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Apple SD Cards fuel (more) Mac tablet chatter

SanDisk love-in

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A SanDisk investment commentator, blogging as Savolainen, reckons Apple is going to introduce a tablet or netbook-type Mac. Yes, you've heard this before. But this time, the evidence lies with the SD Card adoption by MacBook Pros.

Notebook computers used to employ a PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) slot for add-in flash memory, small hard drive, or applications on PCMCIA cards. The PCMCIA is an open standards body. Its format moved on to the faster bandwidth PCMCIA Express Card. That uses a 2.5Gbit/s PCI Express (or 480Mbit/s USB 2.0) connection to its host computer instead of the previous 1.06Gbit/s CardBus connector, which was 54mm wide by 85.6mm long. There are two ExpressCard form factors: a 75mm long and 34mm wide card and a 75mm long by 54mm wide card, both using the same 26-pin 34mm connector.

A newer ExpressCard 2.0 Standard was delivered in March this year at CeBIT and is compliant with USB 3.0 and PCIe 2.0. Products using this standard could appear in 2010.

In the consumer electronics space, occupied by music players, digital cameras, games consoles, mobile phones, PDAs, mobile Internet devices (MIDs), and netbooks, the ExpressCard format is not used. It's too bulky and the smaller devices can't include a complete ExpressCard inside their cases as is the case with notebook computers. Instead the physically smaller Secure Digital or SD Card is used to add flash memory storage. It measures 32mm long by 24mm wide. There is also a micro SD card which is 11mm wide by 15mm long.

Generally speaking, the standard SD card can have up to 4GB of capacity with a high capacity version, the SDHC, offering up to 32GB. An eXtended Capacity SDXC specification was unveiled at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, which opens the way to 2TB cards.

The SD format was developed by Matsushita (Panasonic), SanDisk, and Toshiba, and it's licensable. It has become popular and is widely used, even becoming ubiquitous. Apple has now adopted it for its new MacBook Pro 13-inch and 15-inch notebooks. Apparently, the ExpressCard slot on previous Mac notebooks was under-utilised, and the new SD Card slot means cards can be inserted from digital cameras and the like for simple media file transfer. There is no Apple support, though, for the SDHC and SDXC formats.

The 17-inch MacBook Pro does have an ExpressCard slot.

So, we have something of a collision occurring in the memory card space in the Apple notebook area with the previously dominant ExpressCard format being rebuffed by Apple in favour of the SD card format. Why should Apple think that the SD card format is suitable for notebooks? It would seem that Mobile Internet Device (MID) and Netbook SD CArd ubiquity and flash capacity advances are, in Apple's eyes, going to make the SD Card the de facto removable storage standard for notebooks as well as MIDs and netbooks.

Savolainen draws the conclusion that Apple could be working on a netbook and tablet to be announced within a year and that they will also likely use the SD Card format. An SD Card addition to the iPhone is also, he reckons, a possibility.

He argues that SanDisk is well-placed to benefit from Apple's SD Card adoption, noting that Toshiba and SanDisk have flash manufacturing joint ventures and that Toshiba supplies NAND chips to Apple. There is, for example, a 16GB Toshiba NAND die in the iPhone 3GS, with a 32GB version coming.

Savolainen says that a Techonline video of the iPhone 3GS teardown reveals that this chip is a SanDisk/Toshiba branded part. In other words, the SanDisk/Toshiba JV is already well-placed at Apple.

As one of the holders of SD Card IP, SanDisk is well-positioned to benefit from wider adoption of the format. If other notebook manufacturers, jealous of the internal space taken up with ExpressCard slots and connectors, also migrate to the SD Card format so that they can make their notebooks thinner and lighter, then SanDisk, Toshiba and Panasonic should all benefit.

Savolainen is a SanDisk supporter, and his arguments could well be biased in SanDisk's favour. ®

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