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A brief history of memory cards

A few years ago there were three types of memory card used in cameras, CompactFlash, SmartMedia and Sony’s Memory Stick. In these days of global standardisation there are now around a dozen different types of memory card in common use, many of them mutually incompatible. How the hell did that happen?

CompactFlash (CF) cards were first introduced by SanDisk in 1994 and are still very popular, used primarily in large professional digital SLRs, although a few larger high-end compacts and super-zoom cameras also use them. There are two types of CF card, rather confusingly called Type I and Type II. The less common Type II cards are thicker, but apart from that there isn’t much difference internally. Most cameras that use CF cards can accept either type. Apart from their larger physical size, CF cards differ from other types of memory card because they carry a controller chip inside the card, whereas with other types the controller chip is part of the device with which the card is used. The advantage is that older cameras can still use the very latest high-speed, high capacity CF cards, whereas devices using other types of cards may not be compatible with the latest types. CompactFlash cards are currently available in sizes up to 8GB, with a top quality 1GB card costing around £20.

Also using the CF format are MicroDrives, which are actually miniature hard drives. MicroDrives were developed by IBM, but the product was bought by Hitachi which now manufactures them and continues to develop the technology. They were popular a couple of years ago because they were faster and offered higher storage capacities than the largest Flash-based cards then available, but advances in Flash memory technology have rendered them all but obsolete. However Hitachi has recently announced a 20GB MicroDrive using its new Perpendicular Recording technology, which could be used to make even larger capacities.

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