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CompactFlash Reader Roundup - Continued

In this section you'll find an overview of the CompactFlash card readers included in this report. Be sure to look at both the summary and detail sections to get a complete picture of each reader's features.

The FireWire readers have been tested on both Mac and PC platforms, while the USB 2.0 readers have been tested only on the PC (since, as of this writing, USB 2.0 is supported on the Mac only by purchasing an add-in card, while FireWire ports are pervasive).

Note: Performance data is found on subsequent pages in this report; comments on this page are primarily about reader features and usability.

CompactFlash Card Reader Summary

Brand and Model
Compatible Media1
Removable Cable?
Slots (Number: Format)5
Addonics FireWire
Mini DigiDrive
CF I/II, MMC/SD, SmartMedia, Memory Stick
1: CF 1/II
1: Other formats
Addonics Pocket Ultra DigiDrive
PC Card I/II (CF I/II and other formats via adapter)
USB 2.04
1: PC Card
Alienware Area-51m
PC Card slot
PC Card I/II (CF I/II and other formats via adapter)
PC Card
1: PC Card
Dazzle Hi-Speed Zio!
USB 2.0
1: CF 1/II
Lexar Media FireWire CF Digital Film Reader
1: CF 1/II
Microtech FireWire CameraMate
1: CF 1/II
Microtech Zio!
USB 1.1
1: CF 1/II
Powerbook 15" G4/1GHz
PC Card slot
PC Card I/II (CF I/II and other formats via adapter)
PC Card
1: PC Card
Sandisk Ultra ImageMate
1: CF 1/II
Sandisk ImageMate
6 in 1
CF I/II, MMC/SD, SmartMedia, Memory Stick
USB 2.0
1: CF I/II
1:Memory Stick
(1, 5) CF I/II=CompactFlash Type I and Type II, including Microdrive (Type I are 3.3mm in thickness; Type II, 5.0mm); MMC/SD=Multimedia Card/Secure Digital; PC Card I/II=PC Card Type I and Type II (Type I are 3.3mm in thickness; Type II, 5.0mm).
(2) All FireWire readers tested require a powered 6-pin FireWire port (standard on Macs, less common on PC laptops in particular) to operate. Because the test PC, an Alienware Area-51m laptop, has a 4-pin unpowered FireWire port, an Orange Micro powered FireWire hub was used as a bridge between the reader and the computer. All readers use a 1394a 6-pin connector, as opposed to the new 9-pin 1394b connector starting to emerge on Macs. All USB 2.0 readers tested are designed to work on USB 1.1 ports as well, though at pokey USB 1.1 speeds. The USB 1.1 reader tested works with USB 2.0 ports, but without the speed benefit of USB 2.0.
(3) This reader includes an additional adapter cable with two connectors at the computer end: one that plugs into a 4-pin unpowered FireWire port, the other into a USB port (from which it draws power for the reader).
(4) With a different cable attached to the proprietary connector on the reader, the Pocket Ultra DigiDrive will also connect to 6-pin powered FireWire ports. For this report, only USB 2.0 functionality was tested.

CompactFlash Card Readers in Detail

Addonics FireWire Mini DigiDrive (FireWire)

addonics_fw_digidrive1.jpgFor some reason, powered 6-pin FireWire ports are a rarity on PC laptops; instead, the few manufacturers that include a FireWire port at all generally opt for the unpowered 4-pin variety. This means that most FireWire CompactFlash card readers are literally powerless to work with most PC FireWire-capable laptops.

The Addonics FireWire Mini DigiDrive includes a workaround for this problem: in addition to a standard 6-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable, this reader is bundled with a cleverly-designed adapter cable that enables it to draw power from the USB port. Computers with a 4-pin FireWire port, then, are candidates for use with this FireWire reader, without resorting to the use of a powered FireWire hub.

The photo below shows how this works. One end of the adapter cable connects to one end of the standard 6-pin FireWire cable. The other end's twin connectors plug into the 4-pin FireWire and USB ports of the computer.

Adapter cable included with FireWire Mini DigiDrive

This is a smart idea that, in our testing, had only drawback: it didn't work reliably. When powered this way, the FireWire Mini DigiDrive would often fail to recognize that a card was inserted or would show a drive letter for only one of its two slots in My Computer.

We found that connecting the adapter cable to the computer's two ports first, then plugging the reader into the adapter, seemed to improve stability somewhat. Even then, however, the reader continued to be unusably flakey. We tried connecting the USB connector portion of the adapter cable to a powered USB hub. The flakiness continued.

