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Pick A Card, Any Card--If You Can Find It

The review I'm working on for tomorrow's paper has reacquainted me with the perplexing variety of flash-memory storage cards available. The only thing more annoying than the proliferation of incompatible card formats (can somebody remind me why xD-Picture Cards need to exist at all?) is the way each of these formats keeps spawning ever-smaller variants.

From the top, clockwise: 5.25-in. floppy disk, SD Card, MiniSD card, Memory Stick Micro, MicroSD.

For example, the SD Card--roughly the size of two thumbnails lined up--was supposed to be the smaller, lighter replacement for CompactFlash cards. But it then begat the MiniSD card for use in phones--except some people apparently thought a card about the size of a pinky fingernail was too gargantuan. So we now have the pinky toenail-sized MicroSD card.

The same thing happened with Sony's Memory Stick. The original chewing-gum-sized Stick led to the Memory Stick Duo, about half its length, and then the quarter-sized Memory Stick Micro (which Sony also calls "M2").

Each of these cut-down versions tends to cost more, and they all need special adapters to fit into standard memory-card readers. They're often hard to find in stores--much less if you if you lose sight of one at home or on the road. Drop one of these micro cards in a bowl of soup? You're probably going to wind up eating it. Let it fall under the seat on the plane? It's gone to the baggage claim in the sky.

Haven't we had enough different card formats already? (If you got burned by buying a now-obsolete format, please let us know what you're doing with those old cards.) Or are you looking for a feature that the current versions haven't delivered yet?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 21, 2007; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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Where is there compatibility in the tech world? Cell phones? Computer OS? Hi-def DVD? Why should flash memory be any different?

The only times I've been burned was by the memory cards packaged with the digital cameras I've purchased. In every case, they were inadequately sized and had to be replaced immediately. Otherwise, because flash drives don't wear out like hard disk drives do, the memory card lasts as long as the equipment it's used for.

Posted by: Bryan | March 21, 2007 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I totally agree with you. I have an older digital camera by Fuji that takes the "smart media" card which is now obsolete. I continue to use the camera, but my cards are not interchangeable with the SD cards which my kids use.

It is very handy to be able to share cards or grab photos off each other's cards --seems like many cameras are using the SD cards, which are cheaper than the XDs. Using one uniform type of card allows you to dump the photos from anyone's camera onto a computer with the cable/camera combination that you have at home. For example, my friends have a Canon camera and I want some of their photos, but they left all their cables at their home. My son's Kodak camera uses the same SD card, so we can put the Canon card into his camera, view the photos by connecting HIS camera to our home computer, and everyone is happy.

Why don't we just have one card format? I agree. But....which manufacturer wants to give up their stick or card...and retool everything?

Posted by: rjrjj | March 21, 2007 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I don't know... I have a Fuji camera, so I have an xD-Picture Card. Before that camera I had CF cards. I think the price of the media, in relation to the hardware you're buying it for is insignificant, especially how quickly the price drops for X MBs.

Put another way:
The XD "film" I bought for my camera holds 330 pictures and cost $25 (1/14th) the cost of the camera. I just consider it another upfront cost. We don't complain about buying new batteries, or the right size/shape case for a new camera.

It's annoying, but just not worth getting upset about if a new memory card is a small percentage of the cost of a new product.

Posted by: Gee | March 21, 2007 1:07 PM | Report abuse

To Bryan, the first poster....

Never assume that your memory card will not wear out. I've worn out memory cards (too many in/outs in the device) and burnt out several USB sticks. Yes, I use them at work, too, but still.

Treat it like any kind of memory, and make sure to back up often.....

FWIW, PDA uses MemoryStick, camera uses xD, and cell uses MicroSD. I have a great memory card reader with slots for all of 'em in my computer, and had Dell build one into my mom's machine. It's slightly irritating, however--it's a good thing there's a $20-$30 workaround for your PC.

Posted by: Marseille | March 21, 2007 1:58 PM | Report abuse


Storage devices are one thing, but what about batteries. I have 4 different digital cameras accumulated over the last 3 years, 3 SD and 1 Xd. With the exception of the underwater digital, Pentax Optio WP, all use AA batteries, a factor in buying them. I use the rechargeable AAs. They are interchangeable and generally reliable. If you need batteries (non rechargeable) in a hurry, they're readily available everywhere.

Posted by: Eric | March 22, 2007 9:16 AM | Report abuse

My camera uses compact flash. I rather like the cards. They seem big and solid enough to handle abuse. Some of the smaller ones are just too fragile (or at leat they seem that way).

Posted by: J | March 22, 2007 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Rob - Why pick on xD? They have as much right to the market as miniSD or Memory Stick Micro. To answer your question, xD cards exist to fill the slots on Fuji and Olympus cameras. The real question is: Why do they cost more? But even that seems mute 'cause they only cost about $5/GB over an SD at Sam's Club.

Posted by: DLD | March 22, 2007 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I will use my obsolete Olympus C-3000 until either the camera or the largest card breaks. The card is obsolete, but the camera takes great pictures and does not go into movie mode all by its self like my wife's Exilim. Now what do I do with the 10-12 old film cameras that are stored around the house?

Posted by: DILBERT DOGBERT | March 22, 2007 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Rob, this isn't all that different than the "floppy disk" wars that took place in the '80s and '90s with computers. We started with 5.25" 360K floppies, then came the 1.2MB 5.25 floppies (which, thankfully, could *usually* read the 360K disks), then the 720K 3.5" floppies, followed by the 1.44MB 3.5" floppies, the 3M SuperDisk, Iomega's various disk technologies, etc., etc., etc.

We've been through this before, and we'll probably go through it again with some future storage technology. Call it the price of progress, if you will.

Posted by: DD in Tx | March 22, 2007 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Installing an internal or external USB 52-in-1 card reader solves the issue. They are fast and can be fed any type of media you have.

Posted by: Boda_Deez | March 22, 2007 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the comments. My basic gripe with these competing formats is that--unlike floppy disks, where each new version was smaller but stored more data--they only serve to pad out manufacturers' profit margins. Take xD: Nobody at Fuji or Olympus has ever told me what this format does better than the alternatives. xD is just like SD, only less compatible and more expensive.

In essence, you're being taxed to support a manufacturer's egotism. Then think of what else a company could have done with the time and money it sank into developing its own proprietary format.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | March 22, 2007 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Rob, your comments on the newer cards being too small is right on target !!! Even a CF card is small enough.

Posted by: csavargo | March 22, 2007 9:09 PM | Report abuse

I believe if you investigate further, you'll find that flash memory, while having a finite physical lifetime (~100,000 writes), also has a limited lilfe for the "latent image" of about, say, six months. Thus, to be safe, don't expect to store data forever on flash cards, but rather stick to using them as transfer media. BTW, there is already new technology coming that will replace flash, called phase change storage which is faster, more durable, and consumes less power. Go to this website and listen to this podcast to learn more.

Posted by: Jerry P | March 23, 2007 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Flash memory is so cheap, who cares if it's a little more. From, you can get 1 GB of SD for $8.99, or pay a whole extra buck for MicroSD. I won't cry over that dollar.

Posted by: Jeff | March 23, 2007 3:05 PM | Report abuse

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