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1GB Microdrive field trial results  
Wednesday, November 1, 2000 | by
In reading over the responses from participants in the 30 day field trial of IBM's 1GB Microdrive, it's sometimes difficult to imagine that the Kodak DCS/Canon D2000 shooters were using the same card as some of the D1 shooters. The eleven 1GB Microdrive guinea pigs, all photojournalists based in North America, plus myself, had either a mostly positive or mostly negative experience. Which way it went depended entirely on the camera used. In a one month trial it's not really possible to determine a card's durability or reliability, but it certainly is possible to assess compatibility. In that regard, whether the Microdrive is a reasonable option for you appears to depend largely upon the camera hanging from your shoulder.

IBM 1GB Microdrive

In short, when the card was inside a Kodak DCS 520, Canon EOS D2000 or Kodak DCS 620x, the card performed without incident (as long as the camera had the most recent firmware installed). USA Today photographer Bob Deutsch's experience was typical of the Kodak DCS/Canon D2000 camp:

I have used the 1 gig drive daily, and have no errors, problems, glitches to report. It worked flawlessly! I could not distinguish the drive from the (Microdrive) 340's we used...

Several, but not all, of the D1 users had an entirely different experience, including mild to serious incompatibility problems. Tony Kurdzuk, staffer at the Newark Star-Ledger, shied away from the card altogether after the second time it failed to write images in his D1. By that point he had already found the card's write speed wanting, when compared to his stock of Lexar Media 160MB 10x cards:

To be honest I was not entirely happy with the performance (speed) of the card, and after the first three weeks and the second time it failed to write an image I just stopped using it for daily assignments.

The D1 and the 1GB Microdrive

My own experience was perhaps even more extreme. In the DCS 620x, no problems whatsoever, none. It has just worked. Over about 2000 frames now in the Canon EOS D30, it has also hummed along without incident (though the Microdrive's spin-up time may be causing a lag in D30 burst shooting - more on that in a D30 report coming Thursday - Friday). In the D1, the camera in which I've used the 1GB Microdrive the most, look out. It has been a litany of errors, to the point where I've relegated the card to non-D1 uses only. Glitches include:

  • Bursts of three or more images were not written to the card on at least four occasions that I noticed. The D1's drive light did not turn green, the card did not spin up, nothing. Of course, there may have been many more instances of this problem that I didn't notice, since I'm not in the habit of checking the drive light after every burst of frames I shoot.

  • Blinking FOR and CHA errors on the D1's top LCD display. This happened innumerable times when inserting the card, once when engaging the Format function, but never, as was the case with my last 340MB card, during shooting. Turning off the camera and reinserting the card always solved the problem.

D1 displaying Change Card error

  • The D1's drive light twice stayed on for a period of several minutes while writing JPEGs. Both times were at the same event; both times, switching the camera off and on cleared the problem, and no images appeared to have been lost. This happened after using the Microdrive in the D30 and not reformatting the card in the D1. The card functioned a-ok in the D30 later at the same event.

Note that I was mindful of the fact that the Mac doesn't always properly update the directory files it writes to a card, and as such I didn't bring the 1GB Microdrive anywhere near a Mac for the first two weeks. I also avoided the D1's format function, choosing to delete images only from a PC, in case that was a potential Microdrive hazard. The first two sets of problems described above were the deal stoppers for me, and they occurred both during the two week period in which I abstained from formatting and Mac use, and once I resumed my normal practice of editing in the Mac and formatting in the D1.

At about week three I overwrote all the data on the card with zeros, then repartitioned and high-level formatted the card in a PC. This returns the card to as a pristine a state as can be accomplished by an end user. The blinking FOR and CHA errors continued.

Since the 170MB and 340MB Microdrives began to ship in 1999, some photojournalists have been given a rough ride by the D1-Microdrive combination. This story continues with the 1GB Microdrive, and presumably the 512MB Microdrive too, which began to ship earlier this week. It's clear from my experience, those of several other field trial participants, and a host of grumpy users populating Internet forums and mailing lists, that the 1GB Microdrive and the D1 are not an entirely safe bet. D1 users considering the new Microdrive should first put aside the usual card-selection factors, such as ruggedness, cost and capacity, and instead think long and hard about whether the risk of facing the same incompatibility hiccups as some other D1 users is an acceptable one.

A puzzling side note to all this is that not all D1 shooters experience the same degree of Microdrive problems. In his feedback, John Sleezer, staffer at the Kansas City Star, asked the question I've been pondering for some time, as my original 340MB Microdrive gave me months of trouble-free use:

I know this is a problem between the camera and card, but (I wonder) why it doesn't happen to everyone equally?

