Don't forget camera memory

Photos: Going digital requires flash of a new kind - memory. Getting the right kind is crucial.

November 05, 2001|By Doug Bedell | Doug Bedell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

When Maria Fernandez bought her Olympus digital camera two years ago, the last consideration was the kind of flash memory her glistening silver-and-gold toy would require.

"I thought flash memory was like batteries - a lot of companies make them, but they're interchangeable," she said at the Fry's Electronics Store in Arlington, Texas. "Boy, was I wrong."

As a PDA-addicted, MP3-listening, digital camera-toting child of the Internet Age, Fernandez was shopping for three types of flash memory. The Olympus digital camera craved SmartMedia, her Sony Clie personal digital assistant was in dire need of a Memory Stick, and her Lyra 2 MP3 portable player hungered for CompactFlash.

All serve the same purpose: They add storage capacity. But, they are incompatible. And until this year, they cost a bundle. Adding a 64-megabyte SmartMedia card to a Rio 300 could cost $100, nearly the price of the MP3 player itself.

But flash memory prices are dropping.

The cost for two of the most prevalent flash memory modules - CompactFlash and SmartMedia - tumbled this year and will continue at a 25 percent annual decline through next year, said Brian O'Rourke, senior analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group. Supply has finally caught up with demand. What cost $1.50 per megabyte last year is 50 cents today.

Beyond price considerations, consumers face a cluttered, confusing landscape. Fernandez now regards the memory requirements of her favorite electronics like those of her three headstrong children: "I just try to keep them all happy."

That's not easy.

With each year, more formats emerge. IBM's 1-inch-square Microdrive, which crams in up to 1 gigabyte of data, has found a home in high-end, high-resolution cameras. New optical discs from DataPlay hold 500MB, nearly the capacity of a regular CD. Sony is rigging all sorts of products with slots for its Memory Sticks.

Experts say consumers are gradually paying attention to the memory capacities of the devices they buy. And there are basic guidelines they may wish to heed.

CompactFlash and Smart- Media are locked in a tight race. Both are made of the same stuff. Both are showing up in drugstores and supermarkets, so availability is no problem.

SmartMedia was initially the most widely used memory module in digital cameras, PDAs and MP3 players. Best facet: It's cheap. Worst: The largest SmartMedia module available is only 128MB (lowest price on www.price watch.com is $62). That 128MB may be plenty for MP3 players holding several hours of music. But it won't do for 2- or 3-megapixel cameras, which eat huge chunks of storage space.

CompactFlash is gaining popularity because it can hold up to 512MB (best price on Pricewatch: $310). It's also more durable because it is encased in solid plastic. It doesn't bend like the flimsy material used to fashion SmartMedia. As PDAs and digital cameras expand their features, Compact- Flash will dominate simply because it can hold more data.

For 64MB cards, both formats are about the same price. But look for CompactFlash products to drop in price as production ramps up, O'Rourke said.

While flash memory shouldn't dictate what digital device you buy, it's worth considering if you already have a device using one or the other, especially in case one appliance meets an untimely death.

Sony manufactures its own flash memory modules, Memory Sticks. Although made of the same flash memory material as the others, Memory Sticks cost more. But if you're a Sony customer, you're used to paying more. A 128MB MagicGate Memory Stick costs $170; a 64MB stick is $80.

Memory Stick slots are built into every Sony product from Vaio desktop and laptop computers to in-dash car navigation systems. Sony officials say 157 companies have embraced the open Memory Stick standard, which is expected to hold 1GB by 2003.

IBM has turned out Microdrives for mass storage from 350MB ($189) to 1GB ($369). These modules are not flash memory but hard disk drives miniaturized into 1-inch-square metal packages. But they remain pricey and use is limited to devices with a Compact-Flash Type II slot.

DataPlay is rolling out single- and double-sided mini-optical discs that will hold up to 500MB. These mini CDs will find homes in cell phones and portable music players, where they will hold more than 11 hours of MP3 files. However, DataPlay discs won't work in non-DataPlay devices.

Secure Digital cards, now included in the Palm m505, are emerging. Smaller than a Memory Stick, the cards boast extremely high transfer rates for storing data. Eventually, consumers might buy music on sticks rather than CDs.

For Fernandez, the future sounds as confusing as her predicament at the store.

"I know one thing," she said as she made her way toward the checkout stand. "It's good the [lower] prices are coming. Otherwise, I'd be broke."

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