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SD Card wins a quiet victory

The most important detail in this morning's press release from Olympus about the imminent availability of two new digital cameras comes 66 lines down:

SD Compatibility

Olympus' new Spring 2010 digital compact cameras offer SD capability for up to 32 gigabytes of capacity.

With the arrival of those models, one of the longest-running, most pointless format wars in electronics will end: Every major digital-camera vendor will sell multiple devices that accept industry-standard SD Cards.


Most of the industry settled on that 10-year-old format early in the last decade--having already moved on from such competing technologies as floppy disks (no, really), recordable CDs, Compact Flash cards and SmartMedia cards. But Sony stuck with its older, proprietary Memory Stick, while Fuji and Olympus had their newer, equally proprietary xD-Picture Card.

Owners of cameras that used those non-standard formats gained no significant performance advantages but had to deal with a variety of real or potential issues. They risked paying more for memory of the same capacity--or not finding their camera's memory sold at all in smaller stores. Cards borrowed from friends were less likely to work in their camera. And if they owned a smaller computer, such as an ultralight or netbook laptop, they would probably find that it only had an SD Card slot.

("SD" stands for "Secure Digital," a reference to "digital rights management" usage-control features that were engineered into the format to win support from the recording industry--and which have since been almost completely ignored in the market.)

For those reasons, I've been recommending SD-compatible cameras since at least 2005. Among the holdout manufacturers, Fuji was the first to cave; in January of 2007, it announced that its upcoming cameras would accept both SD and xD memory. At last month's Consumer Electronics Show, Sony followed suit, not only debuting a series of SD-compatible cameras and camcorders but also launching its own line of SD Cards. Olympus then unveiled its own SD-capable models; one shipped last month and others, as noted above, arrive this month.

So we now have a removable-storage format even more compatible than the floppy disk once was. You can take an SD Card and move it from camera to camcorder to laptop to desktop (longtime holdout Apple finally got around to adding SD Card slots last year) to some TVs and DVD or Blu-ray players. In turn, most non-Apple smartphones use microSD cards--one sits in the foreground of the picture above--that, when snuggled into an adapter sleeve, function in regular-sized SD slots.

It's too bad some of these companies didn't pay attention to tech forecasts sooner. Five years ago, the trends looked obvious, but as far back as xD's 2002 launch, smart observers of the market didn't see a need for yet another incompatible storage medium. That's left us with a large backlog of Memory Sticks, xD-Picture Cards and devices that can only use those formats. If you happen to own one of those things, what's your reaction on having bought into the losing end of a format war?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 2, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Pictures  
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I agree those proprietary formats were not at all consumer-friendly. And they are part of the reason I refused to buy any Sony devices that required MS to work.

Lots of the top end DSLRs still use CF cards. But I suspect over time they will end up changing over to SD as well if they can build SD cards to match the top transfer speeds of CF.

Posted by: fedssocr | February 2, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Rob, this is great news. You should really say "I told you so!" because you have written for years about the craziness with the mix of formats! Now this is really good news, and you are the first to report it today. Thanks.

Posted by: rjrjj | February 2, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

This is finally a step in the right direction, but it took longer for this than the bluray wars. Can we infer that manufacturers are finally willing to listen to consumers? Next up, picking the mini usb as the universal charger for all cell phones. They have legislation for that in the EU already.

Posted by: terriernut | February 2, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I just bought a new Sony camera which uses a memory stick, and I did consider at the time the lack of SD to be a disadvantage. Just not a big enough issue to overcome the other features I liked about the camera. The fact is, USB has done the job of making everything as compatible as I need it to be, and for everyday use I'd still use the cable to download pictures rather than popping the card in and out all of the time, even if I had a built in card reader in my computer(s). Similarly, the idea of using SD cards as the "latest greatest version of the floppy" is hardly different then the ubiquitous USB thumb drives that are available, except for the minor advantage of being able to leave it safely ensconced when a laptop is stored in a bag.

Should my camera be made obsolete in a few years because the memory card dies and I cannot find a replacement...then I'll agree it was a bad decision. But most likely the existence of ebay means there will be overstock and used memory sticks still available long after I'd want to replace the camera for other reasons, even if Sony stopped making them tomorrow.

Posted by: wp5ikonen | February 2, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Rob - think a lot of it has to do with the consumer/prosumer video market. HDV tape unofficially died this year. Sony has to move towards SDHC or miss out because pros will NOT use memory stick. Not doing so would kill their market share. The current SxS and P2 memory cards are way to expensive compared to SDHC. Canon closed down it's HV20/30/40 series of camcorders and said the XH-A1 will be it's last tape cam.
Everything will be SD soon.

Posted by: stikyfingas | February 2, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

SD Cards will fade quickly once USB 3.0 and its incredible transfer rates catch on. Finally there is an interface standard worthy of use with flash devices. We are talking about 5 Gb/sec transfer rates here folks, not the peas-through-a-straw rates of SD cards. This is even faster than SATA II.

USB 3.0 is MUCH more practical for memory devices, and the devices can be just as small or even smaller than SD cards.

