formats are more limited by their physical dimensions--at least until higher-capacity flash memory chips appear--they're getting roomier, too. For example, according to a source at flash-memory maker SanDisk, even the petite Secure Digital cards should have reached 256MB by the time you read this. A source at the SD Association says 512MB cards should follow shortly, and SanDisk says versions as large as 4GB may be ready within a year or two.

Of course, you always pay a premium for cutting-edge technology. With flash memory, that means that either very compact size or high capacity costs extra. Secure Digital and the related MultiMediaCard formats, for instance, command a higher price per megabyte (between 70 and 90 cents) than other flash memory formats do. But according to Andrew Johnson, the Gartner Group's principal analyst for digital imaging, that's all right with buyers, who value the cards' small physical size.

In contrast, the midrange-capacity CompactFlash and SmartMedia cards and Memory Sticks are a relative bargain at about 50 cents per megabyte. These prices compare favorably to prices for the highest capacity CF cards as well: At press time, 1GB CF cards still commanded more than $800 through online vendors, about twice the cost per megabyte of a 64MB CF card.

Gartner's Johnson says that camera users might be better off buying multiple 256MB cards instead. "You don't want to leave an $800 card with [a store] just to get your pictures developed," he warns.

Another option for CompactFlash users with demanding storage needs is IBM's 1GB Microdrive CompactFlash card, which sells for less than $300--but they must be sure their devices support the card's thicker, Type II format. Compaq's IPaq CF adapter accepts Type II cards, for example, but none of HP's Jornada Pocket PCs do.

Flash memory products also appear in other formats that continue to fill a useful storage niche, according to Alan Niebel, principal analyst at Web-Feet Research. So-called thumb drives--flash-memory devices that plug into your computer's USB port--serve as higher-capacity replacements for floppy disks. Other higher-capacity external storage devices, which include FireWire-connected and PC Card-based hard disks, meet special-purpose needs in the areas not served by CD-R, CD-RW, and Iomega Zip drives.

Another format may also find a place in the market: the quarter-size DataPlay digital media, which offers 250MB of storage per side at a fraction of the cost of most flash media. Though the format promises a good blend of value and compact size--and has been hyped for nearly two years--it has yet to appear in a camera, audio player, or PDA from a major manufacturer. The first DataPlay-based device, a digital audio player co-branded by Evolution Technology and MTV, is supposed to be available for sale in May, however.

PICK A CARD. Like the different kinds of batteries we've learned to live with, five different flash formats may not pose much of a problem for gadget owners. But analysts agree that at least three--CompactFlash, Secure Digital, and Memory Stick--will be around the longest.

Despite its being used predominantly in Sony products, "consumers should be confident that Memory Stick is a good choice," says Johnson. Specifically, he notes its low cost and the many devices that support it--including many of Sony's most popular digital cameras. How well Memory Stick does in the long run may hinge on how well Sony's Clié handhelds sell compared with Palm PDAs, and whether you snap your digital pictures with a Cyber-shot or a Kodak.

CompactFlash has several advantages. It offers the highest capacities, it's the most widely compatible card, and at least for now, it appears in the most devices. CF also offers higher read/write speeds than some of its competitors. On the other hand, CF's larger size makes it inappropriate for the smallest products.

The big up-and-comer in small storage is Secure Digital. With the format's emerging I/O spec, SD cards could eventually do almost anything that CompactFlash cards can do now (you can already buy modems, wired and wireless networking cards, and serial ports and other interfaces for CF slots)--and SD cards are significantly smaller.

The Secure Digital card's namesake security readiness is now a moot point, however. Though SD was intended to protect the music industry by incorporating the Secure Digital Music Initiative's digital rights management and copy-protection scheme, the specification was publicly cracked shortly after its publication, and the SDMI consortium has ceased to be active.

MultiMediaCards, though slightly thinner than Secure Digital cards, will gradually fade away--in fact, the MultiMediaCard format may be the first to go. Most manufacturers are building SD slots into their devices instead of slots for MMCs, because the SD format offers faster read/write performance. Owners of MMCs needn't worry, however: You can plug them into SD slots as well.

Gartner's Johnson believes that SmartMedia will eventually disappear too, because its slim design limits memory capacity; it's also the only flash format with no current or planned I/O capabilities. That shouldn't steer buyers away from SmartMedia-equipped devices, though. Each of the formats "will be around as long as the camera [or other device that utilizes it] is useful," says Johnson.

MEMORY MIX. Interoperability and other features are certainly important when you're considering devices that use small flash memory cards, but in today's market you'll probably have several devices that use competing cards, at least for the near future.

That isn't a disaster. Thanks to broad hardware manufacturer support for all five leading memory card formats, moving your photos, files, and songs between your gadgets and your PC usually is not a big deal. Several card readers priced between $50 and $75 support multiple flash formats; among them is LaCie's new USB Hexa Media reader/writer, which handles all five types plus the Microdrive. And a USB or PC Card reader for an individual memory format costs just $20 or less. Toshiba now builds both SmartMedia and SD slots into its laptops, and HP's Photosmart 100 printer accepts a trio of cards: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, and Memory Stick.

Because the various flash media formats are best suited to different devices, you may end up with multiple card types. Not to worry: Just buy the card that gives you the best cost per megabyte if you can, and use cheap card readers to funnel data to your PC.

From the May 2002 issue of PC World magazine

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