Transferring Memory Cards
Which Way is Best?
Anyone shooting with a digital camera faces the issue of transferring the content of their memory cards to their computer, (usually CompactFlash for those with pro-level cameras).
There are three ways of doing this. If you have a laptop computer then the card can be inserted in to a PC Card adaptor and placed in that slot. Desktop as well as laptop computers may have either Firewire or USB 2 connectors, or both, and there are card readers available for both types of interfaces. (Don't even think about using USB 1. It's too slow. I also don't care for using cables from the camera to the computer, as this can be a problematic interface, and also usually requires the manufacturer's proprietary software to be installed).
The question then arises, which of the three preferred ways is faster, and are there any advantages to one method over the other?
Contax 645 with Kodak DCS Pro Back and
210mm f/4 Sonnar + 1.4X Mutar @ ISO 400
PC Card Readers
PC Card reader slots (or PCMCIA as they used to be called) in laptops are ubiquitous and convenient. Unfortunately, they are slow. More than 3 times slower than either Firewire or USB 2. Their advantage though, if you have a laptop, is that they require no additional devices since all laptops have them built in, and CompactFlash card adaptors are inexpensive and can live permanently in the card slot. Some laptop computers even have dedicated CF card readers slots. Regrettable these use the same PCMCIA card bus and offer no advantage other than to not require the use of a card adaptor.
Firewire is fast. More than 3 times faster than PCMCIA transfers.
If you have a Mac then your computer has Firewire. You're also lucky because it means that your computer has a full-sized powered Firewire connector and you can use self-powered card readers. Windows laptops that offer Firewire almost universally have mini-connector ports which are not powered, and therefore you need to use a card reader along with an AC adaptor. Not a problem on the desktop, and desktop PCs with Firewire typically have powered 6 wire plugs, but the AC adaptor is one more thing to carry in the field and means that you can't transfer files while under battery power. Score one for the Mac.
USB 2 card readers are about the same speed as Firewire; more than 3 times faster than PCMCIA slot transfers.
Their advantage for PC owners is that the USB 2 mini-connector on laptops is powered, and so a USB 2 card reader doesn't need an AC power block and cord, a serious weight and bulk saving when working on the road.
I compared all three methods using a Dell 8500 laptop, a current model 2.2 Ghz Mobile Pentium 4 machine with 1GB of RAM. The test card was a 1GB IBM Microdrive containing 9 files, in a single 158 Megabyte directory.
If you work with a current model laptop, especially in the field, a USB 2 card reader like the Lacie appears to be the best solution. It's what I currently use.
Since this article was first published a new solution to high-speed transfers in the field has become available — the ASKA Cardbus 32 SpeedOver — a high-speed CompactFlash PC card adaptor.
Update — October, 2003
Belkin has introduced a card reader for the Apple iPod. This allows you to use your iPod for more than just playing tunes, copying your camera's memory cards in the field via Firewire and under battery power. It $99 it is reasonably priced, and works with both Mac and Windows based Ipods.