Digital Camera Memory Cards

Most cameras use flash memory for storage. Transferring pictures to your PC is a simple matter of copying the files from the disk to your hard drive.

CompactFlash (CF) cards are small, durable memory cards that contain some flash memory and a controller chip. The controller chip manages the memory in the card, making it appear to the host computer (or camera) as a removable disk drive The original CompactFlash design was created in 1994, and an industry association was created to promote the use of CF cards in 1995. CF cards are small, measuring 1.4&amp;quot;×1.7&amp;quot;. There are two types of CF cards. Type I cards are 3.3mm (.13&amp;quot;) thick, and are the more common of the two. Type II cards are 5.5mm (.19&amp;quot;) thick, and are becoming more common. CF cards are currently available in capacities up to 128 GB.<br />
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CF cards have small guide slots on two sides of the card. These slots ensure that the card can only be inserted one way. The front edge of the card has a tiny 50-pin connector that is modeled after the very reliable connector used in laptop PC Card (formerly called PCMCIA) expansion cards. The resemblance to PC Cards is more than passing; the electrical signals used by a CF card are identical to those used by a PC Card. This allows the use of CF cards in a PC Card slot with only a simple, inexpensive adapter. CF cards are rugged and reliable. You can drop them, left them in the pants through the wash, and generally abuse them for years without a failure.

SmartMedia cards are another type of flash memory commonly used in digital cameras. SmartMedia cards are slightly larger than CF cards, but are much thinner. One side of the card contains a gold plated contact area, divided into 22 sections. The card connects to the host device through this area. SmartMedia cards are built on a single piece of silicon, so they don’t require a circuit board, which is why they are thinner than CF cards. But SmartMedia cards don’t contain any controller electronics, so the camera or PC must manage the SmartMedia card as a memory device, not a disk. From the user’s point of view, there’s very little difference. Some older cameras won’t work with the new, high-capacity cards, due to the fact that the controller circuits in the camera were designed when only low-capacity cards were available.

SmartMedia cards have a &amp;quot;write protect&amp;quot; feature that is activated by placing a silver sticker on the card near the connectors. When the sticker is in place, the data on the card is protected from accidental erasure.

There have been some issues regarding compatibility of SmartMedia cards when used in multiple devices. Because the card doesn’t contain its own controller electronics, it is up to the device manufacturer to format the memory for use in their particular device. For example, I’ve experienced cases where a SmartMedia card that had been used in a particular MP3 player would no longer work in one of my digital cameras. The camera refused to recognize the card, but the card worked perfectly in the MP3 player. I finally managed to salvage the card and return it to camera duty by formatting the card in an external card reader attached to my PC.

Newer SmartMedia cards contain a unique serial number that can be used to identify the owner of a particular card. These cards are called SmartMedia ID cards. There’s no real application for the serial number feature in the U.S. market as yet. The ID concept was designed to provide a way to manage electronic rights for downloaded music. I’ve only seen one device-Fuji’s FinePix 40i combination camera/MP3 Player-that required the use of an ID card. The ID number might come in handy at some future time when you’ll be able to drop off your memory cards at the camera store for printing.

SmartMedia cards are slightly larger than CF cards, but are much thinner.

Memory Stick is Sony’s entry into the flash memory race. I could be mean and say that this is the memory format brought to you by the same people that invented the Betamax VCR, but I have friends at Sony, and I’d like to keep them. Besides, Sony (having learned a thing or two with Betamax) has licensed several other companies to build Memory Stick devices. Sony makes a wide variety of still and video cameras, audio players, laptop computers, and PDAs that use Memory Stick. The big attraction (apart from its small size) is that you can use any Memory Stick card in any compatible device with no hassles.

The Memory Stick looks like a purple stick of chewing gum, only a bit shorter. And chewing gum generally doesn’t have a set of gold contacts at one end like the Memory Stick does. Sony doesn’t make the memory chips inside the Memory Stick; they buy them from a third party supplier. This has the unfortunate effect of making Memory Stick somewhat more expensive than other flash storage media.

Memory Stick features a useful write protect switch that makes it easy to protect data. A clever notch cut at one end of the stick makes it impossible to put in upside-down. The Memory Stick architecture can be used for devices other than memory. Sony has hinted that future Memory Stick devices might include a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver, a Bluetooth wireless network card, and even a tiny Memory Stick camera that could plug into a PDA to store pictures or video (on another Memory Stick, of course.)

An enhanced version of Memory Stick called MagicGate, includes a copyright protection mechanism similar to SmartMedia’s ID feature. Remember that Sony owns one of the world’s largest record companies, so rights management is a big issue with them.

When I first heard that IBM had created a tiny hard drive that fit inside a CF Type II card, I figured it was just another hoax. When I saw the Microdrive at a trade show a few weeks later, I was amazed.

The Microdrive is a tiny, moving platter hard drive, just like the one in your laptop or desktop PC, only much smaller. The original Microdrive had a capacity of 170Mb, but 340Mb and GB versions followed each successive year.

The Microdrive offers storage capacity not available in any flash memory product, and it has a much lower cost per megabyte than flash memory. Although the Microdrive provides excellent value for the money, it’s not for everyone. All hard drives have moving parts, and those parts eventually wear out. Hard drives are also susceptible to damage from shock. I’ve dropped my Microdrive (on the carpet, thankfully) a couple of times with no ill effects, but if it had been a concrete floor instead of carpet, the drive likely would have been damaged. Microdrives aren’t as fast as flash memory cards. The drive takes a few seconds to spin up to speed when you turn on the camera, and this might add a few seconds to your camera’s start-up time. Negatives aside, the Microdrive is an excellent value and provides enough storage for long trips.

Memory Cards can fail. Removable Media Data Recovery is needed to access lost or deleted images.