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Performance testing the 4GB Microdrive - Continued

The Microdrive line has had only a so-so reliability reputation among professional digital photographers. This perception has developed for a variety of reasons, including:

  • The Microdrive's CompactFlash Type II-size aluminum and stainless steel enclosure contains a somewhat-fragile 1-inch hard drive. Its single glass platter, head, arm and other delicate parts, no matter how well-designed, can't compete with flash memory-based CompactFlash cards for durability, since the latter have no mechanical components. This is true in theory and in practice too, as you'll know if you've ever dropped an earlier generation of Microdrive onto a hard surface or squeezed it too hard pulling it out of a card reader. In both instances the results can be fatal. By comparison, a CompactFlash card containing flash memory will usually be unphased by all but the most significant mishandling. A Microdrive, when used within the durability limits of its design, is likely to be quite reliable. Pushed beyond its limits, however, and it's equally likely to stop working.

  • The Microdrive never got along well with the original Nikon D1 digital camera. Too many instances of card-camera incompatibility marred the reputation of the Microdrive, though this wasn't a reliability problem per se.

  • There has been room to improve durability in the design of the Microdrive. While the 512MB and 1GB cards added shock-absorbing corner bumpers, the 2GB and 4GB models incorporate a 1-2mm thick plastic surround for greater resistance to damage when dropped. In addition, the entire internal mechanism has been rotated 180 degrees. HGST found that earlier generations of Microdrive were failing from users squeezing one end of the case while removing the card from a reader, camera or other device. The end of the case being squeezed housed the head assembly, which is arguably the Microdrive's most sensitive component. The head assembly also got squeezed, and sometimes destroyed, in the process. The 180 degree rotation has moved the head assembly to the end closest to the pins, and therefore away from pinching fingers. The head, and the arm holding it, have also been redesigned. Not only are they smaller and lighter, they should also be more durable, says Heybruck.

The sum of the design changes, promises HGST, is a more durable and reliable Microdrive.

Perhaps to drive home that point, the 4GB unit that arrived on our doorstep direct from HGST experienced something of a torture test on its way here. It was shipped inside a standard FedEx letter envelope, with only its plastic travel case protecting it. It has been used hard since its arrival and seems none the worse for wear.

Still, if card durability is of paramount importance to you because of the kind of photography you do, you will almost certainly be better served by a flash memory CompactFlash card. Keep that in mind as you ponder whether to answer the 4GB Microdrive's siren call.

Original 340 MB Microdrive (left); 1GB Microdrive, including corner bumpers (middle); 4GB Microdrive with mechanism rotated 180 degrees and plastic surround (right). Photos courtesy of Hitachi Global Storage Technologies

Note: The company has not yet released MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) data. Testing of production-level 4GB Microdrives to determine this common hard drive life expectancy specification has not yet been completed.

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