Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Memory Cards and Cameras

I got a question the other day from a new DSLR user, "what about memory cards?"

Because they were using a Digital Rebel XT, my immediate response was Sandisk Ultra II or Extreme III compact flash cards, along with some stats on which sizes held how many pictures and to choose the size based on what they think they'll need.

But, for everyone else, there's a ton of brands, sizes, speeds, and types. Everybody's got their own favorites. I've got one recommendation that most people will agree with and another that probably splits the field 50/50.

First, the sure fire bet. SanDisk. You can't go wrong with the Ultra II or Extreme III versions of the Compact Flash and SD memory cards.

My second suggestion, which everyone will not agree with, is a Hitachi 4GB or larger microdrive. But before I get into why these cards are worth buying, let me delve into the basics of memory cards.

It seems like every camera maker uses a different card and that makes for a plethora of card types: CF ("compact flash"), SD ("secure digital"), xD-Picture Cards, Memory Stick, SM ("Smart Media"), MMC ("MultiMedia Card"), and Microdrives.

Compact Flash
From the top, the CF card comes in two types, appropriately named Type-I and Type-II. The Type-I cards are 3.3mm thick and can be used in Type-I or Type-II slots. Type-II cards are 5mm thick and can obviously be used only in Type-II slots. Most DSLR buyers will be looking at CF cards. All Canon Digital SLRs accept CF cards. All current models accept both Type-I and II cards. Below is a short list of popular DSLRs that accept CF cards:

  • D70 - 6.1MP entry-level DSLR (1.5x cropped sensor - Nikon DX Format)
  • D70s - 6.1MP entry-level DSLR (1.5x cropped sensor - Nikon DX Format)
  • Nikon D200 - 10.2MP prosumer DSLR (1.5x cropped sensor - Nikon DX Format)
  • D2Hs - 4.1MP pro-level DSLR (1.5x cropped sensor - Nikon DX Format)
  • D2X - 12.4MP pro-level DSLR (1.5x cropped sensor - Nikon DX Format)
  • D2Xs - 12.4MP pro-level DSLR (1.5x cropped sensor - Nikon DX Format)

  • Alpha A100 - 10.2MP entry-level DSLR with built-in image stabilization (1.5x cropped sensor)

  • E-330 - 7.5MP entry-level DSLR with a live view LCD (FourThirds system)
  • E-500 (also uses xD) - 8MP entry-level DSLR with (FourThirds system)
Clearly, with that said, if you're looking for a DSLR, you're probably going to be using a CF card or Microdrive (I'll get into this in a little bit) with it.

SD ("Secure Digital")
But what if you're not looking at a DSLR, then your memory options open up - almost too much. I'd say the winner in the most popular memory card format for P&S (or "point and shoot") cameras is the SD card. We're also starting to see SD cards trickle into the DSLR world. If you own or have been eye-balling a Nikon D50 then you know what I'm talking about. The D50 is a great entry level DSLR that uses SD cards. P&S cameras had always seemed like "neat little gadgets" to me until recently, when manufacturers started cranking out some real contenders that are sort of hybrids between SLRs and P&S cameras. They typically have a wide to super-telephoto zoom (roughly equivalent to 35mm-400mm+ on a 35mm camera) and frequently are equipped with some sort of image stabilization technology. There's a handful of P&S cameras that really stand out:

Ok, these hybrid digicams are great for some, but if you want a smaller camera there's plenty of other options on the SD card platter. Your Canon, Panasonic, Nikon and Kodak cameras are typically going to use an SD card in their compact P&S cameras as well. Here's a handful that have received rave reviews:

