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Bridging The Flash Format Gap With Multi-Format Readers/ Writers

How Many Flash Card Formats Are There?

In the Rant-O-Matic: Flash Ca$h column, I was previously somewhat negative over the many varieties of flash memory and the fact that they aren't interchangeable. However, someone recently pointed out to me that the various flash memory formats are much like devices that require different sizes of batteries. Some devices use AA batteries, some devices use A batteries, some use C, D, and so on. The bottom line is that with all of the different form factors of these devices, manufacturers seeking a smaller form factor fit and/or less weight will look for and select a flash memory format that meets their requirements. And, some companies are committed to, and aligned with, certain flash format 'camps,' so these companies are exclusively committed to using one particular flash memory format that their 'camp' uses for most of their devices. Often, when a consumer purchases from a one particular brand or company, that purchase may unknowingly lock the consumer into a commitment to a particular flash module format.

When looking at things from the battery analogy perspective, the format brand 'camps' with varying formats are explainable. But the fact remains that it is inconvenient and expensive for various devices to use non-standard, multiple flash memory formats, and it seems 'unfair' for consumers to be forced to purchase multiple flash modules in different form factors, without any provision being made for interchangeability. Fortunately, the price of flash memory has stabilized, and may currently even be going down. If you are willing to carry multiple flash memory cards, some attractive prices are available for 16 MB to 64 MB cards.

But, I digress. What, then, are these flash memory formats?? Currently, flash memory formats include the following: CompactFlash Type I & II (CF), Microdrive (MD), SmartMedia (SM), Memory Stick (MS), MagicGate (MG), MultiMedia Card (MMC), Secure Digital (SD), PC Card Hard Drive, ATA Flash Card, and the new xD Picture Card (xD). We want to point out that the xD Picture Card format is so new that none of the devices we tested in this review even support xD. Additionally, Sony's Memory Stick and MagicGate formats are supported in "Non-Secure" mode only by these Multi-Format reader/ writer devices.

As you can see from this picture, there are a wide variety of flash card formats. Kingston provides solutions for most of them, but does not currently offer Memory Stick or xD Picture Card products. As these products continue to grow in popularity, Kingston may add them. But in order to purchase flash memory at the most favorable prices, you should select a flash memory format that is supported/offered by the largest number of vendors.

As you can see from the list of flash formats above, there are many options, and depending on which marketing "hype" you believe, these devices can be marketed as six or eight format compatible devices. We think this is very confusing. If you are looking for the maximum in cross-format compatibility, the device you buy should, at a minimum, offer support for CompactFlash and SmartMedia, as these two formats appear to be the two predominate formats currently.

If you are a Sony fan, then Memory Stick/MagicGate format support will be important, as nearly all of Sony's devices use this exclusive format. (Also, it is important to note that if you choose a device that uses the Memory Stick/MagicGate format, your options for price savings purchases will be limited as to available third-party Memory Stick/MagicGate modules. Only a select few companies offer third-party Memory Stick modules.)

Just when we thought we had seen the last introduction of flash card memory formats, the xD Picture Card appeared. Is this the last format flash card format? We have no idea. However, it is obvious that when a company can create a new "cash cow" by designing and deploying their own proprietary memory card format, as Sony has done with Memory Stick format, other companies will probably at least consider doing the same. While we do think that some of the less popular formats will fall out of favor over time, currently it appears to be a Multi-Format choice bonanza for flash card marketers.