Storage Newcomer Readies New High-Capacity Card for Digital Cameras

June 30, 2003
By: David Morgenstern

The storage requirements of digital cameras keep climbing, and while storage vendors have driven capacities for desktop hard disks—the destination for downloaded images—they've been a bit more leisurely where it comes to the removable media for cameras. However, a storage industry outsider this week will offer a micro-sized hard drive holding 2.4GB, double the current capacity leader.
Colby Systems Corp., a longtime vendor of custom hardware solutions for vertical markets, said it will announce its MD 2.4 drive this week. The company had not finalized pricing, the list price will be about $279.

From its specification sheet, Colby's new Compact Flash-compatible drive looks to be faster than the 1GB Microdrive offered currently by Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Inc. and other OEM storage vendors. The MD 2.4 drive will have a 4,200 rpm spindle speed and a data transfer rate from 3.6MB to 7.1MB per second, the company said. Its 1GB Microdrive competitor offers a 3,600 rpm spin rate and provides a transfer rate between 2.6MB to 4.2MB per second.

"Even a 6-megapixel camera eats up storage," President Chuck Colby said. He added the new drive was aimed primarily at professional photographers with high-resolution digital cameras or digital backs, who need extra space to shoot images in TIFF or Raw modes.

Certainly, a 6-megapixel camera should now be considered at the low-end of the high-resolution spectrum given the recent announcements of 5- and 6-megapixel consumer models at the spring Photo Marketing Association trade show. And whether a professional or consumer shutterbug, any photographer wanting the best image will choose to take uncompressed images, which can be very large indeed.

For example, the 6.5-megapixel Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro supports resolutions as high as 4,256 by 2,848 pixels (that's 12.1 million pixels) in JPEG, uncompressed TIFF and the company's proprietary Raw mode. Only one full-resolution TIFF image can fit on a 64MB flash card and the 1GB Microdrive can hold 29 images, fewer than an ordinary roll of 35mm film.

Some folks hanker after even higher capacities. In January, Hitachi announced a next-generation Microdrive offering a capacity of 4GB. These mechanisms will use a new version of the company's "Pixie Dust" technology, which sandwiches a layer of ruthenium a few atoms thick between several magnetic layers. This drive is due in the fourth quarter, the company said.

Meanwhile, Colby Systems said it won't be standing still either. On the drawing board is its second-generation drive, which is due by the end of the year. It will have a capacity of 4.7GB.

Colby Systems is no startup company, it's been around for ages. Chuck Colby was one of the crowd at the Homebrew Computer Club meetings and in the past developed custom computing solutions for the military and security communities. I remember his impressive demonstration of a portable (actually wearable) Macintosh computer with a heads-up display in the late 1980s. He built the first portable PC and Mac systems long before the concept went mainstream.

The company's entry into the removable storage market is a byproduct of its current "embedded" digital video solutions for police and emergency vehicles. For example, his current DVR-168 model mounts in a police car and functions as a computer as well as recording video with a low-light camera fixed to the windshield. At the end of the shift, the officers remove the small MD 2.4 drive and download the data into a collection machine in the police station.

With all the buzz over wireless networking, I asked Colby why the users of his embedded computers hand-carry the disks to the collection machine, rather than use one of the 802.11 wireless variants that offer faster throughput for file transfers. His response was interesting and practical: problems with scalability.

According to Colby, a wireless setup would be fine for just a few users. However, "up to 100 cars may [be] involved in a change of shift at a station, each with 2 to 3 hours of audio and video to download. That would overload any possible wireless system," he said.

So, despite the many ways we can network our computers nowadays and the convenience that architecture affords, there are still times when the traditional sneakernet proves to be the best solution.

Colby Systems has announced a $280 micro drive -- a tiny hard drive that fits into a CompactFlash slot -- that offers a record-breaking 2.4 gigabyte capacity. The disk will spin at 4,200 rpm and transfer data at about five megabytes per second. Colby is famous for its police video systems, which record digital video and require small, high-capacity storage media.