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A brief history of memory cards

SmartMedia cards were introduced in 1995 and were very popular in their day, but they have fallen into disuse, mostly because their internal memory architecture could only accommodate a maximum of 128MB, which is only enough for around 30 pictures at today’s file sizes. SmartMedia (SM) cards were also very thin, and were more prone to damage from bending than other thicker types of card. They haven’t been used in new cameras for at least five years.

When it became apparent that SM cards weren’t going to cut it anymore, most manufacturers switched over to the SecureDigital card format, but Fujifilm and Olympus decided that they were going to introduce an entirely new format, and so the xD-Picture card was launched in 2002.

The xD card had two advantages over the SD cards existing at the time. Obviously it was somewhat smaller, but also its internal memory design meant that it had a theoretical maximum capacity of 8GB, whereas the largest SD cards at the time were 512MB. Fuji and Olympus clearly hoped that other manufacturers would see the advantages of xD-Picture and adopt it én masse. Sadly they did nothing of the sort, which meant that the third-party card manufacturers didn’t adopt it either, so as a result xD-Picture cards remain relatively expensive. Fuji’s latest compact, the FinePix F40fd, can use both xD and SD cards, so maybe this is a sign that Fuji itself is losing faith in the format.

Secure Digital (SD) cards were launched in 1999 by Panasonic, Toshiba and SanDisk, based on the existing MultiMedia Card (MMC) format launched two years earlier by SanDisk and Siemens. The word “secure” in the name comes from its ability to store encrypted music data, although this is largely forgotten. SD cards are extremely popular, and are used in the majority of compact digital cameras, and also in several consumer DSLRs and even in some video cameras. They are also used in PDAs, MP3 players and mobile phones. Most devices that use SD cards can also use MMC, although these are less common.

In 2006 a new type of SD card was announced by a consortium of manufacturers. The SDHC (High Capacity) card format is capable of capacities in excess of 2GB and has faster read/write speed than standard SD cards. Most new SD-compatible cameras are also compatible with the new SDHC format, however many older cameras are not, so it’s a good idea to check the compatibility of your camera before buying the new cards.

Sony has to be different of course, so naturally it has is own proprietary memory card format. The original Sony Memory Stick, launched in 1998, suffered from the same 128MB capacity limit as the SmartMedia card, so Sony responded by introducing the Memory Stick Pro in 2003 (in collaboration with SanDisk), which is faster and has a higher maximum capacity. It didn’t stop there however, and went on to introduce the Memory Stick Pro Duo, a smaller card similar in format to the SD card, the even smaller Memory Stick Micro, as well as the faster Memory Stick Pro HG introduced last year. With very few exceptions Memory Stick cards are only used in Sony products. They are often more expensive than equivalent capacity SD cards.

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