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Digital Media 101 Part 1
Navigating the Growing Field of Digital Media Cards



Flash Memory Cards have taken their place in the photo industry as the "digital film" of the early 21 st Century. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and capacities -- adding new features and capabilities every time we turn around. With the hundreds of cards on the market -- and new ones being added every day -- how do you choose the right cards to stock for your customers?

It depends on what products you want to support. Do you want to focus only on Flash cards for digital cameras, or do you want to stock memory for camera-phones, PDAs, or other digital devices? You can gear your stock for consumers, gadget lovers, professional photographers, or all of the above.

This article provides an overview of flash media formats, what they're used for, how they've advanced and what to expect in the future. Armed with this information, you should be able to better plan your inventory to fit your customers' needs.

Flash Media Applications

The first flash media was developed to replace floppy disks as a removable storage device for laptop computers. PC cards and CompactFlash gave the computer world high-capacity storage with significant benefits: Faster access times, excellent system performance, reliability, energy efficiency, no moving parts to break down, greater durability, smaller physical size, and a wider temperature and humidity tolerance.

It wasn't long before some forward-thinking individuals realized the almost limitless applications for Flash media. SanDisk president & CEO Eli Harari was one of those visionaries, co-founding SunDisk (later renamed SanDisk) in 1988. As a physicist who specialized in flash media, he realized there was a growing need for small, portable mass storage devices for computers and electronic devices, so he invented a "multi-level cell" memory process that could record twice as much data as traditional transistors.

Two years later, Harari told a group of peers that his product could be used in hundreds of devices not yet on the market. "In the coming decade . . . the major market opportunity will present itself in the form of an emerging new class of compact portable products such as handheld computers, electronic notebooks, solid state cameras, portable copiers and fax machines," he predicted.

Although the mass consumer market didn't present itself as quickly as Harari expected, he continued to work with other technology companies to bring new products to market -- finding niche buyers in the electronics industry to buy his new products until a larger market presented itself.

By the mid to late 1990's flash media was beginning to integrate into the digital photography market, and developers soon began to find uses for it in other electronic devices. Olympus introduced digital voice recorders that used flash media instead of a cassette tape. Apple Computer introduced palm-size MP3 audio players, capable of storing hundreds, even thousands, of songs. Digital color printers added slots to read flash media cards straight from digital cameras. Camera-phones and PDA's (personal digital assistants) were the impetus for designing smaller and smaller flash memory cards -- a trend that has reduced flash media cards to the size of a pinky fingernail.

New forms of flash media continue to drive product development, just as the need for new forms of storage media continue to drive new innovations in flash card design. The following list of flash media categories should give you a comprehensive overview of current products and how they're used in the new "digital age."

CompactFlash

The CompactFlash (CF) card was introduced by SanDisk in 1994. CF cards were originally built around Intel's NOR-based flash memory, just like PC cards, but they're much smaller, measuring only 43mm x 36mm x 3.3mm or 5mm thick. The CF card has 50 contact pins instead of 68, but it uses the same type of connecting slot as the PC card. There are two versions of CompactFlash: Type I, the more common version, is 3.3mm and Type II is 5.0mm thick. Type I cards can fit into Type II slots, but it doesn't work in reverse.

SmartMedia

Toshiba launched the SmartMedia card in 1995 to compete with CompactFlash. The first Flash media product based on NAND flash memory (co-developed by SanDisk and Toshiba), SmartMedia cards are much smaller and thinner than earlier NOR-based media.

Since the introduction -- and rise in popularity -- of Secure Digital Cards (see below), products are no longer manufactured to support SmartMedia. Though they've been completely phased out, SmartMedia cards are still manufactured in limited quantities (with limited distribution) for legacy equipment.

MultiMediaCard

First introduced in 1997, the MultiMediaCard (MMC) is also based on Toshiba's smaller and more compact NAND-based flash memory. Measuring about the size of a postage stamp (24mm x 32mm x 1.5mm), MMC cards operate at either 2.7 or 3.6 volts from the power source. They can also be used in Secure Digital slots, however, SD cards cannot be read in MMC slots. MMC cards are currently available in sizes up to and including 1GB and are used in small, portable hand-held devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, digital cameras and PDAs. Seven gold slide contacts on the back of the card are used to transfer files.

In September 2004, the MultiMediaCard Association announced new product names for its enhanced-speed products: MMCplus and MMCmobile. Ideal for digital imaging electronic devices, MMCplus cards are manufactured in the standard-size MMC form factor, with 26MHz clock frequency and support for x1, x4 and x8 bus widths. Faster 52MHz clock speeds (1.65-1.95V) are optional. MMCmobile cards are made in the reduced-size MMC form factor (see below) and are capable of operating at both 1.65-1.95V and 2.7-3.6V ranges, making them ideal for mobile phone and other portable device applications where compact size and extended battery life are essential.A smaller version of the MultiMediaCard is the "Reduced Sized-MMC" or RS-MMC, introduced in 2004. RS-MMC cards are about half the size of MMC cards, 24mm x 16mm x 1.5mm, made for use in very small devices that use memory storage, such as camera-phones. RS-MMC cards can be used with an adaptor in any MMC (or SD) slot and are currently available in 128MB to 512MB capacities.

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