Would You Like Tweezers With that?

by Reads (5,645)

Sometimes, smaller really isn’t better.

It’s a fact of life that there’s a certain balance to be found in almost any engineered design, the point at which you find a more or less ideal level of performance and size. A giant SUV is wasteful, but nobody wants to drive a clown car either. The same goes for a mobile device. You don’t want to be carrying a techno-slab, but at a certain point, the smaller you make something, the less useful it is.

Witness, for example, the Incredible Shrinking Memory Cards. From CompactFlash to SD to miniSD and now to microSD, we’ve moved from matchbook to postage stamp to small coin to scrap-of-paper size. At the current rate of progression, by late next year we’ll require a hypodermic needle to insert and remove our devices’ new MoleculeSD cards.

You may well think that I’m exaggerating. And I am, a little bit. But at the same time, until you actually handle one, you really can’t appreciate how tiny one of these microSD cards is. A US quarter dollar coin dwarfs it. It’s thinner than paperboard. It’s smaller than my fingernails. In fact, a microSD card is significantly smaller than the standard SIM card that’s used in every GSM cellular phone. You can’t tell me that you really need the card to be that small in order to fit it into the allotted space.

Particularly when there’s an increasing trend in the direction of microSD cards. First the Garmin iQue 3000 had one, for no discernible reason. Then it was the HTC StrTrk. Then the Hermes–a full fledged Pocket PC phone, suitable in size for a miniSD or even full SD slot, and yet they choose the most ridiculously tiny card they could find. Now it seems that all of HTC’s new models are carrying it, and we will either like it or shut up.

The sheer illogic of this behavior has sparked a popular conspiracy theory online: that memory card manufacturers such as SanDisk, the part-owner of the SD, miniSD, and microSD formats, have been pushing smaller and smaller cards as a way of forcing users to repurchase their flash memory, instead of retaining their existing cards.

Now I really wish that I could say for certain that this theory is bunk, but when you think about it, it makes a good bit of sense. Memory cards are long-lasting items, capable of years and years of wear before they even begin to show their age. Flash memory prices have been falling fast for quite awhile, and many people have reached a plateau where they have a sufficiently large memory card for their handheld, camera, or MP3 player. If, when buying a new device, you can simply install your existing memory card, then any way you slice it people don’t need to keep buying new ones. So the only way to stimulate sales for someone like SanDisk is to find new ways to take up storage, or move people to a new card format.

I’m not saying that this theory is necessarily true, but it underlines the dissatisfaction with a trend that seems to have no real benefit. It would at least make more sense if there was some kind of pattern to it. I’d be all for adding a semi-permanent memory card slot to a device, say somewhere under the battery. But that’s no reason to eliminate the main slot. You folks do realize that some of us actually use our memory cards as removable storage, right?

It’s exactly this sort of thing that makes me glad I’ve stubbornly held on to my CompactFlash cards.

Perhaps there are good and solid reasons for manufacturers to do this. But from a user perspective, it’s a disaster in the making. An SD card is already easy enough to lose, and you can be sure that if you try to swap your microSD cards between devices, sooner or later you’re either going to drop it and never find it again, or you’re accidentally going to inhale it and find a new meaning for the phrase “permanent storage.”

To my thinking, we really only need three memory formats: CompactFlash for mid-size devices; SD for compact models; and miniSD for the ultra-small stuff. Period. All the others — microSD, the dozen different kinds of Memory Sticks, MultiMediaCard, Reduced-Size MMC, MMCmicro, xD, and whatever others I’ve forgotten to mention, can take a flying leap to the trash bin. Gone, done, outta here. Give us back memory cards that we can actually use.

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