When the Addonics FireWire Mini DigiDrive was connected to the same Alienware Area-51m PC through a powered FireWire hub (without the adapter cable rigamarole) it recognized cards and transferred photos without incident. It also trucked along without drama when connected to the 6-pin powered FireWire port of several different desktop and laptop Macs. But if our experience with the adapter cable is typical, this reader may not be a solution for Windows-based photographers saddled with 4-pin FireWire port computers.

Update, October 13, 2003: Additional testing with a total of three FireWire Mini DigiDrive readers and the Alienware Area 51-m produced the same result: extreme flakiness when the reader was powered from a USB port. Connecting to the FireWire and USB ports of a Dell Inspiron 8500, however, was a different story. Though one of the three readers (an early production unit) continued its flaky ways, the other two units work as advertised, no oddball behaviour whatsoever.

Update. October 28, 2003: Testing of the FireWire Mini DigiDrive with an additional 7 laptops revealed that quirky performance with some laptops is almost certainly a fact of life with this product, at least when attempting to power it from a USB port. Of the 7 Japanese market-only models we tried, all running Windows XP Home, 3 exhibited the same quirks as when connected to the Alienware Area-51m: the system wouldn't recognize a card had been inserted and would only show a drive letter for 1 of the reader's 2 card slots. As the October 13 update notes, we've had good success with this reader and a Dell Inspiron 8500. But we suspect it will be hit and miss with other laptop models when powered through the USB port. This reader remains a solid performer with a variety of computers when connected to a powered FireWire port, though. The potential for extreme flakiness kicks in only when the FireWire Mini DigiDrive is powered through its included USB adapter cable.

It's also worth noting that the CompactFlash slot on this reader is slightly narrow, which means that inserting and removing some cards is fussier than necessary until the slot is worn in a bit.

The Addonics FireWire Mini DigiDrive ships with a removable, 43 inch (109 cm), 6-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable, as well as a 6-pin to 4-pin FireWire + USB power adapter cable.

Addonics Pocket Ultra DigiDrive (USB 2.0 or FireWire)

addonics_pocket_udd1.jpgAddonics likes to build readers with a twist, and the Pocket Ultra DigiDrive is no exception. This reader is the only one tested that is both Firewire and USB 2.0; mating a different cable to its proprietary rear connector is all that's required to switch from one to the other.

We tested this reader in its USB 2.0 guise (the reader is packaged with either a USB or FireWire cable). It's also billed as a multiformat reader, thanks to its PC Card slot, which means that virtually any media card for which there is a PC Card adapter should work in the Ultra DigiDrive. Though, as with other multiformat readers in this report, we evaluated only its handling of CompactFlash, in a CompactFlash-to-PC Card adapter.

Compared to some of the miniature readers available today, the Pocket Ultra DigiDrive is big. This can be an advantage for desktop use, since this means its more likely to stay put during the insertion and removal of cards. Given the multitude of smaller CompactFlash readers, however, we would be inclined to leave this reader at home when we travel with a laptop.

If you routinely need to handle formats other than CompactFlash, including PC Cards, or you sometimes work from computers with either a Firewire or USB 2.0 port (but not both), the Pocket Ultra DigiDrive is an interesting solution.

Proprietary connnector on Pocket Ultra DigiDrive

As tested, the Addonics Pocket Ultra DigiDrive ships with a removable 81 inch (206 cm) USB cable (with a proprietary connector at the reader end). A FireWire version of this reader is also available. You can also purchase each cable separately. This reader also accepts an external 5v DC power source, though a power supply is not included with the reader (external power should only be required when connecting to an unpowered FireWire port).

Alienware Area-51m PC Card slot

alienware_card_slot.jpgIf you have a laptop with a PC Card slot, you may be tempted to use that as your primary card reader. After all, the reader is built into the computer, so what could be more convenient than that?

Well, as it turns out, just about any external FireWire or USB 2.0 card reader will be both more convenient, and quicker, than the typical PC Card slot in a Windows-powered laptop. The pokey transfer rates of our Alienware Area-51m test PC are in line with the benchmarking of other PC laptops we've done previously, so we're inclined to think that this is what you can expect from a Windows laptop's PC Card slot, give or take a few percentage points. Simply put, the PC Card slot is too slow, while today's best external card readers are up to about 5x faster.

In addition, we tired quickly of the multiple steps required to safely disentangle the card from the operating system. Though there are utilities that can streamline the eject process, nothing beats simply sliding the card out of the reader, which is all that's required with most or all FireWire and USB 2.0 card models. A built-in PC Card slot is a decent backup card reader, but we wouldn't use it as the primary method for moving photos to the computer.

