Flash Memory Cards

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There are dozens of memory card formats, and making the right choice when buying one can mean the difference between spending a fortune on a piece of plastic or buying the right tool for the job. This guide introduces you to the different memory card formats on the market and gives you an overview of what you should look out for when buying memory cards.

What is flash memory?

Flash memory is at the heart of every memory card—and every thumb drive, iPod nano, and a host of other memory-based devices. Unlike the memory in your PC, which is erased every time the power is turned off, flash memory is non-volatile, meaning it stores information without an external power source. Originally developed by Japanese researchers working for Toshiba, flash memory has become the storage medium of choice for memory cards because it’s relatively cheap to manufacture, fairly shock-resistant, and can be rewritten millions of times before the card expires.

NOR/NAND flash memory

NOR and NAND are logic gates that define how an action is performed. Without getting into the basics of logic programming, the only thing you need to know about NOR and NAND from a consumer perspective is that pretty much all new flash memory is built as NAND flash memory. The earliest flash memory was NOR-based, but NAND has overtaken it, largely due to media reliability. NOR memory typically lasts no more than 100,000 write/erase cycles (and sometimes much less), while NAND memory can handle up to a million such cycles.

Memory cards: form determines function

The most common use of memory cards in today’s consumer world is as a storage medium for digital cameras, often referred to as digital film. There are a number of different formats and providers touting the benefits of their format (because they want your money), but for the most part your choice of card isn’t that open. What you can use largely depends on the devices you already have or plan to buy. While there is some cross-compatibility between certain formats – SD-compatible readers can usually handle MMC, for example – but if your camera uses, say, Memory Stick, that’s what you’ll end up using.


Luckily, although there are many formats, being able to read cards from any camera/PDA/music player is not that difficult as multi-card readers are available cheaply. Many mid-range inkjet printers now come with embedded card readers capable of reading at least SD/MMC/CompactFlash and Memory Stick, although few support the smaller miniaturized card formats intended primarily for use in small portable devices such as cell phones.

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