Flashy IOGEAR Memory Bank flash card reader revs up file transfer rates

CompactFlash cards help many users store large amounts of data on PDAs and other portable devices. The problem is getting that data transferred to a PC quickly. James McPherson reviews a new IOGEAR device that promises to up the transfer rate sevenfold.

Compact memory formats are the direct result of the proliferation of data-intensive portables. The highest capacity among the compact memory formats is the matchbook-size CompactFlash (CF). For instance, the standard Type I format is capable of up to 512 MB of CF memory. The larger Type II format, coupled with an ATA (read IDE) compatible cable, enables CF to support small hard drives (known as microdrives) with capacities up to a gigabyte. In addition, the current crop of 5-megapixel digital cameras and the certain future production of video-capable PDAs will ensure that these big memory devices will stay in demand.

Flash what?
For more info on CompactFlash memory, click here.

The problem with these large CF cards, however, is that a typical USB 1.1 reader peaks out at about 500 Kbps. So a single uncompressed 5-megapixel image weighing in at 15 MB would take 30 seconds to transfer completely to the PC. A partially full gigabyte microdrive would take 15 minutes to unload. Enter the IOGEAR Memory Bank CompactFlash Card Reader. The device I tested for this Daily Feature looks vaguely like an eggplant with feet and is slightly shorter than a soda can. Its USB 2.0 interface sports transfer rates up to seven times greater than USB 1.1 at 3.5 Mbps. So your average 128-MB CF card will drain clean in just over 30 seconds, while the cavernous microdrive will empty in less than five minutes. I'll show you how to install the Memory Bank and give you the results of my test.

Installation and setup
The box includes the Memory Bank device, the external power adapter to supply a surprising 8 watts of electricity, a flashy manual, and a multifunction driver disk. Installation is less difficult than opening the origamilike box that holds the Memory Bank. With Windows 2000 or better, the Memory Bank uses the system’s default mass-storage driver. Windows 98 needs drivers to support USB 2.0 devices, but all it entails is plugging the device in, inserting the driver disk, and running the setup.

After the effortless install, I moved on to the more risky phase of inserting my tried-and-true 16-MB CF card. The activity indicator, a bright blue LED, flickered to life as I pushed it in snugly. A new drive letter appeared, and I could easily see the files on the card.

Support issue
My first check was to see how fast data could be moved. To my surprise, the transfer rate was disappointing, never outrunning the 500 Kbps I saw with a USB 1.1 CF reader I had on hand to compare with the Memory Bank. Another problem I had was that files larger than 5 MB would generate buffer errors. I knew the problem was not with the controller, since I used the recently tested BUSLink from the PCI Combo controller challenge. This controller saw transfer rates above 18 Mbps and had no problems with large files when I tested it.

The issue I was having sounded like a driver problem, so I looked on the CD to see if it included an updated or approved version of the mass-storage driver. I ran into a snag when I noticed that the driver disk’s Memory Bank directory had the wrong manual in it. So I went to the IOGEAR Web site and downloaded the drivers. Again, I found the manual to another device included, making the entire driver set suspect.

My e-mails to IOG’s tech support were answered quickly, but tersely. It took a few e-mails back and forth to find out that IOG did not supply, nor did it plan on supplying, any Windows 2000 drivers. IOG also mentioned that if I was still having a problem, I should wait for the (long-delayed) Microsoft USB 2.0 update. Not an encouraging response.

The test
While stopping all further tests was tempting, I decided to give the Memory Bank the second chance it deserved. I headed out to acquire a brand-new 64-MB CF card, an older 8-MB CF card, and a $12 CF to PC Card adapter. I used my trusty USB 1.1 reader to compare against the Memory Bank.

PC Card adapters are an ATA variant, like CompactFlash, and require only a simple pin-out conversion.

Both the 8 MB and 64 MB cards worked perfectly with the USB 1.1 reader at 500 Kbps. On the Memory Bank, the 8-MB CF card would not transfer files faster than about 800 Kbps, but did so without complaint. The 64-MB card averaged 1.5-2 Mbps when moving multiple files and was actually able to reach 3.3 Mbps when moving large files.

I used an old Pentium 200 laptop to test the PC Card adapter. I did not expect the adapter to outrun the Memory Bank, and I was not surprised at the results. Using the adapter, the 8-MB card topped out at 800 Kbps, while the 64-MB card was limited to just over 1.5 Mbps when moving large files. The 16-MB CF card generated errors transferring large files, just as it did with the Memory Bank. It turns out my original 16-MB CF card was the lemon in the mix.

Something to consider
The current CF standard provides near-infinite leeway on top-end transfer rates and does not provide any restriction beyond those typical to all ATA devices. It turns out that the Memory Bank's 64-MB card transfer speed was fairly exceptional. However, common commodity CF cards are rated at 1.5 Mbps, with premium cards rated up to 3 Mbps. While this doesn’t directly reflect on the IOGEAR, it does put a damper on its effective value.

Final grade
The IOGEAR actually delivers on its claim if you have a capable CF card. Installation was flawless and the packaging was slick. Normally that would be worth an A, but the lackluster customer service and inattention to detail with the driver disk drags the overall grade down to B+. At $70, the Memory Bank is not an impulse buy. Your users will need to have large-capacity CF transfer needs to justify spending twice as much for the Memory Bank as for a USB 1.1 CF reader.

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