July 10, 2008


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More memory
Make sure that new card works
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If your Independence Day weekend was anything like mine, there were a lot more memories to record than space on the tiny memory card that came with your digital camera. Oh, sure, you worked around it with lower-resolution pictures, saving to your computer and erasing the card a bunch of times, but wouldn’t it be nicer to just have a card big enough for a honkin’ huge load of photos?

Try to buy a new, bigger card, though, and you may find yourself facing a dizzying array of options. Shockingly enough, all the digital camera makers did not get together 20 years ago and decide on a single standard storage media format before marketing their products. Crack open the plastic and they’re pretty much all integrated circuits, but their connectors and internal logic are not the same at all.

The first step is deceptively simple: buy the memory card type compatible with your camera. Its manual will tell you, or you can just take the card to your friendly local big box store. Most Olympus cameras take xD cards; Sony cameras almost always use some variety of Memory Stick. Other brands will probably use either Secure Digital or CompactFlash.

But wait! Even within those broad categories, there are differences to consider. Take today’s most common format, Secure Digital (SD). Any card over 2GB is actually a “high capacity” (SDHC) card, so if your camera (or music player or Pocket PC, for that matter) doesn’t explicitly support SDHC, you have a 2GB limit. Some devices use miniSD or microSD cards, which are physically smaller but can be used in devices that accept regular SD cards, provided you have an adapter. (The larger cards, obviously, can never fit in the smaller slots.)

CompactFlash cards come in two different thicknesses. Type I is 3.3mm thick, while Type II is 5mm thick. Generally, you only have to worry about a card being too thick if it’s a MicroDrive — actually a miniature hard disk drive, with spinning platters and everything, rather than flash memory. These were more common in flash memory’s early days, when it was much more expensive and slow.

Sony’s Memory Stick line gets more confusing every year. It’s almost impossible to find a plain vanilla Memory Stick anymore. The Memory Stick PRO upped the format’s capacity, and the Memory Stick Duo reduced its physical size. Put ‘em together and Sony had the Memory Stick PRO Duo, a smaller card with up to 16GB of space. They’ve since released the Memory Stick Micro, an even tinier version, and the PRO-HG Duo, which is faster and intended for video recording. They can all use adapters to fit into physically larger slots, but older devices might not support their high capacities.

Finally, xD cards have two newer variants: Type M, which increased xD’s capacity; and Type H, which increased read and write speeds.

Most flash memory cards, in fact, have specific maximum data transfer speeds. You might see these referenced in real numbers, like “20MB/s.” You might also see something like “50X,” which is just applying the multiplier 50 to the base read speed of 150KB/s. That base speed is an old number techies like to use, coming from the original speed CD-ROM drives could read from discs. The more things change...