The xD-Picture Card Abomination

My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

It is no secret that I like many things Olympus engineers do. I used to be a great fan of the compact C-Series of digital cameras (C-2020Z to C-5060WZ, while they were still made), and I really like their digital SLRs (I am less enthusiastic about their recent compact offerings in this area, though).

But there is one thing from Olympus which I really despise and hate. This thing is the xD-Picture memory card, which Olympus insists on using in all their cameras.

What's wrong with the xD-Picture standard?

Short and simple: these cards are the slowest-performing, most size-limited, and least widespread on the market, offering nothing in exchange for these limitations except for higher prices. Even Fuji, the co-founder of the standard, seems to be backpedaling now from the concept (offering combined xD/SD slots, which accept also the popular Secure Digital cards), only Olympus keeps touting the xD as a great triumph of memory technology.

Technically, there are two reasons behind the inferiority of xD cards as compared to the competing ones (Compact Flash and Secure Digital):

  • The xD uses the multi-level (MLC) architecture (this is at least true about the "M" and "M+" types, the latter being the only one currently manufactured; I am not sure about the "H" type or the original one, without the letter denomination).

    An MLC memory cell has four (not the usual two) charge states: fully off, slightly on, mostly on, and fully on; therefore each cell can store two bits of information, not just one. (There are also eight-level designs, three bits per cell, but this is not important here.)

    This makes multi-level cards cheaper to manufacture (per byte), but also slower, more power-hungry, and less reliable (according to the Maximum PC magazine, MLC memory has a life span of about 10,000 write cycles, while SLC — 100,000, a factor of ten!)

    While some bargain Compact Flash and Secure Digital cards use the multi-level cells, most stick to the single-level approach; at least you have a choice.

    For example, Transcend offers CF cards of both single- and multi-level design. The MLC variety sells for less than half of the price of the least expensive SLC version (verified January, 2009).

  • In the CF and SD cards, the controller is built into the card. This costs a bit extra, but provides an additional layer of interfacing between the card and the client device (camera); that layer is responsible, among others, for card maintenance: marking and excluding bad areas, wear leveling (assuring that all areas are used equally, so that the wear spreads off). Most importantly, the camera just asks the controller to write some data; how this is being done is up to the controller. If the physical structure of data on the new card model is changed, the new controller on that card will know how to handle that, the camera does not need to.

    In xD-Picture cards, the camera itself is responsible for providing that functionality. Cards are slightly less expensive, but the camera has to have an intimate knowledge how to manage a card and write to it. If a new version of the card changes the physical data structure, the camera will not be able to handle it. In the best case, a firmware update may address the problem; in the worst — the camera will simply not work with the new card.

    We've seen that a lot with the SmartMedia standard, where almost any new card size would not work with older cameras. Yes, these cards were similar to the xD: no controller, either.

    With the xD the situation is almost (if not quite) as bad. To see which Olympus xD-based cameras are no longer supported by the current breed of cards, check here.

My measurements show that the Olympus flagship, the E-3, takes about 0.4 of a second to write a raw image to a SanDisk Extreme IV card (2007), 0.7 s to an Extreme III (2006), and 2.4 seconds to an xD "H" card (2006). The new, "improved" M+ card (2008) is even slower: 3.0 seconds.

Some history

I've been using Olympus cameras since the year 2000 (C-3000Z), when SmartMedia cards wee the most common standard (even more popular than Compact Flash at that time). SmartMedia was not really a good standard: missing the built-in controller it suffered the same compatibility problems as xD-Picture, and the exposed electrical contacts made the card prone to being zapped by static electricity. (I had at least three go dead within a month, most probably for that reason). Therefore I wasn't surprised when Olympus and Fuji came up with the new xD-Picture standard, at least sturdier mechanically, and with promised speeds and capacities well beyond those of the SM.

Here is the timeline:

  • 2002: Olympus and Fuji drop support for the SmartMedia card standard, moving to the new xD-Picture card. At that time, the standard looks good, with the size similar to that of the SD, which, while introduced two years earlier, at that moment was far from today's popularity. The cards were eventually made in sizes up to 512 MB (1/2 GB).
  • 2005: Two new xD-Picture flavors introduced, replacing the original one: the "M" and "H" type (standing for "medium" and "high" speed, respectively). The "M" card is actually slower than the original (without the letter designation), while "H" is, according to the press release, up to three times faster than "M" (this is in contradiction to the data in Appendix B). Cards up to 8 GB were promised, but never materialized.
  • 2007: The "H" cards mysteriously disappear; it seems they are no longer made, although I saw no notice to this effect. According to a Wikipedia article, they were just too expensive to make.
  • 2008: In a January press release, Olympus announces another xD flavor, "M+" as "the ultimate removable storage media for digital photos", with "lightning-fast transfers and impressive storage capacity" — claiming "speeds up to 1.5 times faster than Type M" and "capacity up to 2 GB".

    Actually, the "new, improved" card is slower than the older type "H", the capacity is limited to 2 GB, and there is no longer any talk about 8 GB. Three years of progress — and a step back.

Adding offense to injury

OK, it is obvious that the xD-Picture standard is inferior in all aspects, compared to others. But the story does not end here. There are some related business practices, which are rather questionable.

