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DCRP Special Report: FlashPath Adapter
by Tom Beardmore (originally posted October 28, 1998; revised & updated February 15, 1999)

 

In October, 1998, I bought a FujiFilm FD-A1S FlashPath adapter for my Olympus D-600L. Ever since I got my D-600L, I'd been transferring pictures to my computer via a cable connected to the camera, but it was slow and cumbersome. I wanted an easier, faster way to transfer pictures to my computer, and the FlashPath looked like it might be the answer. After using the FlashPath for a few days, I found it had exceeded my expectations, and so I thought I'd share my experiences with other potential buyers who were considering getting one themselves. Since I use both a Macintosh system and a Windows system, a comparison describing how the adapter works in both environments might prove to be useful information to DCRP readers.

At the time, I bought the FujiFilm version of the adapter because it was more widely available and it was a little less expensive than either of the Toshiba and Olympus versions I'd found online. Regardless of the brand, however, they're all exactly the same, including the driver software; only the packaging and branding on the adapter are different. The adapter is designed to work with both Windows and Macintosh platforms, provided you've installed the appropriate version of the driver software for your system. All of the digital camera vendors who offer the FlashPath adapter have download pages on their websites where users can obtain the latest versions of the driver software, or you can go directly to the OEM manufacturer's download page to download the latest versions. This review will describe the FujiFilm version of the FlashPath and its application when used with an Olympus D-600L. However, the descriptions and comments can also be applied to any digital camera that uses SmartMedia™ as its storage medium.

 

What is FlashPath?

The FlashPath adapter is a 3.5-inch diskette-sized adapter (see fig. 1 on the right), specifically designed to accept SmartMedia memory wafers (also called a Solid State Floppy Disk Card, or SSFDC) from digital cameras. Manufactured by SmartDisk Corporation for FujiFilm, Toshiba, Olympus, and other digital camera vendors, the FlashPath provides easy access to the image files recorded on the SmartMedia wafers using your computer's 1.4MB floppy disk drive. When you insert the adapter into the floppy drive with a SmartMedia wafer installed in it, a micro-switch located at the leading edge of the FlashPath activates the built-in electronics (which are powered by two nickel-sized batteries inside the adapter), permitting the SmartMedia to be read by your computer. It's important to note that the picture displayed on the right shows the SmartMedia wafer inserted incorrectly, with its contacts facing up for photographic purposes only. During normal use, the contacts of the SmartMedia should be facing toward the underside of the adapter. FlashPath adapters are available at prices ranging from as little as $68 to as much as $99 online. At the time this article was originally written, the lowest price I found on the web was $67.99 by using Shopper.com's comparative pricing search tool, but the reader is encouraged to shop around for the best deal. I recently found that SmartDisk Corporation's Online Store is offering the FlashPath alone for $79.95, or with an 8MB SmartMedia bundled with it for $99.95.

 

FlashPath Drivers

My FujiFilm FD-A1S FlashPath adapter included a Windows 95/98 driver diskette containing the FD-A1S driver for Windows 95/98, but no Macintosh drivers. Fortunately, you can go to the SmartDisk Corporation website and download the current versions of the drivers for either the Mac or Windows, supporting Windows 3.11, Windows 95, and Windows 98. SmartDisk Corporation has also just released Windows NT 4.0 drivers, which have been eagerly anticipated by the NT community. It's a good idea to check the download page from time to time and make sure you have the latest version for your system. The Macintosh version of the driver software requires a PowerPC-based Macintosh (or compatible) running at least System 7.5.3 or later. Mac models that use the 68040 (or earlier) aren't supported. Both the Mac and Windows versions now support SmartMedia from 2MB to 32MB, but the Mac version is read-only, while the Windows version is read-write capable. Note, too, that although 16MB and 32MB SmartMedia is now supported, not all digital cameras can use these higher capacities at this time. Check with your owner's manual or contact your camera's manufacturer if you have any questions whether these capacities are supported. Some vendors, notably Olympus, are offering firmware upgrades for some models at a nominal fee. If you already own an older FlashPath, you can download the current drivers which will support SmartMedia up to 32MB!

 

Preparing The FlashPath Adapter

Getting the adapter ready for use was a snap; you only need to open the two battery compartments and install two nickel-sized CR2016 batteries (included with the adapter). Then you simply insert the SmartMedia wafer into the side of the adapter, making sure that the electrical contacts side of the SmartMedia faces toward the underside of the adapter. That's all there is to it!

