About the PC Card, PCMCIA, Compact Flash, and other memory cards.

The standard you have when you don't actually want things to work to a standard. The memory card standard where every card is different, and most of the things that work are not memory cards, because the standards got changed several times. You find connectors for various different types of these cards on many notebook computers, cameras and PDAs.

PCMCIA Information

There was a PCMCIA organisation who provided considerable information on PC Card technology. I've always found this the least standard interface, but those folks were attempting to make it better. Their site at www.pc-card.com seems to have disappeared. There does seem to be a pretty good site, probably by the same people, at www.pcmcia.org/pccard.htm

PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association or sometimes People Can't Memorise Computer Industry Acronyms) cards are now known as PCCards. They are a 64 pin connector card measuring 85.6mm by 34mm. There are three Card Types, which differ in thickness, being 3.3mm, 5mm and 10.5mm for Type I, Type II and Type III cards. To thoroughly confuse things, there are several Releases.

Release 1.0 supported memory (Static RAM or SRAM and Linear Flash Memory). These were used by HP 200LX, Sharp PC3100 and Apple Newton PDAs. I doubt that anything else can use them now.

Release 2.x (about 1991 to 1994 - which is about all you see now) supported memory mostly as IDE Disk and I/O applications like modems and ethernet. This also added support for multiple voltages, as the original cards only ran 5 volts whereas new ones add dual voltage (3.3 volts). The PCCard standard of 1995 added DMA support and 32 bit bus mastering, and PCI support. Older cards PCMCIA and PCCard16 cards can't meet the speeds designed into newer CardBus cards. CardBus cards are not compatible with PCMCIA drivers, although the cards fit into the same sockets.

PCMCIA Card Tests

Just for laughs, I tried a whole bunch of "standard" Type I, Release 1.0 memory cards in a variety of computers in 2001.

The cards were 2 examples of 1 MB and a 2 MB FDK brand SRAM memory card made by Fuji Electrochemical Co Ltd. Two Fujitsu 512KB flash card, with a label saying EUPG-S V3.309. A Newton 1 MB SRAM storage card, and Newton 2 MB Flash Storage Card. A Kingston Technology TKTT-4600/4 4 MB 3.3 card (which we can dismiss out of hand, because it had a different connector to the standard cards).

Psion 7 organiser does not detect any of the cards.

A desktop computer with an Eiger ISA to PCMCIA adaptor using the Vadem chipset, and running Windows 98SE. Windows detects and identifies all the SRAM cards as SRAM, but can not show the contents. Windows detects the Fujitsu Flash Cards, and installs new software to deal with them. It now knows they are Flash memory cards, series 1, but can't actually read them. Windows installs new software for the Newton Flash card, and then identifies it as Series 2, but can't read it. Adding Card Services manually was not sufficient to be able to read any of the cards.

A Micron notebook computer with two PCMCIA slots and Windows 98 gives similar negative results.

Compact Flash

Another style of card known as Compact Flash (CFA). About a quarter the size of a PC Card, 50 pins, less than a half ounce, maximum of 1GB capacity in flash Type 1 (42.8mm x 36.4mm x 3.3mm - more in Type II 5mm thick). There are PCCard size adaptors for it, as it acts almost like an ATE/IDE disk and provides FAT compatibility. It is used extensively in some digital cameras, some HPCs and other miniature equipment. Probably has a big future in being smaller. Founded in October 1995, lots (100+) of companies are backing it, including Apple, Canon, Kodak, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, LG Semicon, Motorola, Polaroid, Psion, SanDisk, Seagate. Mid 1997 street prices US$350 for 20MB, US$430 for 24MB, but dropping fairly fast. Also available in 2MB, 4MB, 6MB, 8MB, 10MB, 15MB, 20MB, 30MB, 40MB, 48MB, etc. up to about 192 MB (Jan 2002 1GB) (Oct 2003 4GB).

Good prices in Australia formerly at http://www.flashmemory.com.au In February 2001 I got some 64 MB CF from them, and they had better prices than outside Australia.

Systems using it include most Kodak digital cameras (now uses SD), HP OmniGo100 organiser (via a passive HP adaptor), FujiFilm (RD3202), Adtron and Kodak have an Access-CF Reader Writer adaptor to let PCs read compact flash with the PC printer port, at a suggested price of $100. Used in the Canon Powershot digital camera. Used in the NEC Picona digital camera. Yashica KC600 (from Kyocera) uses a 2MB compact flash.