First, the panorama-stitching feature available in some Olympus cameras — but only if an Olympus-brand xD-Picture card is used. There are no technical reasons behind that: one memory card is as good as any other (read: non-Olympus, xD-Picture or not). The card just has a piece of data on it, saying: "I'm an Olympus xD-Picture card, please unlock the panorama stitching". When the camera sees this information, it unlocks the intentionally disabled feature. I find this simply disgusting.

Second, some image effects in the Olympus Master software remain disabled, unless the user enters the unlock code, provided with Olympus-branded xD-picture cards. While no semi-literate user would want to use Olympus Master for any semi-serious image processing, the intent behind this practice is just ugly.

What next? Disabling the autofocus unless an Olympus-brand filter (appropriately priced!) is used on the lens?

What should be done?

The right thing to do would be to close this infamous chapter in history, and move on to the SD cards, available in convenience stores. They shoot horses, don't they?

The progress of technology has seen many dead-end alleys and false starts; there is nothing wrong about it, unless corporate greed and stubbornness prevail, preventing the company from admitting a step in the wrong direction and from rectifying the situation. In the long run, such honesty is in the best interest of both the manufacturer and the consumer.

Obviously, the practice of disabling camera or software features unless an Olympus xD-Picture card is used (or unlock code provided) has to stop. The sooner the better; someone in the corporate HQ must understand that this hurts company's credibility, especially among literate users. Unless the company's policy is "We don't care about literate users; we just want to sell as much of our stuff as possible to idiots, because that's where the money is". And this would be a very risky path to take.

Latest developments

June, 2009: Is the xD-Picture standard officially dead? The just-out E-P1 has only an SD slot; the first Olympus camera in years without xD compatibility. The reason is simple to figure out: the camera would just be very sluggish, were it to use that unfortunate standard.

Appendix A: An attempt of an English-to-English translation

Here are some fragments from a press release by Olympus at the PMA show, January 2008. I took the liberty of translating them into plain English just below the original quotes.

"Compact and durable, the Olympus Type M+ xD-Picture Card is the ultimate removable storage media for digital photos."

True, if "ultimate" means "slowest", "of most limited capacity", and "supported only by Olympus and Fuji cameras". "Removable" means that you can remove it from your camera, and I cannot dispute that.

"Besides offering compatibility with virtually all digital cameras with xD-Picture Card slots and almost all other xD-compatible devices [...]"

The xD-standard cards are compatible with virtually or almost all cameras or voice recorders which were designed to be compatible with xD cards, except for some models, which are compatible with older xD cards but not with the more recent ones. We don't want you to use any gear we sold you more than a year ago, this would be just wrong.

"[...] it is the only xD-Picture Card that supports the exclusive Olympus Panorama, 3D and Art modes."

We have ingeniously designed our software or camera firmware so that it disables these features if the card is not ours. Just show us your proof of purchase:

"[...] an enclosed serial number allows the Art and 3D modes in Olympus Master software to be activated."

This means that the software you buy from us with your camera will work only if you also buy something else, and we believe that most of our buyers are too stupid to figure out why we are doing this.

"[...] lightning-fast transfers and impressive storage capacity [...] Data-transfer speeds up to 1.5 times faster than Type M xD-Picture Cards [...] Memory capacity up to 2 GB"

Which is slower than the Type H xD-Picture cards from three years ago which we pulled off the market last year (you don't need to know why), and less than the 8 GB originally announced. This clearly proves how fast the xD technology is progressing and how superior it is to other standards.

Press releases are usually quite creative (Olympus or not), but this one is a real gem.

Appendix B: Flavors of the xD-Picture standard

Here are, quoted after a Wikipedia article, various types of xD-Picture cards manufactured in the past, with nominal write rates and capacities supported:

  • xD-Picture (early): 1.3 MB/s, 16 to 32 MB
  • xD-Picture (late): 3.0 MB/s, 64 to 512 MB
  • xD-Picture "M": 2.5 MB/s, 256 MB to 2 GB
  • xD-Picture "H": 4 MB/s, 256 MB to 2 GB
  • xD-Picture "M+": 3.75 MB/s, 1 to 2 GB

The actual writing speeds may be additionally limited by the camera itself. Some writing speed data, mostly for older cameras, are compared here, while far more accurate compasison can be found here for Olympus SLRs.

Appendix C: The Micro-SD adapter

Some recent compact Olympus cameras (Stylus 840 and up, FE-360/370, FE-20) offer support for the micro-SD memory cards, widely used in cellular phones and portable media devices. These cameras, however, have only xD-Picture card slots, therefore an appropriate adapter has to be used (usually included in the package).

The adapter, designated as MASD-1, provides only mechanical fit and proper electric contacts; the camera firmware does all the controller job — therefore the solution cannot be used with cameras other than listed above. This means that Olympus SLR users have to stick to the xD-Picture standard, or use just the Compact Flash slot, leaving the other one unused. Too bad.

The full list of Olympus cameras supporting micro-SD cards via the MASD-1 can be found here on the Olympus Japan site.

More reading

The Wikipedia site provides articles on xD-Picture cards, a comparison of card standards, and on the multi-level architecture.


My other articles related to the Olympus E-System cameras.

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Originally posted 2008/02/06 as a part of another article
Posted 2009/01/17, last updated 2009/06/26
Copyright © 2008-2009 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak.