Card Storage: Speed Writing Trumps Reading

You might not have noticed, but… our ever-simplified world is crazy-complicated.

Now, I’m not talkin’ philosophy or physics, but the rarefied air of silicon and solder. And salesmen.

Imagine my disappointment one fine evening as I hit the big-box electronics store out on the highway for a simple purchase, and leave in a lather.

So I’m shoppin’ for accessories for that sweet little helmet-cam I just bought to record all my pie-eating triumphs at the annual Festa San’ Guido. (Pizza pie, of course.) At the top of my accessory list: storage.

With features such as burst mode and resolutions up to 4K, these new puppies are ravenous. That 4 MB Compact Flash card that came with my last digital still camera might not cut the mustard, methinks.

So I’m shoppin’ SD, and I vaguely remember those whizbang Class 6 postage stamp-sized memory cards I once saw… bet they hold a whole gigabyte these days, I says to myself. So… where’s the sales help?

OK, so you know the punch line. Everybody but me knew the punch line. The options are confounding… full-sized SD cards went out with the dinosaurs, and I can’t even pick up the new Class 10 MicroSD cards without a tweezers. For reals. Storage sizes range beyond 32 GB up into the 64s and 128s; and then there’s speed. Writing speed is the thing… natch; reading is nice, but when the 4:2:2 is flyin’ out of the spigot, write speed talks.

Seriously? A horsefly-sized card that stores 128 GB, and writes at 6 MBps. Wowzers. But based on my extensive research that one night, you really can’t tell the players without a scorecard; next time, I’m startin’ a set of crib notes on the back of my hand.

Fact is, flash memory storage is the de facto standard of our times. And I can’t decide whether I love the idea of using garden-variety SD-family cards for my precious footage, or I fear it beyond all reason. There’s something so appealing about the utter simplicity—that itsy-bitsy package, at popular prices, and available at the local big-box or on the Interwebs. But we’ve also been trained to expect that serious, mil-spec quality needs a bulletproof package, with an extra-serious price sticker to match. How can simplicity breed such complexity?

For perspective, it doesn’t hurt to recount the history of our earliest, highest-profile flash storage icons. Panasonic’s P2 memory cards made it to market before Sony’s SxS cards, but being first brought its own problems: the flash memory of the day was slow… slower than the speeds required for HD streams, at the very least. The ingenious solution took a page from Rube Goldberg’s playbook: If mechanical hard drive arrays needed multiple, interleaved drives and a RAID controller, why not do the same for P2?

Inside those first-generation cards, if you popped off the metal trim plates, you’d find an embedded RAID chip and four socketed SD storage cards… the world’s flattest multi-volume array.

Of course, it wasn’t long before flash chips picked up steam and achieved usable speeds for video, and a host of form factors, capacities and price points were thrust upon us—further complicating the simple task of storage. And even then, the lure of cheap consumer solutions was too strong to resist; rather than pay full price for a high-reliability SxS card, shooters turned to SxS adapter frames that accepted good ol’ SD cards. Reliability is often overrated, ya’ know.

The other day, the camera salesman came a-callin’ at our place, looking for all the world like a vagabond peddler with his collection of odd-sized trunks, and showin’ us a big broadcast camera, a little faux-cinema jobbie, and a couple o’ more in between. He talked fast, which I don’t necessarily like, but among the crumbs that Nellie the Neuron was able to snatch out of the ether was storage… he kept talking about storage, and over the course of an hour, he was able to cite at least six different ways these cameras would record pictures, ranging from high-speed, purpose-built, cinema-grade memory, all the way down to those consumer cards.

Most were proprietary; some required beau coups in-camera compression; and none of them were free, or even close. Which is my ultimate criteria, of course.

But across the range of cameras, sizes, bit rates and resolutions, one aspect was constant: flash memory, whether built-in or add-on, was the storage of choice. An external recorder with a flash-based SSD; branded memory modules selectable by capacity and writing speed, all the way up to 4K RAW; and even those garden-variety, tweezer-delivered SD cards.

Until the next big thing comes along, looks like we’re writin’ to flash, whether cheap, pricey or in-between. As for the flash memory crib notes, looks like they’re headed off the back of my hand, up one arm, and down the other.

Mario Orazio is the pseudonym of a well-known television engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. E-mail him