LEARN: Buying Guides: Digital Camera Memory Guide

Introduction to Digital Camera Memory  

Understanding digital camera memory will help you make better choices about what camera to buy, how much memory you need, and which memory card is best for you.

New! SDHC Memory

CompactFlash

Secure Digital/MultiMedia Cards

xD Picture Cards

Memory Stick

MicroDrive

SmartMedia

Card Readers

Portable Digital Storage

Other Resources

Digital Camera Memory Guide

Introduction to Digital Camera Memory

Digital camera memory is an essential and often overlooked piece of digital photography equipment. There are many types of memory and it's a good idea to consider what type of memory a camera uses before you buy your first digital camera. It's also important to make sure you have enough memory before you take pictures of an important event or leave for vacation. Although memory cards are reusable, they don't have a limitless capacity and it's always good to have more than you actually need.

Most digital cameras come with very low capacity memory cards. If you're shopping for your first digital camera make sure to budget for an additional card. It's a safe bet that the card that comes with your camera is woefully inadequate. And as camera megapixel counts grow, higher capacity memory cards become necessary. I started out with two 64 meg cards and now I have two 1 gigabyte and three 256 megabyte cards.

Most camera manufacturers publish tables on their Web sites to show how many images you can save on their included memory card. There is no fixed rule for the number of photos you can put on one card because different image file types, different amounts of compression, and image content all affect the size of each file. But the manufacturer's site is a good place to start when you decide how much memory you want. As a general rule, I'd recommend at least a 256 megabyte or two 128 megabyte cards if you're buying a 3-5 megapixel compact digital camera. If you want to shoot lots of high resolution TIFF or RAW files, then you'll probably want to look at 512 megabyte and 1 gigabyte cards. It's also a good idea to not save all of your photos on one card. There's always the possibility that cards can get corrupted, lost, or stolen. Using more than one and switching during a shoot protects your valuable photographic data.

Now that you know a little more about memory cards, you can start thinking about what to buy. The links to the left briefly describe the most common types of digital camera memory. There are also a few useful, memory-related accessories listed. When you've figured out what you need, you can use the "Browse and Buy" links at the bottom of each description to see a list of what you can buy through this site.

CompactFlash  

CompactFlash

CompactFlash memory cards

CompactFlash is one of the most common types of digital camera memory. Most high-end digital cameras, and all digital SLRs are CompactFlash compatible.

There are two physical sizes of CompactFlash - Type I and Type II. Type II is thicker and some cameras will only accept Type I CompactFlash. Type II CompactFlash is usually higher capacity. The most common Type II CompactFlash cards are mechanical, MicroDrive, memory cards.

The main benefit of CompactFlash, besides availability, is that it has a controller chip in the card. The controller chip allows higher transfer rates. Most cameras can't take advantage of this extra speed, though. Only cameras with larger internal buffers - mostly digital SLRs - can take advantage of high-speed CompactFlash.

CompactFlash is inexpensive, easy to find, and works in a lot of digital cameras. For those reasons, it's one of the most desirable types of digital camera memory.

Read and Write CompactFlash reviews >>

Secure Digital & MultiMedia Cards  

Secure Digital & MultiMediaCard Memory

Secure Digital and MultiMediaCards

The smallest available memory cards, Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard memory allow for very small cameras and can also be used in selected PDAs, organizers, phones, and MP3 players. The current maximum capacity for Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard cards is 512 MB.

The only difference between the two memory types is that Secure Digital cards have a write-protect switch for added data security.

Read and Write Secure Digital/MultiMediaCard reviews >>

xD Picture Cards  

xD Picture Cards

xD Picture Cards

Introduced by Olympus and Fuji in 2002, the xD Picture card is the newest digital camera memory format. Its tiny size - 0.97" x 0.98" x 0.67" - means it can be used in very small cameras. The xD Picture Card can also be used in any CompactFlash compatible camera with the available CompactFlash adapter. It's currently available in capacities up to 512 MB, with larger capacity cards to be available soon.