Note: Shortly before this report was completed an interesting press release crossed our desk. Touting much faster transfer rates for CompactFlash cards in PC Card slots, the Aska Speed Over CF32A adapter incorporates special electronics absent in regular adapters. Unfortunately, the Speed Over CF32A is to be released only in Japan, and then only with support for the Windows platform. If the speed boost indicated on the Aska web site is typical of what the product will actually deliver, it would appear to be about as quick as the fastest readers tested for this report. Though we have corresponded with Aska, they did not respond to a request to try out the Speed Over CF32A in time for inclusion here.

Dazzle Hi-Speed Zio! (USB 2.0)

dazzle_zio_high-speed1.jpgManufactured by SCM Microsystems and sold under the Dazzle brand name, the USB 2.0 Dazzle Hi-Speed Zio! is purpose-built for road warriors. It's small but sturdy, and with its USB cable detached the reader's USB connector can be inserted directly into one of the USB ports of our test PC laptop.

When space has been tight in our travel kit we've left its USB cable at home and used the reader just this way. It makes the process of inserting and removing cards less convenient, but you can't beat how compact the reader is for transport.

The Dazzle Hi-Speed Zio! ships with a removable 44 inch (112 cm) USB cable, as well as Dazzle OnDVD, Windows-only software for creating photo slide shows on CD for playback in DVD players (this software ships with all Dazzle-branded card readers).

Removable cable and USB connector

Note: The case design of the Dazzle Hi-Speed Zio! is currently being revamped, making the reader slightly bigger. Follow the link above to see the non-removable clear plastic surround that has been added to protect media while it's inserted in the reader. The performance of the Hi-Speed Zio! is not expected to change with the new look.

Update, October 13, 2003: SCM Microsystems has divested itself of the Dazzle product line. A newly-formed company, Zio Corporation, has acquired the Dazzle digital media readers.

Lexar Media FireWire CF Digital Film Reader (FireWire)

lexar_fw_reader.jpgJudging by the number of Lexar FireWire CF Digital Film Readers we've seen in circulation, it must rank among the most popular with professional digital photographers. Lexar's marketing muscle, and the fact that this was one of the first FireWire card readers to come to market, seems to have translated into a lot of Lexar FireWire CF units out there.

Actually manufactured by Datafab out of Taiwan, and sold by a number of different vendors including Lexar, we're on our fifth unit of this reader now. Our Unity Digital version died a long time ago, as did a variant from ADS Technologies. And, we've also gone through two from Lexar Media to date. So, if our experience is typical, this isn't much of a testament to the product's reliability.

We suspect that continually stuffing this reader into our laptop bag has put too much strain on the non-removable cable, since all four of the deceased units showed excessive wear at the point where the cable enters the reader (we try to only carry readers with removable cables now for that reason). And to be fair, the several units of this reader we've had longer, and used harder, than any other model in this report. Still, the failure rate has been high. If you're considering the Lexar FireWire CF Digital Film Reader, you might be well-advised to park it on your desktop and leave it there.

Countering reliability concerns is the fact that we've rarely, if ever, faced a compatibility problem with this reader: it seems to mount and transfer photos from just about any brand and model of card, including the several dozen cards that make up the CompactFlash Performance Database on this site.

The Lexar FireWire CF Digital Film Reader ships with a non-removable, 45 inch (114 cm), 6-pin FireWire cable.

Microtech FireWire CameraMate (FireWire)

microtech_fw_cameramate.jpgAnother product from SCM Microsystems, the Microtech FireWire CameraMate is fast, sturdy and looks good too. It lacks a removable FireWire cable, and therefore is potentially as susceptible to cable damage in an overstuffed travel kit as Lexar's FireWire reader. Both this reader and on older USB CameraMate have held up fine in our ongoing use, however.

We have experienced one difficulty worth noting: several of the cards represented in the CompactFlash Performance Database, from Transcend, Ritek/Ridata and Kingston, will not function in this reader. In addition, certain Lexar Write Acceleration models are tripped up by the FireWire CameraMate unless their firmware is upgraded.

It's often difficult to know whether to lay the blame for such compatibility problems at the feet of the card or reader. But the fact remains that we've had the greatest number of compatibility problems with this reader and the CompactFlash cards on hand here, across both Mac and PC platforms.

The FireWire CameraMate accepts an external 5v DC power source, though a power supply is not included with the reader (external power is only required when connected to an unpowered FireWire port). The Microtech FireWire CameraMate ships with a non-removable, 47 inch (119 cm), 6-pin FireWire cable.

