(Card) Reading is fundamental

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For laptop users who are also photo enthusiasts, a way to get your digital camera’s photos onto your computer is a must. And a card reader has become the tool of choice: card readers are generally faster than the computer-to-camera USB cables that ship with most digital cameras, and a reader doesn’t suck your camera’s battery life like there’s no tomorrow.

The challenge is finding a card reader that doesn’t add even more bulk to your bag—the smaller the better, and the less cable the better. Back when I was using a 15-inch PowerBook G4, I had a handy reader that slid conveniently into the PC Card slot—and stayed there. It was almost like having a card reader built into my PowerBook. (I know, I know... many Windows-based laptops have just such a feature.) But when the PowerBook G4 was put to rest, so, apparently, were PC Card slots on the Mac. In their place, we now have ExpressCard slots.

I’ve been using a few newer memory-card readers for the space conscious, and thought I’d share my experiences. (Unfortunately for MacBook owners, three of the four products require an ExpressCard slot.)

  • SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus USB (price varies by card capacity): If you’ve got a digital camera that uses SD cards, this is the way to go, in my opinion. At first glance, the Ultra II SD Plus USB (how can something this small have such a long name?) looks just like a standard SD card. But it’s actually got a “card reader” built right in: when you’re ready to grab your photos, you slide the card out of your camera and give it a gentle bend; the card folds in half, exposing a bare USB plug! You slide the plug directly into a USB port on your laptop and the card appears in the Finder just as if you’d used a card reader. No card reader. No cables. Brilliant. The only potential caveat here is that I wonder how the folding mechanism will hold up over time; it certainly doesn’t feel sturdy when you’re opening it. Then again, I’ve been using two of these cards since last fall and they’re still working perfectly. And you don’t pay much of a premium for this feature: I found 512MB cards for $20 each after rebate last fall, and 2GB cards are currently available for around $65.
  • Delkin (not Belkin) eFilm ExpressCard 34 ($60): Unfortunately, if your camera uses Compact Flash, the smaller ExpressCard/34 slot used on Apple’s laptops isn’t big enough for a fully-internal card reader. Delkin’s eFilm ExpressCard 34 is as close as you’re going to get: the ExpressCard adapter fits in your MacBook Pro’s slot, with just the Compact Flash connector itself sticking out. This design makes the adapter relatively small, but it also means you can’t keep the adapter in your MacBook Pro while you’re on-the-go; unless you want to risk damage to your laptop or the card reader, you’ll want to eject it when you’re finished downloading photos. (To be fair, most of the current cameras using Compact Flash cards are DSLRs and larger non-DSLRs; those using such cameras are probably a bit less concerned with ultra-portability than users of more compact cameras.) But the biggest drawback is that the eFilm adapter supports only Compact Flash. For compatibility with the myriad other memory card types, you’ll need one of the adapters below.
  • Belkin Multimedia Reader and Writer ExpressCard ($30) and Griffin Technology ExpressCard/34 5:1 Card Reader ($30): These two products are actually very similar; each slides into the ExpressCard/34 slot on a MacBook Pro—flush, all the way in—and provides a slot for small media cards. The Belkin model officially supports Secure Digital (SD), Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, MultiMediaCard, Reduced Size MultiMediaCard (RS-MC), and xD-Picture Card without an adapter; and miniSD, MMCmobile, MMCplus, and TransFlash with the adapter generally included with these cards. The Griffin reader officially supports SD, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, MultiMediaCard, and xD-Picture Card without an adapter; and Memory Stick Duo, Memory StickMicro, miniSD, microSD, RS-MC, MMCmobile, and MMCplus with an adapter. (I emphasize “officially” because it’s possible either or both will support additional card formats with the appropriate adapter.)

    These two card readers look nearly identical. The main difference is actually the depth of the card-reader slot—the slot on the Griffin model is approximately 3/4-inch deeper. This means that smaller cards, such as SD cards, sit flush against the end of the Griffin reader when inserted, whereas the same cards protrude a bit when inserted into the Belkin reader. Some people will prefer the Griffin approach, as it means that—if necessary—you can leave your memory card in the reader (in your laptop) in your bag. On the other hand, Belkin’s approach makes the card easier to remove from the reader when you’re finished with it.

    Another advantage to these compact card readers—assuming you use memory cards that work with them—is that, because they sit nearly flush with the side of the MacBook Pro, you can actually keep them in your laptop on the go. (According to Griffin, the ExpressCard/34 Card Reader does not draw power when no memory card is in it. Belkin doesn’t go that far, noting that integrated circuits dissipate small amounts of current in standby mode, but also says this shouldn’t have a noticeable effect on battery life.)

How’s the performance on these products? Unfortunately, I no longer have the Delkin on hand, although, from memory, its download speed was as fast as any other card reader I’ve used. (And the truth is, a speed comparison between the Delkin and the other three products here wouldn’t have been meaningful, since I would have had to test the Delkin with a different type of memory card.) But I tested the other three by copying the contents of the SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus—which also has a standard SD connector—using the SanDisk’s USB connector, the Griffin ExpressCard reader, and the Belkin ExpressCard reader. Here’s how long it took to copy the same 166MB of photos and movies via the Finder (drag-and-drop), with time measured using the old “stopwatch while watching the Finder’s copy dialog” trick:

Finder (approximate) copy times

SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus (USB connector) 20.4 seconds
Griffin ExpressCard 34 19.8 seconds
Belkin Multimedia Reader & Writer ExpressCard 19.0 seconds

Time (in seconds) to transfer 166MB of data from memory card to Mac.

Since I don’t trust my reflexes as much as I did when I was a wee video-game-playing lad, I also repeated the test using Terminal and the

time cp -R
command, which tells you the exact amount of time, down to the thousandths of a second, your copy takes. As you can see in the table below, human error added a fraction of a second to each measurement, but I wasn’t that far off. (And the relative times were actually similar; maybe I’m not getting old as fast as I thought.)

Terminal (exact) copy times

SanDisk Ultra II SD Plus (USB connector) 19.922 seconds
Griffin ExpressCard 34 19.553 seconds
Belkin Multimedia Reader & Writer ExpressCard 18.765 seconds

Time (in seconds) to transfer 166MB of data from memory card to Mac.

What’s clear is that the data-transfer times are all in the same ballpark; you’re probably not going to choose one of these products over the others based on speed alone, unless saving a few seconds on every GB transferred is really that important to you. You can simply buy the solution that best fits your equipment. And between the very similar Belkin and Griffin products, the main differences are in compatibility with less-common card formats and how deeply cards slide into each.

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