xD-Picture Cards

Dan Knight - 2002.08.02

All memory cards are not created equal. Compact Flash and SmartMedia have been duking it out over price, speed, size, and xD Picture Cardcapacity for several years. Sony threw a wrench in the works with their Memory Stick technology (which hardly anyone except Sony uses), and just recently the tiny Secure Media card has come into play with Minolta's Dimage X.

Now Fujifilm and Olympus are adding yet one more memory standard to the existing confusion. Is this a good move that provides something the market needs - or just one more competing standard?

Olympus and Fujifilm have been wed to SmartMedia, a compact, inexpensive memory module with one significant drawback - it only supports 128 MB of memory, and some older cameras don't even support that. While Compact Flash is available in sizes up to 1 GB (and prices to match!), it's larger than SmartMedia. With the industry moving to smaller cameras, a smaller type of flash memory is attractive.

Sony's Memory Stick seems to have run into the same 128 MB barrier as SmartMedia, and vendors are simply not lining up to use Sony's next "beta" standard.

Enter the MultiMedia Card, the smallest type of flash memory available until xD-Picture ships. These tiny cards look a bit like the end of a Memory Stick, and capacity appears stuck at 64 MB. Secure Digital is a secure version of MMC that's 4 times faster, and 128 MB SD cards are already available.

xD-Picture Card

The xD-Picture Card will be the smallest of the bunch when it ships in September 2002 - and it's memory potential is the greatest, with the possibility of supporting 8 GB on a single card, shattering the 128 MB barrier SmartMedia cameras have had. xD-Picture was also designed to minimize power consumption and improve read/write speed.

Let's compare SD and xD:

Dimensions 24 x 32 x 2.1 mm 20 x 25 x 1.8 mm
Volume 1,613 mm3 900 mm3
Capacity, today 128 MB 128 MB
Capacity, potential unknown 2 GB
Read speed 2.0 MB/sec 1.3/3.0 MB/sec
Write speed 2.0 MB/sec 5.0 MB/sec

Fujifilm already makes Compact Flash, SmartMedia, and Secure Digital cards. I suspect pricing of xD-Picture memory will be in the ballpark with the rest, so that won't be a significant issue. Fujifilm is already quoting $89.95 for a 128 MB card.

I'm guessing that nobody has complained about the size of SD, so let's not make an issue of one being visibly smaller than the other. I doubt there are any applications where that will really matter.

The great promises of xD seem to be speed and capacity. The 64 MB xD card reads 50% faster than SD - and writes are 2.5x as fast. On top of that, xD has a theoretical limit of 8 GB. I haven't been able to find any information on a theoretical limit for SD or Compact Flash.

A couple really useful accessories that could help drive xD are adapters that allow their use with equipment designed to accept Compact Flash card or PC Cards. Very nice touch, Olympus and Fujifilm.

SD is just starting to get established, so the window of opportunity hasn't closed. Although I haven't been able to find current market share figures, based on what I can find, I suspect Olympus and Fujifilm account for 20-30% of the digicam market, which would be enough to make xD the front runner by Christmas.

Despite the hype about size, it's probably the speed and capacity that will let xD become the new standard as digital cameras, MP3 players, and other devices keep getting smaller. If they can actually squeeze 8 GB into such a small card, this could eventually displace Compact Flash as the dominant memory card.

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