Flash memory technology is more than 30 years old, but has only lately become a big part of the computing landscape.
Flash chips, of course, are memory modules that retain their data even when the power is off, so they’re now common in cameras, USB drives, smartphones and MP3 players. But we’re really only in the first chapter of the flash memory story. Two factors are at play: the first is that manufacturers are learning to build ever more spacious flash memory chips (most recently, 16 gigabytes). The second and perhaps more important: prices continue to drop at a remarkable pace.
The result of that price drop is that for the first time, consumers can start to think about flash memory as a permanent way to store files, rather just a temporary way to carry them around. The trend took off when SanDisk introduced their Shoot & Store line of low-cost flash memory cards in all formats generally used by digital cameras. One of their 64 MB CompactFlash cards, for example, lists for $9.99 and is commonly sold in locations where where non-technical consumers are likely to shop, such as tourist destinations, grocery or drugstores.
Some critics charged that SanDisk was promoting a very expensive alternative to archiving photos on CD-ROMs, and it’s certainly the case that recordable CDs are the most economical way to archive large amounts of digital data. But flash offers some advantages in terms of small size, easy rewritability, and — in the case of USB flash drives — compatibility with virtually any modern computer.
Manufacturers are also beginning to add features to flash drives that increase their utility as standalone storage devices. Lexar, for example, has introduced the Mercury JumpDrive, which has a capacity meter integrated into the case, running from 0 to 100 percent. Using new e-ink technology, which means the display uses no power to maintain the reading, the capacity meter lets you see exactly how much of the memory has been used without having to plug the JumpDrive into a computer.
In a similar vein, Royal recently launched their EZVue series of flash drives, which have small scrollable screens that display actual file names as well as directories and subdirectories. The drive has four small buttons that allow both up-and-down and sideways scrolling, the latter to view longer filenames. And several manufacturers are now building various forms of security into their flash drives. Both SanDisk and Lexar, for example, have introduced products that include a built-in fingerprint reader; the Lexar version includes encryption and decryption abilities.
Flash memory cards, which come in formats such as CompactFlash, SD, Memory Stick or others, raise more compatibility issues than do USB flash drives. But manufacturers again are trying to universalize the formats.
More than a dozen companies offer card readers that plug into USB ports and read multiple formats, from three or five up to as many as sixteen. Most have street prices around twenty dollars or less.
For portability, Lexar makes a handy single-slot reader that basically turns a memory card into a USB flash drive. And other kinds of hardware, such as computers and printers, increasingly arrive with built-in memory card slots. The latest Epson all-in-one printer for example, the RX640, has slots for direct printing from six different memory cards.
SanDisk’s Ultra II SD Plus USB is another approach: it’s an industry-standard SD card that fits into the plethora of handheld devices that use the format, and is available in either 512MB or 1GB sizes. But here’s the trick: you can take it out of your camera or smartphone, fold it in half, and it offers up a standard USB plug that will fit into any computer with a USB port. It then shows up on your computer as a new drive letter, just as do other USB flash drives — no card reader required.
Finally, in another effort to make flash cards stand on their own, SanDisk recently introduced their SDV-2 Photo Album, a small component about the size of a VHS cassette tape. The Photo Album will read eight different memory card formats and display photos on any standard television screen (as well as playing MP3 tracks stored on the cards). Listing at $49.99, the Photo Album includes its own remote control.
What’s next in flash drives?
A hint can be seen in the recent flash drives made for military use and extreme environments, such as Arctic expeditions and space exploration. These devices look just like a conventional hard disk drives (so they can be installed in standard computer cases) and come in sizes ranging up to hundreds of gigabytes. Since they contain no moving parts, they are incredibly rugged and long-lived. And for military purposes they have the additional advantage that, unlike conventional hard disk drives, you can erase them permanently and completely in a fraction of a second.
Those plus-size flash drives, of course, cost thousands of dollars — but then so did hard disk drives a few decades ago. It’s a perennial argument among technologists as to whether solid-state flash memory will ever replace traditional hard drives, and in all likelihood the two will co-exist for years to come. But flash drives are quietly gaining new utility as long-term storage media and are worth keeping in mind — if not also in your pocket.