Incompatibility issues surface with first 4GB CF card

Lexar Media Inc. has begun shipping a 4G-byte capacity Compact Flash card, the largest-capacity flash memory card of any format currently available, but consumers should be aware that with the arrival of higher-capacity cards come some potential compatibility problems.

One of the problems lies in the physical size of the Lexar card. It is a type 2 Compact Flash card and as such is about two millimeters thicker than the standard type 1 card. That means that it is too large to fit into a type 1 card slot and potential buyers should check the specifications of their device to ensure compatibility.

Another potential problem lies in the software inside the device being used with the card. Many current and previous products only support the FAT16 file system. This uses 16-bit addresses to access data on the disc and that means there are enough addresses for up to 2G bytes of data. To access over 2G bytes of storage space, devices need to support the FAT32 file system, which doubles the address length and can be used with much larger amounts of storage.

So, at present the new Lexar card can only be used with a handful of cameras. Lexar has set up a Web page to list compatible products and it current carries the names of 11 cameras: six from Canon Inc., four from Eastman Kodak Co. and one from Olympus Optical Co. Ltd. More details can be found at http://www.lexarmedia.com/FAT32 .

But the problems don't end there. Lexar notes that some cameras that support FAT32, such as Canon's EOS-1D, will still use the FAT16 file system to format an unformatted card irrespective of its capacity. In this case the company is supplying an application to enable users to format their cards with FAT32 to get the maximum storage space. Users are also likely to notice slightly slower response with the new cards because writing with FAT32 takes longer, said Lexar.

SanDisk Corp., one of Lexar's competitors, is promising a solution for the physical compatibility problem later this year. The company is planning to ship its own 4G-byte card in a type 1 package sometime in the fourth quarter of this year, said Bob Goligoski, a spokesman for SanDisk. While this card will be physically compatible with all products, they will still need to support the FAT32 file system to access the full storage space.

The Lexar card is available now and costs around US$1,500. SanDisk says its card will cost around $1,000 when it becomes available.

At its introductory price, the new Lexar card is not as good a deal as some of the company's lower-capacity cards or those from competitors, when the cost per megabyte is compared. The new Lexar card costs around $0.37 per megabyte while a Lexar 1G-byte card costs $229, according to PCWorld.com's Product Finder (http://pcworld.pricegrabber.com), or $0.22 per megabyte. A 1G-byte card from SanDisk is even cheaper at $198, or $0.19 per megabyte.

But the larger cards do offer convenience, assuming a compatible camera is used. The 4G-byte storage space is probably enough so that even the most snap-happy photographer won't need to change cards during a day's shooting. A single card can accommodate thousands of images compressed in the JPEG format or up to 600 images in the RAW file format, often found on high-end cameras and an uncompressed dump of data from the image sensor when the picture was taken, said Lexar.

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