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FORTY FLOPPIES TO THE SQUARE INCH

CompactFlash (CF) memory cards have been available for several years, but have recently become increasingly versatile, as more devices use them, and prices drop.These cards, which are a form of memor...


September 1, 2000
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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CompactFlash (CF) memory cards have been available for several years, but have recently become increasingly versatile, as more devices use them, and prices drop.

These cards, which are a form of memory chip that can retain data without power, are used primarily for digital cameras, to store images. Thus, they are sometimes described as “digital film.” However, they are useful for a number of other purposes, as discussed below. CF cards are all 43 mm by 36 mm by 3.3 mm, although memory capacity ranges from 8 Mb to 128 Mb. The largest card holds the equivalent of about one hundred 3 1/2 inch floppy discs, which works out to about 40 floppies per square inch of card, or 6 floppies/sq. cm.

Most digital cameras on the market today use a CF memory card, but a few use alternative devices, including hard discs and floppy discs. However, the compact flash standard has become the dominant device in the camera world, and I would avoid buying a digital camera that cannot use a CompactFlash memory, unless I had some very particular requirements.

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One of the most useful features of the compact flash memory is its portability among computers running different operating systems, including between PC’s and MAC’s.

The key to this is a smart “Compact Flash Adapter” card that accepts a CF card in one end, and plugs into the PC slot in any laptop. The Sunmax CF adapter that I used on a recent trip could be plugged into my Dell computer that runs Windows 98, a Japanese computer running Windows NT and a MAC without any more ado than a beep. Three of us working in a mill in Romania used this to transfer data amongst ourselves and the Romanian client, without any trouble. Since the CF chip we had had a 64-Mb capacity, we could pass the equivalent of about 50 floppy discs quite easily.

Windows 98 told me that I should not remove the PC card without going through a procedure to “stop” it, but this can be turned off by clicking the appropriate box in the warning message display.

When I plug the CF/PC card into my computer, a 64-Mb “hard drive” appeared in Windows Explorer in about a second, and can be used exactly like a hard disc for saving and copying files. The performance on the other computers is similar. When the CF card itself was plugged into the digital camera, everything worked as it should. When reviewing photographs, they simply appear as if they are on a hard disc, and can be copied or edited as usual. This is particularly convenient when dealing with a large number of photographs, since there is virtually no transfer time. So, a large number can be culled and only the best copied to the hard disc or printed. I normally use my own digital camera with the USB port to transfer photographs to my computer, where I find that 100 photos take about a minute to transfer.

CF cards cost about $3 to $5 per Mb in Canada. There are many suppliers, and those with no warranty are a lot cheaper than those with warranty. The major on-line retailers such as www.insight.ca or www.cdw.ca have the best prices I found.

CONNECTING THE CF CARD TO THE COMPUTER

The CF adapter cards are made by several manufacturers. The one I used is shown at http://www.bc-express.com/sandisk/default.asp, and costs about $25 in Canada.

At these prices, a CF card with an adapter is a practical way of adding hard disc capacity to an older laptop computer with a small hard disc. Since the CF card is small and removable, it could also be useful for back up, if 128 Mb is sufficient.

Devices available plug into the USB or parallel ports to connect CF cards with desktop computers. They make the CF card look like a supplementary hard disc to the computer, although they do not respond as rapidly.

THE COMPACT FLASH STANDARD

The standard specifications for CF are public, and are maintained by the Compact Flash Association. Refer to www.compactflash.org for more details than you probably want to know.

The important issue for users is that over 100 major computer and digital camera manufacturers are members of the association, and support the standards. Kodak, Canon, Compaq, IBM, HP and 3Com are all members. So many major manufacturers produce the CF cards and devices that use them that the standard seems likely to survive for several years, or more.

Current CF users are principally digital cameras and computers. The Compact Flash Association predicts that a number of other devices will start using CF, including voice recorders, cell phones and hand-held computing devices. Time will tell on whether this will take place.