One of the more familiar, if rather mundane, features of everyday life that digital technology is in the process of completely altering is the photograph. Digital cameras have finally reached the point that for the average snapshooter, the old film-loaded device is obsolete. Depending on your level of obsession with photographic perfection, digital cameras of reasonable performance can be had for as little as $200.

But we do not come before you to discuss digital cameras now, except to state with all the authority vested in us by our staggering intelligence that we have yet to find one as portable, yet performance-minded, as our lovable little Fuji MX-2700. No, this week’s subject was brought to mind by the travails suffered by an acquaintance, who was having some difficulties in transferring the pictures he’d taken with his new digital camera to his computer. We shall not bore you with the details of his tribulations, except to say that Job himself would have been moved to tears.

Which brings us to the concept of the photo card reader. This is a small device which comes in several flavors, of which there are four, although only three are of real interest to us. The flavors – otherwise known as CompactFlash, SmartMedia, CFII, and Memory Stick – are little cards which are nothing more than different standards of memory used to store the pictures taken by a digital camera. The first three varieties – CompactFlash, SmartMedia and CFII – are relatively open standards, while Memory Stick is Sony’s proprietary format, which is to say that it is utterly useless in anything but a Sony device and therefore anathema to any practicing High Technologist.

It’s probably easiest to think of these cards as really tiny floppy disks. They are incredibly simple to use – it involves taking the card out of the camera and slipping it into the card reader, which is plugged into the computer using the USB port. The computer thinks the card reader is a hard drive, which only goes to show that you should never buy into the popular myth that your PC is smarter than you. As a recently installed “hard drive,” which will usually appear as drive “E” or drive “F,” depending on how many hard drives you’ve got in your system, you can then access it using the Windows Explorer and view the pictures there just as you would any of the GIFs or JPGs on your regular hard drive.

Since you’re probably going to want to take more pictures again someday, the easiest way to transfer files is to go into the card reader’s file folder, press “Ctrl-A” to select all of them, then press “Ctrl-C” to copy all of them into the computer’s memory. Next, click over to your regular hard drive, generally “C,” and find the folder in which you keep your pictures. Press “Ctrl-V” to paste all the pictures into that folder, and after a minute or two of the files transferring, you’re pretty much done. All that remains is to go back into the card reader’s folder and delete all the now-superfluous pictures, which can be done by pressing “Ctrl-A” and then “Delete.” There are quicker ways of doing this, but this is the safest, most reliable method.

The type of card, and thus card reader that you need will always be determined by your camera. Some use CompactFlash; some use SmartMedia; and a few are starting to use CFII. It doesn’t make much difference, really, as the only important factors are if it works in your camera and the amount of memory you require. We use a 32-megabyte card, which is pretty small these days, but is enough to let us take thirty-six pictures at top quality 1600×1200 resolution, and approximately ten zillion at low-quality 640×480.

Photo cards can be useful in other ways as well. HP’s PhotoSmart printers allow you to stick the cards directly into the printer and bypass the computer if you don’t care about permanent storage, and we’ve personally found them to be quite useful as a floppy disk substitute. Since the information stored is all binary, neither the computer nor the card reader cares that what you’ve got on the card is actually a text document or a zipfile instead of a picture. If the computer to which you wish to transfer the information has a card reader compatible with your memory card, you’re good to go. This is a handy little trick when e-mail isn’t an option and you need to transfer a file that is larger than the 1.44 megabyte limitation of a floppy.

There are a number of card readers out there. One reasonable option is the Cameramate CompactFlash and SmartMedia Reader, which also supports CFII and runs about $45 online. As with most USB devices, installation can be a bit of a bear, but once you survive that, everything else is gravy, if not groovy. When compared with the price of film and film development, a decent-sized card and a card reader is really a pretty good bargain.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: I have almost maxed out my laptop’s 4GB HD. Do you recommend compressing this hard drive? If so, are there any risks involved? Will any files be lost to the great file god?

THUS SPAKE VOX: First, we would recommend downsizing what is obviously an extensive collection of Internet pornography. But if that would seriously affect your quality of life, then compressing might be an option, although this largely depends on what you’ve got in that four gigs. Files which are already compressed, like JPGs, won’t compress very well. In your position, we would either dump everything but executable programs to four or five recordable CDs, or buy a second hard drive.

We are always skeptical when Microsoft insists something is perfectly safe. If you do decide to compress, it is always best to wave a dead chicken over the keyboard before beginning the operation. This may appease Fat Fifo.

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