  • Nikon P3 - Wi-Fi capable (for wireless photo transfer), 8MP camera with a 3.5x zoom with Nikon's Vibration Reduction
  • Nikon P4 - 8MP camera with a 3.5x optical zoom with Nikon's Vibration Reduction (no Wi-Fi)
  • Canon A540 - 6MP with a 4x optical zoom
  • Canon A700 - 6MP with a 6x optical zoom and a nice 2.5" LCD
  • Canon A620 - 7.1MP with a 4x optical zoom
  • Canon PowerShot SD700 IS - 6MP with a 4x optical zoom and Canon's Image Stabilization
  • Panasonic Lumix TZ1S - 5MP with a whopping 10x optical zoom and image stabilization
  • Panasonic FX01 - 6MP with a 3.6x optical zoom and image stabilization
  • Panasonic Lumix LZ3S - 5MP with a 6x optical zoom and image stabilization
  • Panasonic Lumix LZ5 - 6MP with a 6x optical zoom and image stabilization (if I were buying a camera for me today in the compact category, this would be my purchase)
xD stands for extreme Digital. It was developed and used in cameras by Olympus and Fujifilm. There are two basic types: Type M and H. The newer Type H cards claim to offer speed increases over Type M cards, as well as include special "picture effects", although most of these are only available in use with Olympus digital cameras. xD cards are fast in comparison with older formats such as SmartMedia (SM), MultiMediaCard (MMC) and MemoryStick (MS). They have a small form-factor in comparison with other formats and have a low power consumption.

However, xD cards are much slower than SD cards. Additionally, xD card is a proprietary format only used by Fujifilm and Olympus, much like the Memory Stick card is with Sony. This means that no public documentation or implementation is available. Compare this to the somewhat open SD, or the completely open CompactFlash standard. Typically, because of their proprietary nature, xD cards will be more expensive than the mainstream competitors of SD and CF.
Memory Stick
Like the xD card, Sony's Memory Stick is a proprietary format, making it typically more expensive. "Memory Stick" is also used in general to describe the whole family of Memory Sticks. This family includes the Memory Stick Pro, a revision that allows greater maximum storage capacity and faster file transfer speeds; Memory Stick Duo, a small-form-factor version of the Memory Stick (including the Pro Duo); and the even smaller Memory Stick Micro (M2). I've got a Sony digital P&S camera and I've always found this to be confusing. Even after owning my camera for over 5 years I'm still not sure which of the Memory Sticks will work in my camera. This reason alone is enough to dissuade me from buying another Memory Stick supported camera. (Sorry Sony)

For those brave enough to delve into Sony's Memory Stick world, Sony puts some great features on their P&S cameras. By the way, Sandisk also makes a Ultra II and Extreme III version of the Memory Stick. Below, I've listed a few that impress me (just not enough to buy back into the Memory Stick world):
These drives fit into any CompactFlash II slot; however, they may take more power than flash memory - watch your batteries. Honestly, I've never had a problem out of my Hitachi 4GB microdrive. I've never ran my battery down using it for hundreds of pictures in a single day. High capacity models are usually much cheaper than flash-based counterparts. I've heard some people complain about microdrives's susceptability to breaking. I've also heard lots of others say they've used them for years and never had a problem. I think, like any electronic device, things break sometimes. I've found mine to be a quality device and will likely buy more.

To Sum It Up . . .
If it were me shopping, I'd look for a DSLR camera that accepts CF cards and Microdrives. If I were looking for a point and shoot camera or a hybrid model, I'd go with one that accepts SD cards. What about brands and models of CF and SD cards? If you want blazing speed and reliability get one of the following in the size of your choice:

Sandisk Ultra II Compact Flash
Sandisk Extreme III Compact Flash
Hitachi Microdrive
Sandisk Ultra II SD Card
Sandisk Extreme III SD Card

The Sandisk Ultra and Extreme cards are super fast. Meaning that you can hold the shutter button down on your camera and they just continue to take pictures. Lexar makes good cards too, just make sure you know what you're buying; they've always been labeled a little wierd for me to figure out all the differences. The microdrive I suggested above is slower than the Ultra and Extreme cards, but not so slow that I can't shoot sports. The buffer in the camera just fills up a little faster and I can't get as many shots in a row. The microdrive is still a bargain for the price you pay.

If you've got a good reason for getting an Olympus, Fuji, or Sony and using their proprietary formats, then go for it. However, I'm staying away from them myself. It's just not worth the trouble to me.

One last thing to keep in mind:
  • A 1 GB card will hold a little over 100 shots using RAW or about 330 using JPEG.
  • A 4GB card will hold about 330 RAW shots or over 1000 JPEGs.
  • I always shoot in RAW format, so I need more memory. To each his own though.
Until next time . . . Cheers!


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