 

Mac Usage

To install the FlashPath software for the Mac, simply double-click the Installer and follow directions. If you are using Mac OS 8.1 or earlier, you must first turn off the PC Exchange Control Panel before launching FlashPath software (named "ReadFlashPath"). Note that after you turn off PC Exchange, it is not necessary to restart the Mac before proceeding. Mac OS 8.5 (or later) users need to do nothing more after installing the software, since PC Exchange has been replaced by File Exchange in the later version of the Mac OS. Even though notes on the FlashPath driver download site and in the documentation included with the download indicate that Mac OS 8.5 users must disable File Exchange by using Extensions Manager (or by using some other Extensions/Control Panel management software), this step is unnecessary; the FlashPath utility performs as expected with only one minor consideration (discussed later).

Launch the FlashPath application, pull down the File menu, and select the "Import from FlashPath…" option. This seemed to be a little non-intuitive to me; I would have expected the FlashPath utility to go directly into the download mode immediately after FlashPath was launched, rather than taking a two-step approach.

After selecting the "Import from FlashPath…" option from the File menu, a small Dialog appears on the screen instructing you insert the FlashPath adapter.

 

Fig. 2: Insert FlashPath Dialog

 

The user then inserts the FlashPath adapter into the Mac's floppy drive and, after waiting a moment or two, the Dialog changes to "Communicating to FlashPath…". Mac OS 8.5 users will observe that a PC disk icon named "untitled" will appear on the Macintosh's Desktop. An Open/Save Dialog appears a few more moments later which displays a single directory named "IMOLYM \" (presumably IMages from OLYMpus, but I'm guessing), and includes three buttons labeled All Files, Cancel, and Open. Note that the directory name created by other digital cameras may be something other than "IMOLYM \".

 

Fig. 3: FlashPath Open/Save Dialog

 

By clicking the Open button (or double-clicking the IMOLYM directory), the files stored on the SmartMedia will be listed, as shown in fig. 4 (below). Unfortunately, there is no preview mode in this Dialog box, which would be helpful in selecting which file(s) the user wants to transfer to the Mac.

 

Fig. 4: SmartMedia Directory

 

Each file is named "PIC000##.jpg" (where ## is a two-digit number beginning with "01" and incrementing sequentially). If the user selects a single file from the list and clicks the Open button (or double-clicks the file itself), another Open/Save Dialog appears that allows the user to choose the name and destination of the selected file. After the file has been copied to the user’s hard drive, the file transfer mode closes and the FlashPath adapter is ejected from the floppy drive. To transfer a second file, the user must again select the "Import from FlashPath…" option from the File menu and repeat the process. This doesn’t seem to be very intuitive or user-friendly: it would have been better if the FlashPath utility returned to the previous Open/Save Dialog box (fig. 4, above) after transferring the file, and re-listing all of the files on the SmartMedia for subsequent file selection and transfer.

Generally, it’s probably faster (and easier) to transfer all of the files in one session and then discard the undesired images. By opening the FlashPath IMOLYM directory which lists all of the available files on the SmartMedia (as in fig. 4, above), and then clicking the All Files button, every file will be transferred to the destination specified by the user. It's important to note that the IMOLYM directory must be opened before clicking the All Files button; clicking All Files at the main FlashPath level (as in fig. 3, above) will cause the Transfer mode to terminate without any files being transferred.

As the FlashPath utility completes the transfer of each file, a small tone is played to indicate a successful transfer before it proceeds to the next file in the list. After all files have been transferred, the Mac ejects the adapter from the drive and exits the transfer mode. This is a unique benefit to Mac users: during the time the adapter remains inserted in the floppy drive, it is "on" and the batteries are being drained! PC users must remember to eject the adapter as soon as the files have been transferred, or else they'll find themselves with dead batteries much sooner than anticipated.

Mac OS 8.5 Users Note: After the adapter has been ejected by the FlashPath software, some users may observe that a grayed-out icon of the FlashPath disk will remain on the Macintosh's Desktop, and (in some cases), the users may be asked to "...re-insert the floppy disk named 'untitled'". The dialog box can be dismissed by pressing the Command and Period keys (i.e., CMD-"."). To remove the grayed-out FlashPath disk icon from the desktop, simply drag it to the Macintosh's Trashcan.

Although the Mac version of the FlashPath utility is read-only (and, therefore, it cannot erase image files or reformat the SmartMedia), you can erase images or reformat the SmartMedia using your camera.

