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IBM 1GB Microdrive - first look  
Monday, August 28, 2000 | by
It's a hoot to stick a CompactFlash card into Nikon's D1, check the frame counter and see 746 frames remaining. With IBM's 1GB Microdrive, slated to ship in September, 746 frames is the number of JPEG Fine files the camera will initially estimate it can hold, though it will typically not fill up until about 1000 photos have been shot.


1GB IBM Microdrive (note that IBM has now made
Microdrive a trademark, and changed the "m" to uppercase)

Either number is astronomically high of course. Switching the D1 to its 3.8MB per photo RAW format drops the frame counter to a still-plentiful 265.


Frame counter on the D1 (JPEG Fine, left; 2.7r (RAW), right)

Equally interesting is the cost for all that capacity. At an expected street price of less than US$500, the 1GB model (IBM has announced a 512MB card and a revised 340MB card too) weighs in at about 50 US cents per MB, which is a fraction of the cost per megabyte of competing Flash RAM CompactFlash cards. In short, the 1GB microdrive's capacity, and the cost for it, are unmatched.

Cost and capacity are not the only measure by which a card should be selected of course. Card read speed and write speed are important too. The card's larger capacity and slower rotational speed relative to the original 340MB Microdrive translates into little change in overall card performance in a Nikon D1 workflow. Write speed of JPEG Fine photos is identical to the 340MB drive, at a relatively pokey 401K/second. Clearly, the D1 is not passing data to the Microdrive in an optimal fashion, since the Microdrive delivers much faster write speeds in other devices. The write speed of the fastest D1-compatible card, the Lexar Media 160MB 10x, is shown for comparison in the table below:

Speed at which 21 JPEG Fine photos write to the card, in the D1
Kilobytes/second
IBM microdrive 340MB (original version)
401K/sec
IBM microdrive 1GB
401K/sec
Lexar Media 160MB 10x
734K/sec

Read speed is improved by almost 15% over the already-speedy 340MB Microdrive, at least in the current card reader speed champ, the Unity Digital FireWire Image Card Reader. The read speed of the fastest CompactFlash card, the Lexar Media 160MB 10x, is shown for comparison in the table below:

Speed at which 100 D1 JPEG Fine files copy from the card in a Unity Digital FireWire Image Card Reader, to a Powerbook G3/500
Kilobytes/second
IBM microdrive 340MB (original version)
2352K/sec
IBM microdrive 1GB
2522K/sec
Lexar Media 160MB 10x
2802K/sec

What about reliability? Well, that's the US$500 question. The original 340MB is by no means a flawless performer, though for every photojournalist that has experienced serious Microdrive problems there seems to be another for whom it has been smooth sailing. See Readers weigh in on microdrive reliability for more on that.

Related to that is D1 compatibility. Blinking FOR and CHA errors persist for what is likely a minority of 340MB shooters; it remains to be seen whether the 1GB Microdrive, and the 512MB and revised 340MB as well, will cause the D1 to misbehave in the same way for some.


Blinking CHA error from original 340MB Microdrive

IBM is in the process of seeding 1GB Microdrives to selected photojournalists around North America for a 30 day trial. Those that agreed to participate are a mix of D1 and Kodak/Canon camera users, several of whom have experienced, or work for a paper that has experienced, minor to fatal Microdrive problems. I'll post a story on the outcome of that trial once it's complete, as well as expand the benchmarking to include Kodak/Canon pro cameras and a variety of readers too.

For more information on the new series of Microdrives from IBM, see IBM microdrive reaches 1GB. The 1GB drive is expected to sell at US$499; the 512MB, US$399. The new 340MB card will be US$299, and is a tuned-down version of the 512MB card.

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