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Flash memory cards seem to have found their way into a whole host of everyday consumer devices such as cameras, MP3 players, PDAs, and even mobile phones. However, a particular bugbear of mine is that the connection interfaces in these types of products are more often than not based on the slower USB 1.1 standard, rather than the much faster USB 2.0. Suppose for example you need to transfer the contents of your camera’s memory card to a PC in hurry. Well, a few years ago, when the capacity of memory cards was generally measured in terms of megabytes, this wouldn’t have been too much of an issue. However, when you consider that nowadays flash memory cards are available with capacities of several gigabytes, the 12Mbit/sec transfer rate of USB 1.1 just seems woefully inadequate.
This is where a USB 2.0 card reader such as the new Hi-Speed 8-in-1 Media Reader/Writer from Belkin comes in handy. Supporting data transfer rates of up to 480Mbit/sec, a USB 2.0 reader will allow you to transfer data between a memory card and a computer at a much higher speed than the connection interface on most consumer devices will allow.
Upon first inspection, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been somewhat short-changed by Belkin, as this reader only sports four memory card slots - CompactFlash (CF), SmartMedia, Secure Digital/MultiMedia (SD/MMC) and MemoryStick - yet claims to work with eight different types of flash media. However, Belkin is actually counting CompactFlash Types I and II as separate formats, as well as distinguishing between IBM’s MicroDrive (also a CF Type II format). In addition, MemoryStick, MemoryStick Pro and MagicGate MemoryStick are all treated separately but share the same slot. So, although essentially accurate, I do find Belkin’s marketing to be a little misleading – but to be fair, most card reader manufacturers play the same game.
The device itself is moderately compact in size, and is finished in a rather unassuming but perfectly practical grey and silver plastic casing. As with most external card readers, the Belkin unit features a small LED which flickers green while the memory is being accessed. There are also no eject buttons for any of the slots - to remove a card all you do is pull it straight out.
At the rear of the unit, you’ll find a mini USB socket that accommodates one end of the supplied USB cable. The other end of the cable features a standard USB connector that will plug into any USB port on a PC. I actually prefer the idea of having a separate lead, rather than the captive leads that are often supplied with other card readers. By investing in a second USB lead and having both cables permanently plugged into PCs at different locations (for example at home and at work), the card reader then becomes a neat little portable storage device with no clumsy wires to worry about.
If you’re running Windows XP, 2000, ME or Mac OS X, then the Belkin reader can effectively be used straight out of the box. Otherwise you’ll need to install the supplied drivers. Once connected, Windows will display the card reader as four separate removable drives, each one assigned with a different drive letter. To transfer data to and from a flash card, you simply drag the files to the desired location on your PC or vice-versa. If you choose to install the Belkin driver, you’ll notice that after rebooting, each drive has its own customized drive icon that represents one of the four slots (see screenshot), which is a nice little touch, presumably to help you remember which drive letter is assigned to which slot on the reader.
As well as an electronic version of the user manual, the supplied software CD also includes a copy of Ulead’s DVD PictureShow 2 for the PC - albeit the basic SE version. This allows you to create digital photo slideshows in VCD format using a CD-R/RW drive, which can then be played in a compatible DVD player and viewed on a TV. Mac users needn’t feel left out, as a copy of Ulead’s Photo Explorer software is also included as part of the package to help you manage your digital photo library.