Memory cards get smaller, faster and cheaper

In the world of computer memory cards smaller, faster and higher capacity is good. Smaller cards mean smaller gadgets, faster cards mean less time spent waiting and higher capacity cards mean less are needed to hold a day's music or a week's photo memories. Through a series of developments announced over the last week card manufacturers have delivered all three and, as a piéce de résistance, are also cutting prices.

The latest advance in card size was announced in Hanover on Thursday at the CeBIT trade show when the SD Card Association unveiled a miniature version of its Secure Digital (SD) memory card. Dubbed "Mini SD," the new card is the smallest memory card yet to be introduced and is designed for use in compact, portable digital electronics devices such as cellular telephones and digital music players.

"Every cubic millimeter is important in those devices," said Bo Ericsson, senior vice president of marketing at memory-maker SanDisk Corp. "This is the smallest device out there."

At 602 cubic millimeters the Mini SD card can claim that crown. Before Thursday's announcement, the smallest memory card to be announced was the Reduced Size Multimedia Card, which was unveiled late last year by Hitachi Ltd.

That card has a volume of 605 cubic millimeters. The XD Picture Card, which was launched last year by Fuji Photo Film Co. Ltd. and Olympus Optical Co. Ltd., and Sony Corp.'s Memory Stick Duo are also sub-1,000 cubic millimeter memory cards designed for use in small portable electronics products.

The Mini SD cards will be available in 16M byte, 32M byte and 64M byte capacities shortly, said SanDisk. A version with 128M byte capacity is expected to be launched worldwide in the second quarter and a 256M byte version in the second half of this year. Prices for the cards were not announced and SanDisk declined to comment on pricing plans although said they should be around the same price as current SD cards.

All of the action in the sector isn't just restricted to physical size. The capacity of the cards is also increasing as semiconductor companies find ways to make memory chips smaller.

Lexar Media will begin shipping in the second quarter a 4G-byte Compact Flash card, it said last week, and SanDisk said Thursday it will begin shipping a similar card in the middle of this year. CeBIT is also being used by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known as Panasonic, to give showgoers their first look at a 1G byte SD memory card.

Other formats are also advancing, with Sony announcing a long-awaited capacity increase for its Memory Stick at CES in Las Vegas in January. The Memory Stick Pro is available in capacities up to 1G byte and breaks the 128M byte barrier at which the format has been stuck for more than two years.

The recently launched XD Picture Card is also advancing as Fuji Photo and Olympus push to catch up to more mature formats, recently launching a 256M-byte card.

With the new cards come increases in the speed at which data is written to and read from the cards.

When Sony developed the Memory Stick Pro, the company specified a minimum data write speed of 15M bits per second (bps). That is fast enough to allow Sony to demonstrate real-time writing and playback of DVD-quality video directly from the card and considerably faster than most memory cards can offer.

SanDisk has also been working on faster Compact Flash cards and said Thursday it has developed a model that supports a sustained write speed of 6M bps and a sustained read speed of 9M bps.

Perhaps the most welcome news for consumers is that prices are falling with these advances in technology.

Consumers can buy roughly twice as much memory today as they could a year ago for the same amount of money and prices are continuing to drop.

Sony has cut prices of the Memory Stick Pro before it goes on sale. A 256M byte card was priced at US$190, a 512M byte card at $440 and a 1G byte card at $880 when Sony announced the cards at CES although the company recently said they will go on sale for $150, $320 and $640, respectively. That's a cut of $240, or around one third, on the highest-capacity card.

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Martyn Williams.

IDG News Service

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