IBM this week announced the second generation of the Microdrive, the CompactFlash Type II miniature hard drive that's popular among Nikon D1 shooters in particular. The three new cards, code named Scully as they were being developed (the original Microdrives were code named Mulder, so the X-Files theme continues at Big Blue), will be available in 340MB, 512MB and 1GB capacities when they begin to ship to retail stores in August. The hampster, presumably, will not be included.
Staggering capacity from a matchbook-sized drive is only part of the story, however. It's clear from discussions with IBM that they are intent on seeing the new Microdrive models perform efficiently and reliably in the hands of pro photographers. IBM's direction on the Microdrive was enough to convince Nikon Japan to participate in the Microdrive press release, with an indication that they were among the companies that have or will design products compatible with IBM's card. This spells potentially good news for D1 shooters if it translates into official endorsement by Nikon, though that hasn't happened yet.
Performance and reliability enhancements
IBM has incorporated several enhancements to help improve the performance and durability of the Microdrive. They include:
- A 40% increase in sustained data transfer rate. The card can now move data at up to 4.2MB/second, as compared to the original Microdrive's 3.0MB/second.
- A 50% improvement in shock tolerance when the drive is not reading or writing photos, from 1000 G to 1500 G. This is due to internal component modifications.
- The installation of corner bumpers for additional protection in a fall.
- A 16% - 21% reduction in power consumption when the card is writing data. Power consumption when the card is idle has also been reduced.
- A slower rotational speed. Slowing the rotating platter inside the Microdrive from 4500 rpm to 3600 rpm means internal components will be stressed somewhat less during their life. It's interesting to note that even though the drive is spinning slower, the data throughput spec is still better than the original Microdrive. That's because of the new Microdrive models' increased areal density. Areal density is the number of bits per square inch a drive can hold. Since increased areal density means each bit of data on the drive takes up less space, the drive's head doesn't have to travel as far as before to read and write the same amount of data. This apparently more than offsets the slower rotational speed. If you want to know more about hard drive technology in its various forms, check out Scientific American's May 2000 feature.
It should be noted that impressive specs on paper don't always translate into impressive performance in the real world. It remains to be seen whether the new Microdrive models are indeed faster in the cameras and computers pros use, and able to withstand the rigours of daily news photography in particular. But given the potential performance, and the fact that all three models of Microdrive will sell for less than US$1/MB (the 1GB card will be about 50 US cents per MB!), the new Microdrives will be hard to ignore. My usual Microdrive caution still applies, however: if you want maximum reliability, Flash RAM cards will always be the best choice. But with the price and performance potential of the new Microdrives, Flash RAM manufacturers will once again have their work cut out for them trying to compete. And that's good news for the end user.
Tomorrow, June 23rd, I'll post reader responses to my request for information on how photographers were faring with their Microdrives. In the meantime, check out the February report on Selecting a CompactFlash card for a professional digital camera for more information on choosing the right card for your pro camera.
The new Microdrives will begin to trickle into stores in August, with full availability in September. The 1GB drive is expected to be US$499; the 512MB, US$399. The new 340MB card will be US$299, and is a tuned-down version of the 512MB card. As such it contains the performance enhancements of the 512MB and 1GB cards, and is therefore a better bet than the current 340MB card, which is expected to also drop to US$299 in early July. IBM is aiming for a wider distribution of the Microdrive starting in July as well, as they are adding Ingram Micro as a distributor in the U.S. (currently, Microtech International and Delkin Devices are the sole distributors).