Used in the Panasonic CoolShot digital camera in 2MB and 4MB sizes. 2 MB CF used in the $249 Umax Photorun that does 505 x 376 images. 2 MB CF used in $249 Mitsubishi DJ-1000 digital camera. Does 504 x 378 resolution. Used in Pentax EI-C90 digital camera (768 x 560, colour LCD display, 6.4 ounces, street price US$700). Used in Epson PhotoPC 600, Casio QV-700, HP PhotoSmart C20. Used in FlashPoint Technology's Digita operating environment for digital cameras and imaging devices. Used in Canon's PowerShot A5 and Pro 70 cameras.

Handheld and palmtop computers using Compact Flash include many Windows CE and Pocket PC version, Psion Epoc, Uher's DH10 handheld audio recorder uses compact flash. Canon's CD-200 dye sublimation printer accepts Compact Flash direct.

SanDisk's ImageMate is a US$99 Compact Flash card reader which attaches to the parallel port of a desktop system, and downloads images from digital cameras, or data from palmtop computers with Compact Flash. Other variations now also available.

Weave Innovations StoryBox Smart Picture frame stores digital pictures in compact flash cards, which it can accept direct from a digital camera. The StoryBox can retrieve, transfer print or share images. The internet enabled StoryBox can connect to the StoryBox network and download personalised content from several suppliers. Kodak branded StoryBox is expected to be available mid 2000 for US$299. Does not require a PC to use it. Check www.storybox.com and defunct link www.weaveinnovations.com

Some people have had problems using CF in a Psion 5mx (Psion 5 was OK). Alex Skilton made a list (dating from 1999) listing which brands of cards gave problems. Despite the presence of a few Sandisk cards on the list, I'm sticking with my recommendation to use Sandisk. www.skilton.net/5mx/userlist.htm

Compact Flash Hard Drive

IBM Microdrive is a 170 MB or 340 MB Compact Flash form factor Type I hard drive. Won't fit in a series 5 Psion, but will in a Psion 7. Now has 1 GB model, with larger to come.

Halo Data Devices boast the smallest hard drive. It is in a Type I (42.8mm x 36.4mm x 3.3mm) Compact Flash format weighing 10 grams. 250 MB capacity, 5400 RPM, 5ms seek time, 3.3 volts, 20mA standby current, peaking at 250mA write. Technical data is 512 byte sectors, one disk, 5 Gbits per square inch areal density, 277 KBPI recording density, 18000 tracks per inch. Data buffer is 64KB, average latency 5.5 mS, media transfer rate 5-9 MB/sec, interface transfer rate 33 MB/sec, full track seek 10ms, 300,000 start stop cycles. Although it will fit a Psion 5, I kinda doubt there is enough power to run it. Vapourware so far, and the link is dead http://www.halodata.com/products/index.html

Multimedia card (MMC)

Devised by Siemens and produced (in ROM) by Siemens (now Infineon) and (flash) by SanDisk, with support from Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Qualcomm and Siemens, the Multimedia card (MMC) is a 2 gram memory card about the size of a US quarter. The size is 32mm high, 24 mm wide and 2 mm thick. Initial capacities will be 2 MB up to 32 MB. Look for it in smart portable phones and pagers. It uses a cheap plastic package with a 7 wire serial interface. Write rate is 200KB a second, and read is 2MB a second. Can include a optional unique identifier for security identification.

Secure Digital Card

This is a 3 gram 24 x 32 x 2.1 mm card that seems a variant on the above multimedia card (it is slightly thicker). The contact count can be increased from seven to nine. Maximum capacity at present around 256MB. Secure Digital systems can use multimedia cards. It is attractive to producers because it has copy protection. Proprietary card designed by Matsushita (Panasonic), Toshiba and San Disk. As usual, I very strongly recommend consumers consider boycotting any copy protected technology (like Secure Digital Music Initiative) such as this in favour of open standards like Compact Flash and MP3. It is just another piece of commercial shit designed to help overcharge us.

Miniature Card (dead technology)

Small form factor 38mm x 35mm x 3.5mm card, 73% smaller than a PCCard, from Intel and Sharp, and later AMD and Fujitsu. Preserves the parallel interface of the PCMCIA for speed. designed for linear flash (not ATA, as it lacks the onboard memory controller), DRAM and ROM up to 64MB, with multi voltage support, and write protection. Designed for PDA (some Windows CE from Philips), audio recorders (one from Olympus), digital cameras (HP and Konica), smart phones. Used an elastomeric connector which proved unreliable. This technology is dead, and should be avoided.

