Flash Card Considerations

Can one have too many formats and too little storage? Storage Supersite readers offer some insights on the usability of flash cards as well as a tip on formatting.

As the digital camera market has taken off, so has its enabling technology, the flash card. Now the card manufacturers are seeking new applications such as next-generation telephony. However, according to some Storage Supersite readers, the new formats may be more losable than useable.

In my previous column, I ranted a bit on the current confusion in the flash memory card market. Too many formats and too-small cards were just a couple of my beefs. See Flash Forward and One Step Back? for more of the story.

However, some readers said that the new dinky size of the some formats didnt disturb them—er, much.

"I worry less about being able to use a small card, and more about losing them," Paul Clarke said, giving a qualified thumbs up to the new itsy-bitsy formats. "But Id rather see the prices on good-sized sticks [capacities from 128 to 256 Mbytes] go down, than the cards get smaller."

Clarke admitted that he preferred the larger (but still small) Sony MemoryStick format. "Im starting to feel a bit like an indentured servant, as I really value being able to use the sticks on a variety of equipment (just as my camcorder and digital still camera share a battery). If they offer a car stereo with a MemoryStick slot, or maybe a surround-sound receiver with an MP3 player and a slot, then Sony may have me for life!"

The new smaller formats, such as the miniSD (SecureDigital) card, address the need for additional storage by 2.5G- and 3G-savvy phones. These are the phones that incorporate cameras, MP3 playback and video game features.

However, these shrinky-dink cards offer more than a hint of irony for someone with a removable storage perspective.

According to Gartner Inc. Analyst Joseph Unsworth, the miniSD card format is more delicate that its full-size sibling and not designed for repeated insertions. In a report, he wrote: "Consumers can expect the smaller cards to be embedded in phones (as an SIM card is) to reduce their accessibility. However, this will compromise the benefit of portability of data."

At the same time, does the word "card" even describe these small memory devices? The miniSD card is truly mini, about the size of a dime, but is it a "card?" Perhaps "flash button" might be a better descriptor.

On the reliability front, another reader offered an anecdote and a useful tip for fellow flash card users. John Davies said his former company had a booth at the Photo Marketing Association trade show a few years ago. Lovely young models would take pictures of themselves with attendees then bring the camera to Davies to generate a print.

"As the show went on, more and more of the flash cards went bad and I couldnt retrieve the images," Davies said. "I pocketed the flash cards since I was under a time crunch and had the models retake the picture with a new card. Eventually, I had about 10 flash cards in my pocket and was running out of new cards. Fortunately the show ended."

"When I got back [to the office], I made it my mission to find out what had happened. The engineer at Kodak told me that it is not enough to delete the pictures. After filling up the card 3 to 4 times, the card should be reformatted," he said.

He added that hes followed this rule with other digital cameras and so far hasnt had a recurrence of that problem.

Flash recovery services confirm this practice, adding that its best to use the drive in the camera to reformat the card. They also suggest rather ambiguously that users should avoid filling the card "too full," before downloading images.

Theres a lesson here: be careful when transferring the practices learned with one technology over to another. Some may consider memory cards to be smaller versions of the floppy diskette. But that thought may be an easy step to a mistake—and data loss.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.