Guide to SmartMedia cards, introduced as Solid State Floppy Disk Cards (SSFDC)

The SmartMedia memory card format was one of the earliest, introduced by Toshiba in 1995, when it was referred to as the Solid State Floppy Disk Card (SSFDC). It was launched shortly after the CompactFlash (CF) and of much the same size but a lot thinner, at 0.76mm rather than the 3.3mm of Type I CF cards. The other main competitors at the time were full size PC Card (PCMCIA) memory cards and the MiniCard format, which disappeared even faster than SmartMedia.

One previously unique feature of the SmartMedia format that made it into the xD card format, was the imprint of a unique ID in each card along with an encryption key, allowing software to identify each card and act accordingly. This conformed to the Secure Digital Music Interface (SDMI) standard and was intended to act as a copy-protection mechanism at the application level, particularly for downloaded music, but only found very limited use, particularly since the SDMI initiative failed and folded in 2001.

As with CompactFlash, the target market for SmartMedia was in the emerging portable devices that all had to store digital data and transfer it to PCs to be manipulated, or simply for safekeeping. PDAs and digital cameras were the two most frequently used devices but early navigation devices and early digital voice recorders also used the format. In order to transfer data to a PC the card can be inserted into a USB-enabled card reader or a PC Card-based adapter. Although the SmartMedia format is now considered obsolete and no dedicated card readers are available, many multi-format card readers will accept SmartMedia cards (but note the warnings below). Adapters are also available to allow a SmartMedia card to fit into a CF or xD slot, the latter likely to prove useful to digital camera users switching to the xD format. It was in the digital camera market that SmartMedia proved most popular, with around half the market sporting SmartMedia slots in 2001. But Toshiba was battling with, and eventually losing against, CompactFlash and xD at the high end and SecureDigital at the low end.

Two voltages were available in the SmartMedia format, first 5V and then 3.3V, identified by different notches, and care should be taken to ensure that card readers (particularly cheap multi-format ones) have the necessary detection mechanisms in their slots to reject cards of the incorrect voltage. The cards were also available in 16, 32 and 64-bit bus widths, allowing capacities of up to 128MB. This size limit was to prove the format’s downfall. Although a new specification was launched in 2002 to allow 256MB on a card, Toshiba had already realised that they couldn’t manage their own card format without the involvement of the mass-market memory manufacturers and in 1999 had entered into a collaboration with Matsushita (aka Panasonic) and SanDisk on the SecureDigital development. With Fuji and Olympus, previously strong SmartMedia supporters, throwing their weight behind the xD card format, SmartMedia disappeared from the market within a few years. It appears unlikely that any 256MB cards were ever manufactured and the SSFDC forum, the independent (from Toshiba, that is) body set up to promote the format was wound up at its final AGM in May 2007.