Smart Media Card

A very thin and flimsy feeling card, 45mm x 37mm by 0.76mm, with an embedded NAND flash memory chip. Formerly known as solid state floppy disk cards (SSFDC). Fast write and erase, capacities less than Compact Flash. Like Miniature Card, it lacks a memory controller. Expected to be cheaper than many other card types, partly due to the low connector pin count. Exposed contacts mean ESD could be a concern. Limited capacity, and system design limitations have occured when the density increases (translation, some didn't work in everything). Made using NAND flash memory modules originally made by Samsung and Toshiba. The high level file system is not specified, so cards have to be reinitialised (losing the contents) when moved between some devices. Seen in early Diamond Rio audio players, and some Fuji and Olympus cameras. Suggest Smart Media cards be avoided due to these design flaws.

Sony Memory Stick

21.5 x 50 x 2.8 mm card weighing 4 g, maximum present capacity 64MB and the availability of Magic Gate copy protection. Proprietary card developed by Sony and introduced in late 1998. Pioneer, Sharp and others may use it. As Sony controls it, compatibility between devices should be good. As usual, I very strongly recommend consumers consider boycotting any MagicGate copy protected technology (like Secure Digital Music Initiative) such as this in favour of open standards like Compact Flash and MP3. It is just another piece of commercial shit designed to overcharge us.

There is a secure media version of the Memory Stick, called Magic Gate. A new faster larger version called MemoryStick Pro appeared in 2003, and it also has the unacceptable Magic Gate copy protection.

Memory Stick Duo

20 x 31 x 1.6 mm card, new in June 2000, another Sony proprietary format. 64 MB.

Microsoft CE

Early WinCE machines are compatible with ATA flash and ATA compact flash cards. I have a San Disk press release assuring me of that. Mind you, I never doubted it. The HP320LX has a connector for CF, as do the then new Casio, Compaq and many others circa 1998.


Panasonic Batteries, 2 Panasonic Way, Secaucus NJ 07094 (201)3485266 have 68 pin connectors, ATA adaptors for Smart Media (SSFDC), 68 pin Small Card (use an adaptor), Compact ATA Flash. They have PC Card 5 volt ATA flash in 20MB, 40MB and (under development) 80MB. SRAM PC Card with 200nS access in 64k, 128k, 256k, 512k, 1mB, 2MB and 4MB, with 6MB and 8MB under development (this doesn't mean any are affordable). They have masked ROM up to 32MB. They have standard (non ATA) flash cards in 2MB up to 28MB sizes (be careful, some models are dual voltage).

Matsushita Electric Industrial use a 2 MB compact flash card as the only memory in their new $600 Panasonic Card Shot (NV-DCF1) digital camera, which takes VGA (640x480) pictures in three resolutions, and can be viewed immediately on the 1.8 inch colour LCD display in the camera.

San Disk

Formerly Sun Disk, before Sun complained. Lots of information about compact flash. Probably the best source for details. Contact http://www.sandisk.com

MLC - multi level cells

You can vary the charge on the floating gate of a flash memory cell. If you both read and write more than one level consistently, you can store more bits per cell, and thus double or quadruple the capacity of your memory. SanDisk claim that is what they do on their double density D squared flash memory. With the compromises they made, they can read pretty fast (10 MB/s), but writing takes four times longer than the older technology. Available towards the end of 1997. Expected in most cards around 2000.

Compact Card Size Devices

Xircom has produced Compact Card Ethernet 10, to be released at US$289 in June 1999. Intended for Windows CE systems. Xircom also expect to produce phone line and GSM modems.

Obsolete Notes

Old Encounters with SRAM

Palmtop PCs like the HP200LX, Sharp PC3100 and Lexicomp LC8620 handle SRAM cards well, but need special drivers to handle Flash cards, and as far as I know can't handle anything else like ATA Flash.

Older (486) laptops sometimes handle SRAM with DOS drivers, and often modem and ethernet cards. Usually balk at old style Flash (like used by the Newton), although DOS driver stuff like Card Wizard usually handles ATA Flash and Compact Flash (at the expense of filling all high memory with heaps of drivers).