This technology is arriving SOON, there are already USB 3.0 devices and motherboards available.

Posted by: frantaylor | February 2, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I got an Olympus Stylus (1020?) because it was supposedly waterproof and shockproof.

Flooded in 6 foot surf, replaced, replacement flooded the next year (after warranty ran out) in similar surf. So apparently it was waterproof, or shockproof, but not both at once. It also had a terrible shutter lag. Only ever needed the one xD card, and found a cheap card reader for that, so it wasn't really an issue.

My Canon Digital Rebel (1st Gen) has a CF card, and is still going strong.

Posted by: wiredog | February 2, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

It's about time!

In my family, our early digicams were Olympus models because they had some very capable cameras with fast lenses, unusual in a non-DSLR camera. Since that time, precisely because of their insistence in not supporting SD memory cards, we have moved on to Canon and Nikon cameras.

Posted by: Arlington4 | February 2, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

As mentioned before me, several top end SLRs still use CF cards. I wish they all did. SD cards are too small to handle easily - CF cards are not that big that size would count against them. More importantly, the contacts of SD cards are exposed, while those of CF cards are not.

to Arlington4 :
Nikon's top four models use CF, the fifth uses both CF and SD.

Posted by: observer31 | February 2, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I have a fine collection of cards of just about every format. Also several adapters What a waste.

Posted by: tojo45 | February 2, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Eh. it's not like USB card readers were expensive. It's not like you needed to buy lots of cards or something. I've never bought more than one per camera. Unless you take a crazy number of pics or something.

Posted by: koalatek | February 2, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I guess nobody numbers the days when regular cameras used different types of film. How did we ever manage to survive that! Oh yeah, it was no big deal.

Posted by: Wallenstein | February 2, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

The format wars aren't completely over. Nor will they probably ever be. My notebook's SD card slot can't read the SDHC card from my camera. The first time I tried it, it corrupted the card and I had to reformat it, losing my images. (So I bought ANOTHER card reader.) I recall reading something in one of the photo mags about an even higher-capacity SD-type card. And there are those weird mini-SD cards floating around -- same connector, just half as high. And the SD cards with the built-in USB connector...

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | February 2, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

@ Terriernut: They can claim the small USB connector is a standard, but I have TWO devices that use them that refuse to charge when a wall-wart that isn't their proprietary one is connected...using the STANDARD connector. They've put a resistor between two pins or some such keying mechanism to keep you using THEIR chargers.

Posted by: RHMathis | February 2, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

@ 54Stratocaster: The SD cards with built-in USB connectors (reached by bending the cards in two)have ceased production early last year, unfortunately. I thought they made the most sense of all, but not enough folks caught on to how they worked.

Posted by: RHMathis | February 2, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Darn. And I had just finished transferring all my Betamax tapes to Memory Sticks.

Posted by: Cosmo06 | February 2, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

My camera has an 8gig SD card, but it's so big that I don't need to ever take it out. Most pics get immediately sync to a computer and erased from the camera.

I was glad I could get it cheaply from Amazon (not sure a Memory Stick would be as cheap) but once you've got one of decent size there is no need to have more than one.

USB is truly the great equalizer.

Posted by: wookpook | February 2, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Big deal. I bought Sony cameras based on their performance (particularly minimal shutter lag) and that much more important than whatever alphabet soup memory card they use. They're all "compatible" in real life usage - you have your supplied cable and/or adapter to get it into a USB port. Same same. Didn't matter to me which horse I backed in this "format race". All standards expire after a while. My friend sneered at me for still using 5 1/4' disks while he had cool new 3" floppies. Now you laugh at him?

Posted by: ClarkKent1 | February 2, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

Olympus really hosed themselves as far as I'm concerned as a one time customer. I bought the sp550uz w/an 18X zoom (main reason) for scenery shots. Works well enough for that. I was a little nervous at the time about the proprietary format, but thought that they would keep up with increases in size that other formats (ie. SD/Compact Flash) saw and similar reductions in price. To my dismay, and I'm sure countless other owners, they did not. I watched SD go to 4GB, then 8, then 16 and now 32 (64?) and xD maxed at 2GB. Thanks Olympus...and to show my appreciation for their support of me, the customer, I haven't even considered Olympus for any choices in cameras (which has made shopping for models I'd be interested in a choice between Canon and Nikon) let alone electronics since. Sony's been off of my list for a while for additional reasons. FUJI scored a few points by admitting defeat and moving on, so I wouldn't dismiss them out of hand except that my next purchase will more then likely be a Nikon DSLR with Compact Flash and micro-drive capability.

Posted by: PartyCrasher1 | February 2, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

I think we will always have multiple formats especially when it comes to things like memory cards. I agree that the winner is the SD and I am very happy to be using a tiny SD card in my phone (8gb, can go to 32gb)but that did not stop me from buying my Sony w120 camera that is just amazing yet it uses the Sony Memory stick which works fine and I rarely remove it. I feel that being in I.T. for decades gives me the ability to have seen this never ending search for standards that are really needed but rarely happen. This said the SD should break the trend and create a standard at least going forward.

Posted by: tsecreto | February 3, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

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