As COMDEX 2012 highlighted last week, consumers are demanding more and more storage for all of their media. Pictures, video, and music are the focus of their demand and they want to be able to accumulate more data and have it available everywhere. It was not too long ago that you had to print an extra copy of a picture to share it with a friend or take a Walkman with you to listen to your favorite band's new album. Now we can create and store all of this on little plastic cards that come smaller than a quarter.
Since the first compact flash card was introduced in 1994, the memory card market has expanded at a rapid pace. Memory cards go into everything from cell phones to electronic voting machines and their list of applications keeping growing as the portable camera market picks up speed. These cards are made with NAND flash memory, which is a non-volatile type of flash memory. Just like all memory, it is a commodity and is subject to the ups and down of the market, though over time the market does experience price decreases as next generation versions are released. With falling prices, consumers are able purchase more storage with faster speeds without breaking the bank.
So what kinds of memory cards are available? The most popular three types (in no particular order) are compact flash (CF), secure digital (SD), and Transflash (microSD). Compact flash cards have been around the longest and until recently, they were the most widely used type. CF cards are the most rugged card because they are built as a solid-state device. They also carry an open standard which means they do not have any built-in data rights management or cryptographic features. These cards have the largest design, both in physical and storage size (up to 2TB). CF are used primarily for high-end cameras and HD video cameras because of their high read/write speeds, but you can also find CF cards in some electronic voting machines. Just like CD-ROMS, compact flash cards are rated using the same speed "x" rating system.
SD cards were first developed in 1999 and are probably what most people are familiar with. These cards have a rectangular shape with their trademark upper-right corner "chopped off." You will see secure digital cards in most point-and-shoot cameras and embedded systems, plus PC manufacturers have begun incorporating memory card readers into their boxes. Having removable SD cards helps eliminate the need for a USB cable to transfer images from your camera to your computer. SD cards are rated by speed or "classes" for capacities of 4GB and higher. 2GB and below are rated using the "x" rating system. Classes range from Class 2 to Class 10 which translate to their corresponding write speed in MB/s. SDHC cards began to appear on the market after SD Version 2.0 was released. SDHC cards go up to a capacity of 32GB. In 2009, SDXC cards were introduced at CES, which pushed the capacity limit up to 2TB.
With the introduction of SD Version 3.01, we have started to see increased demand for cards that are faster than Class 10. UHS-1 is the latest answer to this demand. With transfer speeds of 50 MB/s, you'll find these types of cards in tapeless camcorders and HD helmet cams where high-quality images need to be captured without skipping a frame. Manufacturers have taken the increased demand for SD cards in stride. They have incorporated enhancements such as integrated Wi-Fi, different colors, and integrated USB connectors, all of which provide options for the consumer market, which, in turn, benefits the component volume market.
MicroSD cards have, perhaps, the most interesting history. Originally developed by Sandisk and Motorola, this small form factor card was the answer to removable storage demands for cell phones when the SD card became too big for such applications. Initially, these tiny cards were called "T-flash", but right before market launch, a cease and desist order from T-Mobile in early 2005 claiming that they had the trademark on T-(anything) forced a name change to TransFlash. In July of 2005, the term "microSD" became official, though some vendors still use the TransFlash name. The microSD is primarily used in cell phones that support removable memory as well as some helmet cams and mini devices. Due to their small form size, these cards require a microSD-to-SD adapter in order to be inserted into a card reader for file transfer and management.
Due to low NAND demand in Q2 2012, coupled with increases in cloud storage, the future of memory cards is still in question. Q3 is expected to help boost NAND as new smartphones, tablets and ultrabooks hit the market just in time for back-to-school. Other rumors include more aggressive pricing by memory manufacturers to help stimulate the market. One thing is for certain though, these little cards have made a big impact in the competitive electronics market.