The Flash Menagerie

As handheld devices proliferate, so too do the memory chips that they rely on. Here’s a field guide.

Those little flash memory cards are showing up in digital cameras and organizers, MP3 players, audio and video recorders, and even phones. There are six different types of card.  But the lack of standards is even worse than it appears at first glance.  A multiplicity of incompatible flavors has emerged even within those types. There are, for example, super-compact versions of the already petite Memory Stick, Secure Digital, and MultiMediaCard formats. Sony offers a large-capacity Memory Stick Pro that won’t work in most Memory Stick devices. All told, there are at least 10 separate card standards and shapes (see Memory Card Comparison).

The first step in sorting out the choice of formats is easy: avoid the SmartMedia card. It is not made in capacities larger than an anemic 128 MB. Interest in SmartMedia cards appears to be on the wane, and the last press release on the SmartMedia Web site dates back to last October. The card’s big supporters, Olympus and Fujifilm, have adopted a new format: the XD Picture Card. This device has faster input/output performance than Smartmedia and could eventually provide capacity of 8 gigabytes.

I’ve been successful so far in settling on two standard formats for all my portable memory needs. I use CompactFlash (CF) for my still photography and Secure Digital (SD) for everything else. CF is the memory capacity leader and tends to be the cheapest per megabyte. SD, much smaller, is the most popular card in new, tiny devices such as credit-card sized point-and-shoot digital cameras, and the Palm Tungsten series of personal digital assistants. I try hard to buy only products that can take one or the other so I can move cards from one device to another and so that I can avoid taking a bulky “six in one” card reader on trips. My Magellan GPS uses SD cards instead of the proprietary memory modules employed by some competitors. I’ve avoided proprietary Handspring Springboard modules, too.

My quest for standardization has forced me to cross all devices in the Sony catalog off my list. Sony, which developed the Memory Stick (and its smaller brother, the Memory Stick Duo), is hell-bent on using the Memory Stick in all of its products. Few other vendors have bothered.

Although I may be able to continue to avoid Sony, I can’t be without a cell phone. The tiny new MiniSD card or Reduced Size MultiMediaCard (RS-MMC) will probably be included in my next phone handset, because these cards are even smaller than SD; they were specifically developed for this market because when it comes to phones, smaller is better. MiniSD looks like the winner in the standards race between these two midgets; I haven’t caught a single product announcement featuring the RS-MMC, and it is almost identical to MiniSD anyway. Sandisk is already shipping MiniSD cards.

As price per megabyte comes down, standardization arguably matters less. Right now, you can get 256-megabyte SD or CF cards for well under $100. But each image produced by the newest 6-megapixel cameras will swallow 18 MB, so the ideal card size requires more megabytes, negating the drop in per-megabyte price. Also, when I’m dropping off a card at the store to have an image printed, I’d rather leave behind a small, cheap old card than a 256 MB or 1-GB unit. If I standardize on one card type, I can more easily use my old cards for this purpose, even after I upgrade to more capacious cards for new cameras.

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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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