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Flash Makes Splash at CES

In a testament to the growing ubiquity of flash memory cards in a number of consumer electronics devices, the CES floor was bristling with flash media announcements, from new cards and flash peripherals to a novel application for flash cards.

Though capacity is still the reigning benchmark, performance (generally measured in the speed a card will save, or write, data) is vying to be the specification of choice when promoting the virtues of an individual format, as manufacturers were quick to highlight speed as a key margin of difference.

Both speed and capacity were on Sony and SanDisk’s minds when they unveiled the next generation Memory Stick, called Memory Stick PRO, at a joint press conference, here.

The previous Memory Stick, which captured about a third of the flash card market thanks largely to Sony’s leading market share in digital cameras, had only topped capacities of 128MB before the announcement of PRO. The new card greatly expands Memory Stick’s capacity with 256MB, 512MB and 1GB cards available in April. They will also feature higher write speed (15Mbps with compatible devices), and better data security than their predecessor.

The cards are only compatible with select Sony products, but the company indicated that it will ship a number of PRO-enabled devices in the Spring of this year.

The cards will be sold in both SanDisk and Sony brands at retail.

Lexar Media, a partner with Sony for its earlier Memory Stick, will also manufacturer and sell Lexar-branded PRO cards to retail. It announced suggested retail prices of $189.99, $439.99 and $879.99 for 256MB, 512MB and 1GB cards, respectively.

SanDisk also dipped its toe into the wireless market with the introduction of its SanDisk Connect line of wireless Wi-Fi (802.11b) SD and CompactFlash cards which serve as both networking and storage cards simultaneously.

The company will bring to market a dual function 128MB CompactFlash card and a 256MB SD card, along with single function CompactFlash and SD cards that only feature WiFi connectivity with no storage. A 256MB CompactFlash card is expected by midyear.

The WiFi CompactFlash and SD (no storage) cards will have a suggested retail price of $99.95. The CompactFlash card ships immediately while the SD card will ship in March.

The dual function 128MB CompactFlash card will retail for $129.95 while the dual function 256MB SD card will have a suggested retail price of $149.95.

According to David Smurthwaite, Sandisk’s product marketing manager, the cards are aimed at PDA and laptop users.

“Most portable devices only have one slot [for flash] so you have to choose between wireless or storage,” Smurthwaite said.

The cards can transmit and receive data at speeds up to 11Mbps from approximately 300 feet from the nearest access point.

The door is now open, Smurthwaite said, for digital camera makers to build WiFi functionality into their devices so that users can automatically e-mail their still images without having to download them to a PC first. According to Smurthwaite, SanDisk has been approached by a number of unnamed vendors to explore the possibility.

Lexar announced increases in both capacity and speed to its JumpDrive 2.0 Pro portable USB storage line. New 512MB and 1GB capacities will be available on JumpDrive Pro and the entire line is being upgraded to a 40x speed rating from the previous 24x. The “x” speed rating is equivalent to 150KB per second read/write speed and the entire JumpDrive Pro line is capable of sustained read/write speed of 6MB/s. JumpDrive 2.0 Pro products are compatible with USB 2.0 and backward compatible with USB 1.1 ports.

The company also announced the USB 2.0 enabled JumpDrive Trio, which is expected to ship in February and will be available with Memory Stick media in either 64MB or 128MB capacities.

JumpDrive Trio also adds expandable, upgradeable memory to the JumpDrive line. The device features a three-in-one card slot that accepts either Memory Stick, MultiMediaCards, or Secure Digital cards. According to Lexar, it is the only USB flash drive to incorporate all three media formats in one device. JumpDrive Trio’s capacity is limited only by the size of the memory card inserted, with the current maximum capacity at 512MB, using a Secure Digital card.

Panasonic announced that a 1GB SD card will be available by the end of the year. The new, high-capacity card boasts a data transfer rate of 20MB/s, twice as fast as current 256MB and 512MB SD Memory Cards, and ten times faster than a 128MB card.

Flash card capacities have fallen into a groove of doubling every year, said Nelson Chan, senior vice president and general manager, Retail Business Unit, SanDisk. “The momentum behind the flash market in general is very strong,” Chan said.