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30 Hardware and Windows Tips in 30 Days Tip 24: Why Every Digital Photographer Needs a Card Reader

Whether you're a casual snapshooter or an aspiring professional, your digital camera has better things to do than double as a picture transfer device. Discover your best options.

A Digital Camera Is a Terrible Thing to Waste...

Digital cameras, from the humblest $99 point-and-shoot to the four-figure models beloved by pros and advanced amateurs, all include one accessory you should never (well, hardly ever) use: the USB image transfer cable. Why not? Let me count the ways:

  1. When you're transferring pictures, you're not taking new pictures.
  2. When you're transferring pictures, you're running down your camera's batteries.
  3. Some digital cameras use the old 12Mbps USB 1.1 standard, even though USB 2.0, which runs at 480Mbps, has been around for several years.

I could think of more, but these three are enough. I'd rather take more pictures with my digital camera than watch the world go by while I'm transferring pictures - slowly. So, while I still carry my USB transfer cable in my camera bag, I also carry something else: a USB 2.0 flash memory card reader. And, so I can keep shooting when I fill up my first memory card, I carry a couple of extra cards. I'll discuss your choices in a future posting.

Card Reader 101

A card reader, whether it plugs into a USB port or is integrated into your computer (as with some laptop and desktop computers) is a bit different than other types of removable-media drives.

If you have a multi-slot card reader (the type I recommend, so you can use media from anybody's camera), each slot is typically assigned a drive letter. Most card readers feature activity lights to help you know when it's safe to remove your card. If you use the Safely Remove Hardware tool in the notification area, as you would to safely remove a USB flash memory drive, Windows stops the drive, not just the card.

Once you insert your card into the card reader, you can use it like any other disk drive. AutoPlay in Windows XP and Windows Vista will normally offer you several options to work with your pictures as soon as your card is recognized by the system: view and transfer are typical options, using Windows or installed third-party utilities included with photo editing programs, or you can open the folder with Windows Explorer, just as you would a normal hard disk or USB drive.

If your digital camera's USB transfer port works at only USB 1.1 speeds, you'll see a huge boost in picture transfer performance if you use a USB 2.0 card reader on a USB 2.0 port.

Card Reader Choices

If you want a card reader with maximum flexibility, both in terms of media and portability, choose a multi-slot reader that plugs into a USB 2.0 port. Some of the major brands to consider include models from Sony, Lexar Media, SanDisk, and Belkin. But beware - some USB card readers don't support the 480Mbps transfer rate of USB 2.0. If you're transferring large images, as from a typical 8MP or 10MP camera, the poky 12Mbps transfer rate of a USB 1.1 card reader will take you all day. You'll pay a price for multi-slot compatibility in a couple of ways: more money and greater bulk. If you want to buy a very small card reader you can squeeze into a small camera bag, choose a single-slot reader that supports your media.

Installing a DIY Integrated Card Reader

You can also add a multi-slot reader (and maybe add an extra USB or FireWire port in the process) by installing an internal reader into an empty 3.5-inch drive bay. This 33-in-1 card reader from PC Case Gear is a typical example.

The biggest question is where to draw the USB signal from. Many users run a standard USB cable out the back of the computer to an unused USB port. It works, but it's sloppy. However, Maximum PC's Gordon Mah Ung has come up with a clever way to convert an unused USB adapter cable bracket into an internal header cable you can use for front-mounted USB ports or for an integrated card reader.

Once you plug in or install a card reader, your PC can transfer pictures from one card while you keep shooting. All of your battery power can be used for photography, not for transfers. The $15-30 price you'll pay for a typical reader is a small price to pay for greater flexibility. Enjoy! 

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