Since it was developed and introduced by Olymous and Fuji, most current compact digital cameras from those manufacturers use the xD Picture Card media.

Read and Write xD Picture card reviews >>

Memory Stick  

Memory Stick

Memory Stick

Memory Stick was developed by Sony for their CyberShot digital cameras and other Sony electronic devices. With the exception of a very few cameras, Memory Stick is only compatible with Sony digital cameras. That means if you have Memory Stick media for a camera and you decide to buy another brand of camera, the Memory Stick cards you own are not likely to work with the new camera. On the other hand, if you own other Sony devices, there might be benefits to owning Memory Stick. Sony MP3 players, PDA's and selected Sony Vaio computers also accept Memory Stick media.

Memory Stick is available in capacities up to 256 MB, and Sony's new Memory Stick Pro is available in capacities up to one gigabyte.

Read and Write Memory Stick reviews >>

MicroDrive  

MicroDrive

MicroDrive

The MicroDrive card is actually a miniature hard drive housed in a Type II CompactFlash chassis. The IBM MicroDrive was the first compact memory card to offer a full 1 Gigabyte storage capacity. Although flash memory has bypassed the MicroDrive in capacity, the MicroDrive is still the best buy on a dollar-per-byte basis.

MicroDrives have a reputation for being delicate and unreliable. They are more prone to failure since they have moving parts that can wear, or be damaged. But when handled normally and not abused, they are very reliable. Because of their moving parts, MicroDrives use more battery power than flash memory. And compared to new, high-speed CompactFlash cards, MicroDrive seek and write times are fairly slow. But if you need Gigs of cheap digital camera memory, MicroDrives are still the most bang-for-the-buck.

Read and Write MicroDrive reviews >>

SmartMedia  

SmartMedia

SmartMedia Memory Cards

SmartMedia used to be one of the most common types of digital camera storage media. It was used in most Olympus and Fuji digital cameras until the introduction the xD Picture card, in 2002. SmartMedia is being pahased out for newer memory types, but it should be available for quite some time, still. And since it's being phased out, it's become very inexpensive. If you buy a camera that uses SmartMedia it might be a good idea to stock up on memory cards, though. They might not be available for too much longer. SmartMedia is available in capacities up to 128 megabytes.

Read and Write SmartMedia reviews >>

Card Readers  

Card Readers

Card Readers

Card readers are the most efficient way to download your digital digital memory cards and a highly recommended digital camera accessory. Card readers plug into your computer via USB or FireWire port and allow you to transfer your files without using your camera's batteries or dealing with cables. You install the card reader as you would any other USB or FireWire device and plug the card into the reader when you want to transfer your images. The memory card will show up on your computer as a separate, removable drive when it's plugged into the reader.

Card readers are available in internal and external models with USB, USB 2.0, and FireWire connections. USB 2.0 and FireWire readers have considerably faster transfer rates than most cameras - another good reason to use a card reader instead of using your camera's supplied USB connection.

Read and Write Card Reader reviews >>

Portable Digital Storage  

Portable Digital Storage

Portable Digital Storage

Sometimes you either can't afford to buy or carry enough memory. Professional event photographers with digital SLRs can shoot many gigs of photos in one day. And what about traveling? Should you have to carry a laptop computer just to store your photos?

Portable digital storage devices are standalone hard drives that allow digital photographers to download and reuse their memory cards in the field. Capacities generally begin at 20 gigabytes and most are powered by rechargeable batteries. Many have LCDs for still image viewing and video playback. Images are transferred to your computer via USB or FireWire connection. If you travel a lot or find yourself running out of memory regularly, you may want to consider adding a portable storage device to your camera bag.

Read and Write Portable Digital Storage reviews >>

Other Resources  

Here are some other useful flash memory resources on the Internet.

Compact Flash Association

MultiMedia Card Association

Secure Digital Association

SSFDC SmartMedia Forum

XD Picture Card Press Release

memorystick.com