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SD vs. SDHC

...or what various devices can do with different memory cards.

I'm a member of the Nokia discussion forums, and one of the most frequent questions asked there is "can I use an 'x' gigabyte miniSD/microSD card in my phone?"

Your first port of call should be the manufacturer's website. There, and only there, will you find authoritative information regarding the specifications of your device. Armed with the information from the manufacturer you can infer a little more than they say. Now, the information below only concerns devices that use SD (Secure Digital), miniSD or microSD memory cards, which I'll simply call "SD" collectively for simplicity's sake. If you use CompactFlash, XD, MemoryStick or anything other than SD, this page is not for you.

There are, in fact, two related "SD" technologies. The first, older version is just straightforward "SD" and the capacity of SD cards is limited, by the technology itself, to 2 gigabytes. With the proliferation of digital video and music, 2GB cards have rapidly been outgrown and we need something bigger. People put their heads together, poured cash into R&D and came up with the next generation of SD, called "SDHC" (Secure Digital High Capacity).

The theoretical limit for SDHC cards is a whopping (by today's standards) 2 terabytes. That's 2,048 gigabytes... As of writing this page, 8GB cards are widely available, and 12GB and 16GB cards have been announced by leading manufacturers. 32GB cards are expected to be announced before long.

Despite coming in an identical package to SD cards, SDHC cards are a completely different technology that is, however, backwards compatible with SD. This means that:

  1. SDHC cards require a specially-designed SDHC card reader to work.
  2. SDHC cards cannot be used in a standard SD card reader.
  3. Standard SD cards can be used in an SDHC card reader.
  4. This is a hardware issue. No amount of software updates will make an SD card reader compatible with SDHC cards.

Bearing this in mind, the answers to the following frequent questions should now appear obvious.

Q. What size memory card can I use in my phone?

RTFM and/or STFW. This information will be in your user manual and/or on the website of the phone's manufacturer.

Q. It says my phone takes cards up to 2GB. Can I put a 4GB card in and expect it to work?

No. If the manufacturer says that your phone will take cards up to 2GB only then the phone is fitted with a normal SD card reader, not an SDHC card reader. Cards of 4GB and above are necessarily SDHC cards because SD cards are limited to 2GB. See points 1 and 2 above.

Q. If I upgrade my phone's firmware, will it work then?

No. See point 4 above.

Q. My phone is supposed to work with 4GB cards. Will it work with anything bigger?

In theory, yes. If it accepts 4GB cards then it's fitted with an SDHC card reader, meaning that it should work with any SDHC card, including currently-available 8GB cards and the soon-to-be-available 12GB and 16GB cards.

Q. My phone only sees half of the 8GB card in it. What's wrong?

This is a software issue. The SDHC card reader is there (or you wouldn't be able to use 4GB cards either) so it is possible to use larger cards provided the phone's operating system supports them. If it doesn't, this is an instance where a software upgrade could be useful. This is something you can usually do yourself with modern handsets. With older handsets you have to take them to a dealer or service centre for them to do the upgrade for you.

Q. My phone's fitted with an SDHC reader, it'll take 4GB cards and above. But I don't need that much storage space. Can I put a smaller card, say 1GB, in it?

SDHC readers are backwards-compatible with SD cards, so yes. See point 3 above.

Q. I've done what you said and it still doesn't work. What now?

First, check the origin of your memory card. There are alot of knock-offs and downright deceptive articles on sale in places like eBay. Some will even buy cheap 2GB cards, erase the writing on them, print "4GB" on them and sell them off as 4GB cards, which they obviously aren't. Only buy from somewhere − online or a bricks-and-mortar store, it doesn't matter − where there's a clear returns policy so that you can take/send the card back if it is defective. Always seek out a good brand, too. People tend to recommend brands like SanDisk and Kingston and it's not for nothing.

Run a few swapout tests to ensure that it is the card that's defective and not the phone. Use a USB card reader to test the card in a computer to see if it works. If it does (thus proving that the problem could be linked to the phone), then try formatting the card using your phone. If that doesn't solve the problem then your phone could be defective. Take it into a service centre.

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