No thanks for the memory

comment Did you see the news that Philips has signed on to help Sony foist the Memory Stick on us? Oh, good, just what the world needs: another portable memory format.

commentary Did you see the news that Philips has signed on to help Sony foist the Memory Stick on us?

Oh, good, just what the world needs: another portable memory format. Even Sony is hedging its Memory Stick bet, adding a CompactFlash slot to some of its newer Clie PDAs. If Sony isn't willing to put all its memory options into one basket, why should we?

But it's not like I don't have bones to pick with other removable storage formats as well.

For example, are Secure Digital (SD) cards really that secure? I don't see how a postage stamp-sized piece of plastic could be. Sure, it may hold 256MB of your most priceless possessions, but something that small is just begging to slide out of your pocket and deep down into the front seat of your car, never to be seen again. Or to be grabbed from your PDA, slipped into a pocket, and whisked away into a crowd in 10 seconds or less.

And I have no idea whether or not the data on an SD card is actually secure. After all, it's not like you need a password to use one. "Secure Digital" originally meant the cards were going to support the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) copyright-protection scheme. But nobody seems to talk about that much anymore.

The good news is that all this memory is getting less expensive. And while it still doesn't thrill me that one of my cameras uses CompactFlash while another uses MultiMedia Card (MMC) and my PDA an SD card, at least my HP Media Center PC has a reader that accepts all three, as well as Memory Stick, just in case I somehow become a Sony hostage and need to bargain for my release.

Lately, I've been buying 256MB CompactFlash and SD cards for about US$50, while the MMCs I see offered for that price hold only 128MB. This is at my local warehouse store, so it's possible you're paying more. (I doubt you're paying much less.) But it's not like I'm going to order this stuff online and pay shipping like I did back when prices were twice or three times as high.

USB drives
The other memory device I use--and this has proven a godsend--is a USB silicon hard drive, which is marketed under a variety of trade names. When this type of device first came out and the affordable ones were limited to 8MB or 16MB, I didn't have much use for them. Capacity was too small and the price seemed high for what you got.

But recently I've been using 128 and 256MB models, including some designed for the higher transfer speeds of USB 2.0. These devices have replaced the floppy drive and in some instances the CD and home network as the way I move information around. All I do is save to the USB drive, carry the drive to the destination machine, plug it in and go. This is a really easy way to move data from PC to PC or from PC to Mac, even when I have a network running.

This works especially well if I am going to someone else's office as it saves trying to e-mail huge files (which generally get kicked back by the mail server for being too huge, anyway).

I also use USB drives as backup discs. I have one in each of my briefcases and another on my key ring. Besides the obvious utility of being able to accept files for transport home wherever I am, these silicon key fobs also hold copies of all my most important files--like the stuff I need to be able to do useful work on any computer I find myself seated in front of.

This has proven a big win for me time and time again. While I've sometimes used the other card formats for this--the Compaq nx7000 laptop I am using has an SD slot, and my Media Center desktop has that multicard reader/writer--you can't count on finding these when you need them. At least USB ports are fairly universal these days.

Which format to choose?
I don't expect you to choose a device based on the kind of memory it uses, so I won't try to suss out which format is the best for you. As a practical matter, they all seem pretty much the same to me. Memory write times matter in digital photography, where you sometimes face a write delay before you can take the next picture. But the people who are serious about this can always get fast, high-capacity micro-hard drives.

For the rest of us, however, it's nice to standardize on a couple of formats, if possible. Lately, my particular collection of devices use SD and Compact Flash almost exclusively, and things seem to be working out OK.

It looks like I'm at least partially in tune with the rest of the world on that one. According to Gartner analyst Joseph Unsworth, CompactFlash, Memory Stick, and SD dominate now (with about 38 percent, 19 percent, and 17 percent of market share, respectively). But he says CompactFlash is fading and SD, Memory Stick, and USB drives will be the dominant formats within a couple of years. If you're going to standardize on anything, those are probably good bets.

Me, I'm just going to keep buying whatever gadgets strike my fancy and work out the storage problems later.

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