As advanced consumer electronics like digital cameras, PDAs, multimedia mobile phones, and similar devices become increasingly affordable to the everyday user, we find ourselves having to keep track of more and more types of technology, which makes keeping all of our devices compatible with each other increasingly difficult. The technological marvels that have opened up so many new avenues to the common home user, which used to be reserved for the wealthy, are all sold to us with the advice that they will somehow make our lives easier and better. Specifically looking at digital cameras, the biggest problem of this sort is the fact that there are more than 8 distinctly different types of memory storage card commonly used, and the devices that use them are rarely able to accommodate more than two types at best. SecureDigital, CompactFlash of two generations, Microdrive, SmartMedia (SmartCard), Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro, xD Picture Card, and MultiMediaCard: Just how many of these do you use? If you know, do you know which device uses which? Fortunately, with the advent of multi-format flash-card readers, you can now safely know that no matter which camera, phone, PDA, or PC storage card you use, you can transfer data between any of your other devices quickly and easily.
A multi-format flash card reader is simply a device that plugs into your PC via any of a number of different types of data cable, which has a series of slots that accept one or more of the above types of removable media. It can read and write to these cards, transferring data - be it photos, mp3's, word documents, or anything else - between the memory card and your computer's hard drive. From there, you can transfer data back to another card via the card reader, if you wish, or perhaps edit and print off photos from the computer, burn data to a data CD or DVD, or simply keep them in your collection on your PC. They are surprisingly affordable for what they deliver, and there is a very wide range available to the market.
When deciding which card reader is for you, there are thankfully only a few things you need to consider that will make the difference in your purchasing decision. The obvious one is to consider what you actually need: How many, and which types of flash card do you use, and are you likely to add to this number in the foreseeable future? Naturally, then you consider which of the available readers has the features you need. It may be that you wish to be ready for every occasion, opting to simply buy the reader that offers the highest number of different formats.
Since finding a range of readers that support more formats than any one user is likely to need is not difficult, a more important thing to consider is whether a reader is compatible with your PC. The majority use either FireWire or USB 2.0 to transfer between your computer and the device. While there are a few important differences between them such as the maximum speed of the connection, the difference between their connection speeds is the factor least likely to limit how well it operates, and falls beyond the scope of this brief guide. What you do need to know is whether or not you have either a FireWire or USB port on your computer. Chances are, if your computer's age is anything like your camera's, you have already have USB support. For a point of reference, USB 1.0 (which is compatible with, but slower than USB 2) began to become standard around the time Pentium III's were being released. If you're not sure, you're looking for a rectangular 'female' socket - there will probably be more than one - either on the front or back of your PC measuring roughly 1/2' wide by roughly 3/16' high (or about 12mm x 3.5mm). As well as hardware compatibility, if you're not using a recent version of the Microsoft Windows operating system, you need to consider whether you system will be able to run the software for the reader you buy. While all the software may not be compatible on Linux or Mac OS, flash card readers generally just act as a fairly standard mass-storage device, and the cards often use a slightly modified FAT-16 file system, meaning basic read-write operation is usually easy to set up, even without the software. Finally, there is the cost to consider.
Having laid down the criteria for judging the products, we can compare a couple of the more interesting models on the market. Obviously there are a lot more than just these two out there, however, they serve well by way of example. The SanDisk's ImageMate 8-in-1, as the name suggests, supports eight different media types: Compact Flash (1 & 2), MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, xD Picture Card, Memory Stick Pro, and Secure Digital. While it does support it, it should be noted that SanDisk recommends against using Microdrive with this device. It has 4 physical ports, each acting as a USB mass storage device (4 virtual drives in total) with any version of Windows later than Windows 95, or Mac OS 9 and later. It uses a USB 2.0 interface, and features very fast transfer speeds from all of the card formats to the PC. If you want compatibility with just about every major flash card in use, then the ImageMate 8-in-1, manufactured by a respected brand in the industry, and usually retailing for just over $60, is a superb purchase.
If you need a better guarantee of compatibility with your system, then you should consider the Addonics Pocket Ultra DigiDrive (UDD). It supports all of the formats of the ImageMate, plus a few less common ones too. Also operating as a USB 2.0 mass storage device, the feature that sets this one apart form the rest is the compatibility. In addition to being compatible with Windows and Mac OS, it includes drivers and support for Sun Solaris 8 and higher, and Linux Kernel 2.4 and higher. This device represents the ultimate in inter-compatibility, and also being priced at around $60, it is a tempting purchase.
Flash card readers are highly affordable devices that take the headache of compatibility issues away. Whether for your camera, PDA, multimedia phone, PC, and any similar device you care to name, these ingenious devices are so affordable that you almost can't afford not to have one.