Later model Windows 95 Pentium laptops seem to handle modem and ethernet, and ATA Flash and Compact Flash, but seem unable to handle older style Flash and can't handle SRAM at all.

If, like me, you picked up your ISA to PCMCIA gear from dusty obsolete displays at $30 a pop, to run in your ancient XT, then like me, you are probably living in interesting times.

If it weren't that my palmtop computers use SRAM cards, I would never touch a PCCard machine. I think their compatibility is unbelievably bad, and every time I have to touch them, they end up infuriating me due to lousy setups and continual crashes.

What is worse, it appears that Windows 95 and Windows 98 don't support SRAM cards. As a standard, this sucks.

Old plug in ISA to PCMCIA adaptors have a real spotty record (MS-DOS drivers supplied usually work, and run under Windows 3.1, sometimes Windows 95 can work them but need manual installs, and they hardly ever support OS/2 or Linux). See my notes on the Eiger ISA to PCMCIA adaptor.

The SRAM cards work in most old MS-DOS palmtops, but not under Windows 95. Original Flash ram no longer seems to be supported by anything much, and went through several variations anyway.

SRAM is neat stuff. You can read and write to it an unlimited number of times, it runs fast, and it doesn't use much power. Pretty much works in everything old. The disadvantages are its cost (several times that of flash), its size (rarely more than 2MB), and it must have a battery to retain its contents. The batteries die after a year or so, and there is no external indicator of battery life (I wish someone would design in a battery indicator).

Flash is cheap compared to SRAM, and is available in larger sizes (up to 240MB as at 1997). It retains its contents without battery power. It is slightly faster than a hard drive, but much slower than SRAM. It takes very little power to read flash, but a fair amount to write it. There are two types of flash ram, linear and ATA. Linear flash needs a suitable driver, however many PDA systems like the Newton have such a driver. The drivers in IBM PC systems are usually called Flash File System or File Translator Layer. The other style is ATA compatible, and this is usually supported by post 1997 IBM PCs since it imitates a disk drive, but is rarely supported by anything except IBM PCs. Despite this, it will probably take over as the dominent style (the barbarians usually win, when the alternative is elegance). I've never been able to make my original flash work with any WinTel machine. Not ever!

The original intent of PCMCIA cards was that it was an expansion memory bus for SRAM, EEROM and flash memory, and so you basically addressed the memory card as a linear array of memory (just like memory inside your computer). On Release 2.0, an I/O mode was added and it became a general purpose expansion bus. At the same release AT Attachment (ATA) support was added for disk drives. Flash memory wears out if you use any one memory location more than a few tens of thousands of times, and it is sort of convenient to hide leveling routines and the peculiar erasure methods used to erase flash as part of the ATA to IDE interface. The IDE is real convenient, because most personal computers expect to have an IDE interface to disk. The result is that ATA type memory cards were limited to the 5 Mbyte per second speed of the AT bus, although flash can read three times as fast as that. The ATA file system also breaks the flash into 512 byte sectors, so then the operating system has to bring sectors into RAM, which breaks execute in place routines like those used in the Apple Newton.

Beware Switchboards

Many hotels have modern digital PABX telephone exchanges. These can use higher voltages than those encountered in standard house analog telephone lines. Many PCMCIA modems are not capable of handling these voltages and are killed. Check whether your PCMCIA modem is rated as capable of handling digital phone systems. If not, consider buying a phone line tester. IBM made one at about $25. Other mobile office vendors also have testers. Please note that a tester does not make your modem work. It simply informs you not to use it. A modem capable of handling digital exchange voltages will not always be able to connect on such a line.

Simple Technology

One and two megabyte SRAM cards, with (STI-SRAM/2A) or without (STI-SRAM/2) attribute memory, as PCMCIA Type I. 250nS read, 10uS write, 150mA active, 16mA idle, 1mA sleep, 1 year battery life. Phone USA (714)4761180 3001 Daimler Street, Santa Ana Ca 92705 USA. Works with Sharp PC3000 and Newton Message Pad. Nice gear. There is an Australian agent, but I've misplaced their address.

Flash Memory Cards in Australia

The cheapest source I know in Australia is Flashmemory. They have a nice clean web site, with good non-technical descriptions of what the various memory card options are and what the terminology means. Prices are also OK when I last checked. Order via secure server, and they export. www.flashmemory.com.au/index.html

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