Update, October 24, 2003: Pexagon Technology, a company formed in 2002 by former SCM Microsystems and Microtech employees, has adopted the Microtech name as its house brand. Pexagon's Al Conte indicates that the Microtech FireWire CameraMate is still a current product, as are other key products in the Microtech lineup, including CompactFlash cards.

Microtech Zio! (USB 1.1)

microtech_zio_full-speed.jpgThe original USB 1.1 Zio! is not officially included in this report, except to illustrate that it, like all other USB 1.1 readers, is just too darn slow for use in an efficient pro digital workflow. In fact, the quickest card in the quickest reader we tested delivered transfer rates to the computer over 8 times faster than the USB 1.1 Zio! USB 1.1 is the bottleneck, since the USB 2.0 variant of the reader, the Dazzle Hi-Speed Zio, is several times faster.

As an inexpensive backup reader, the original Zio is hard to beat, though, since when it's divested of its included USB cable this reader takes up little room in a laptop kit. With newer PC laptops (and desktops) incorporating USB 2.0 ports, the new Hi-Speed Zio! is a better backup choice (and is even worthy of consideration as the primary reader), though it is a few dollars more.

Photographers with older PC laptops, or any Mac user (since no Macs ship with USB 2.0 ports as standard equipment), will be served equally well by this model. But again, we recommend that you consider this or any other USB 1.1 reader as a backup in case your main reader goes down. Digital SLR files are too big, life is too short and FireWire and USB 2.0 card readers are too fast to consider doing anything else.

The Microtech Zio! ships with a removable 45 inch (114 cm) USB cable, and is also available under the Dazzle brand name. Moving forward, look for this reader available as a Dazzle product only.

Powerbook 15" G4/1GHz PC Card slot

powerbook_card_slot.jpgLike the Alienware Area-51m, the PC Card slot in the Powerbook 15" G4/1GHz isn't able to keep pace with the external card reader speed leaders, though it does offer slightly better throughput than the Alienware laptop.

Since Mac OS X 10.2, various operating system quirks and problems have cropped up that make regular use of the PC Card slot as a card reader an iffy proposition. Inserting a CompactFlash card (in an adapter) usually causes the computer to freeze up for as much as about 30 seconds, though it does eventually thaw without a restart.

When transferring photos from the card to the computer using the Finder, the Mac can be all but unresponsive for other computing tasks. The problems are similar across older Powerbook G4/800 and Powerbook G4/400 models as well, running the same 10.2.6 operating system. In short, the PC Card slot currently isn't much good as a card reader until Apple fixes a myriad of apparent bugs. Fortunately, these same problems don't crop up with any of the external card readers tested.

Sandisk Ultra ImageMate (FireWire)

sandisk_ultra_imagemate1.jpgDesigned to fit right in next to a Mac, the design of the Sandisk Ultra ImageMate card reader looks good and works well with computers from either platform. This reader's compact shape and removable FireWire cable make it a solid choice for photographers on the move. In fact, we typically use the Ultra ImageMate with a 6 inch FireWire cable in place of the longer one that ships with it.

Unfortunately, the early production unit we have is marred by a poorly-designed CompactFlash slot, one that makes it surprisingly difficult to insert cards so that they line up properly with the connector pins inside. In early March, Sandisk had indicated that a retooled Ultra ImageMate with an improved card slot would be rolling out later this year.

Update, October 24, 2003: The retooled version of this reader began shipping from Sandisk in early October 2003, though it may take some time for photo retailers to get in on their shelves. We've purchased and tested a retooled version, and can confirm that CompactFlash cards now slide in easily. Note that the packaging and other markings on the version of this reader with the redesigned card slot aren't different from the original version, making it tricky to know whether you're looking at a retooled unit or not.

The Sandisk Ultra ImageMate ships with a removable, 40 inch (102 cm), 6-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable.

Removable cable and 6-pin FireWire connector

Sandisk ImageMate 6 in 1 (USB 2.0)

sandisk_6in1_reader1.jpgThis reader's four slots add up to support for 6 different storage media formats. The Sandisk ImageMate 6 in 1 can also be detached from its base and placed flat on the desk, for those who prefer a lower profile reader. As always, we look for transportability in a card reader; minus its base, and equipped with the super-short USB cable provided, this is a compact, easily-stored package. This reader is worth considering if you routinely handle formats other than CompactFlash.

The Sandisk ImageMate 6 in 1 ships with a removable 42 inch (107 cm) base/USB cable combo, as well as short USB cable for use with the reader outside the base.

Note: Of all the readers tested, only the Microtech Zio! (the original, USB 1.1 version) required the installation of driver software, and then only on the Mac. All other readers, across both platforms, are supported natively in the latest revs of Mac OS X and Window XP.



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