For prospective 1GB Microdrive purchasers, this is the US$499 question. For D1 owners who have already taken the 1GB plunge, please be clear that the #1 problem to be tackled is one of compatibility, not bad card sectors (which the Microdrive automatically maps out as it writes data - see sidebar), improper formatting or other things that go bump in the night. Therefore, it's incumbent on D1 users to keep squeezing Nikon and IBM to make their products play better together, to ensure that the Microdrive is a viable option for those situations in which its capacity in particular might make it a better choice than Flash RAM cards. If you're not convinced of this, ask a friend who shoots Microdrives inside a DCS 520, 620, 620x or D2000. You'll find, as the field trial participants did, that card and camera get along fine. This is not a coincidence; Kodak has obviously been busy ensuring that their cameras talk to the Microdrive properly, and the positive experience of Kodak DCS and Canon D2000 shooters is the result.

Card selection factors

If you don't shoot with the D1, then the decision to go with the Microdrive, or not, is what it has always been: a combination of factors, including capacity, durability and speed:

  • Is the card's capacity optimum for its intended use? A common thread among the Kodak DCS/Canon D2000 respondents was that at 1GB, the card was too roomy to be practical much of the time, except perhaps in remote cameras. The 512MB version might be a better choice for some that are looking seriously at the Microdrive. Several field trial participants pointed out the potential benefit of the 1GB card for storing the D1's 3.8MB .NEF files, since it will hold 265 of them in one go. But that's weighed against the risk of images lost to card-camera incompatibility.

  • Is the card rugged enough for the rough and tumble world of photojournalism? The short answer is no, at least to the question just asked. That is, is a miniature hard drive like the Microdrive going to withstand all the bumps and bruises of all types of wire and daily newspaper photojournalism? No, it's simply not possible for its mechanical components to take everything a news shooter will throw at it. Nick Didlick, D1 shooter and staff photographer at Canada's National Post, believes he lost images while banging about in a courthouse scrum. By comparison, most if not all of Didlick's photos from the Running of the Bulls in Spain earlier this year emerged unscathed from Lexar Media 160MB 8x cards. This fact became all the more impressive to me when I learned that Didlick's remotely-mounted D1 was knocked off its perch by sliding, out-of-control bulls on two consecutive days. In addition, IBM's handling guidelines for the Microdrive include the following:

Always carry your IBM Microdrive in the plastic case included in this package.

Do not drop your IBM Microdrive.

Do not get it wet.

Do not expose it to extreme temperatures.

Translation: the Microdrive is not the best all-round choice for photojournalism. Flash RAM cards, such as Didlick's cards from Lexar, or others from Delkin, Microtech, Simple Technology and Sandisk, are all but guaranteed to better withstand the rigors of the job than the Microdrive. That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't a variety of less taxing assignments where the Microdrive's primary strengths - high capacity at a low cost - will kick in. Happy long-term Microdrive use for me means peaceful coexistence with Flash RAM cards, where the best card for the nature of the assignment is the one that's inserted into the camera.

  • Write speed. This has long been a primary consideration for me. The 1GB Microdrive, like the 340MB Microdrive before it, offers among the fastest write speeds in Kodak DCS/Canon D2000 cameras. The 1GB Microdrive, also like its 340MB predecessor, slows to near the back of the pack in the D1. Read speed from card to computer is very good regardless of the camera used to fill the card, as the 1GB Microdrive's transfer rates are consistently within spitting distance of the fastest Flash RAM cards. Mac users will observe a couple of slowdowns with the 1GB Microdrive, however, neither of which is fatal. First, it takes in the neighbourhood of 10-15 seconds for the Mac to build its collection of directory files on the card when a recently-formatted 1GB Microdrive is mounted on the desktop (see the screenshot below). Flash RAM cards, and the 340MB Microdrive, perform the same task almost instantly as the card mounts, even if they contain the same number of images as a 1GB Microdrive. Second, it takes an inordinate amount of time for the Mac to count up the number of images on the card prior to commencing a copy operation. With hundreds of images on the card, the wait can be painfully long. By comparison, copy operations from Flash RAM cards or the 340MB Microdrive begin almost immediately, regardless of the number of files on the card.

Desktop rebuild progress bar when
1GB Microdrive is mounted on the Mac

Survey responses

The quality of the responses from field trial participants makes them a must-read for anyone considering a 1GB Microdrive or 512MB Microdrive purchase. Each participant was asked to complete a short survey I had prepared, though they could optionally skip the survey questions and send in their text in whatever form suited them, as a couple of respondents did. The responses, all 20 pages of them, have been compiled into a PDF document; you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view and print it.

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