In my experience, transferring the files using the FlashPath adapter was about twice as fast as using the serial cable with my D-600L at 115Kbps, although your results may be different. In addition, Olympus Digital Camera owners who use Mac’s will rejoice that the FlashPath adapter obviates the need to toggle their cameras off and on in order to get their Mac's to recognize them! Once the files have been transferred, the images can be edited or manipulated exactly the same way they could be if they'd been downloaded directly from the camera using the serial cable.

In its current form, the Mac version of the FlashPath utility is, at best, rudimentary; it only allows users to transfer the files from the SmartMedia to your Mac's hard drive, and that's about it. It’s not very elegant, nor is its design as well thought-out as it might have been. Certainly, none of the frills or extras that are present in the Windows version (more on this later) are shared in the Mac version. It requires a lot of manual interaction before you can transfer the files, and the interface lacks a coherent design. I would have preferred that the Mac version of the FlashPath utility behaved more like the Windows version, taking the form of either a Control Panel or Extension, capable of automatically sensing the presence of the adapter and providing access to the files via the Finder. But it does work, and it’s a far cry better (and faster!) than using the transfer cable. Mac users can only hope that someday an improved version will become available.

 

Windows Usage

In this section, the FlashPath drivers for Windows 95/98 will be described. Windows NT 4.0 users are advised that the FlashPath software for Windows NT behaves similarly, unless otherwise noted.

Windows users install the FlashPath software in much the same way as the Mac users, by launching the FD-A1S self-extracting archive. After extraction is complete, launch the FlashPath Installer Wizard and follow the screen prompts. When installation is finished, restart your system so that the FlashPath drivers load. After restarting, the FlashPath Status Monitor's icon appears in the TaskBar's System Tray as in fig. 5 (below), indicating that the FlashPath driver is active. Users should note that while the Status Monitor is loaded., it will consume approximately 3MB of memory. It may be preferable to load the status monitor only when needed, and close it when it's not in use.

 

Fig. 5: Enlarged View of FlashPath Status Icon in System Tray

 

The FlashPath adapter cannot be used with 3.5" FDDs which has a different interface or specifications from that of a normal 1.44MB FDD, such as following:

a) External FDDs connected via PCMCIA

b) High capacity FDDs such as the 120MB LS-120 (and others)

c) FDDs supporting 2.88MB.

To read the SmartMedia in the FlashPath adapter, the user needs only to insert the adapter into the 1.4 MB floppy drive in his computer, open the Explorer window, and then double-click the "A:" floppy drive icon. In a moment, the "drive" will open and display the directory of the SmartMedia, as shown below in fig. 6.

 

Fig. 6: Accessing FlashPath as Floppy Drive in Windows Explorer

 

If you're using an Olympus camera, the directory will be named " IMOLYM \"; other brands of digital cameras may give this directory a different name. Although it is possible to change the name of this directory in Windows, doing so seems to render the SmartMedia unusable in an Olympus D-600L until it is reformatted in the camera. I expect that this probably occurs using other digital cameras as well. As a rule of thumb, don't change the name of the SmartMedia's directory.

By double-clicking the FlashPath's directory in the Explorer window, as shown in fig. 7 (below), the directory will open and display the JPEG image files stored on the SmartMedia as "PIC000##" (where ## is a two-digit number that increments sequentially) beginning with "PIC00001". Users can access and manipulate the files exactly the same way they would manage files on a floppy disk. The files can be transferred to the hard drive by dragging them to the desired destination. Dragging the files to the Recycle Bin has the desired result of deleting the files from the SmartMedia, while double-clicking a file causes it to be opened in your web browser directly from the SmartMedia!

 

Fig. 7: SmartMedia Files in Windows Explorer

 

You Can... But Don't!

Although it is possible to do so, don't try to open any files on the SmartMedia with any graphics-editing applications because such applications may create scratch files that can exceed the capacity of the SmartMedia. Furthermore, graphics-editing software may save the edited file in a format that can't be used by your camera. Always copy the files you want to edit to your hard drive first, and work on the copy rather than the original file on the SmartMedia.

Files can be copied onto the SmartMedia, too, by dragging them from your hard drive, but there is no guarantee that the files will be able to be viewed by the camera's LCD display (if it has one). You can even rename the files on the SmartMedia, using long file names if you like. About the only thing you can't do is format the SmartMedia using Windows' built-in formatting commands. Although you can format the media using the FD-A1S, you have to use the special formatting command from the Start menu found in the path:

Start -> Programs -> FlashPath -> FlashPath Format

Note, however, that SmartMedia formatted in this manner cannot be used in your camera until it is reformatted by your camera.

In my experience, I found that virtually every "write" function that was performed on the SmartMedia by my Windows computer (other than deleting files) rendered the media unusable in my D-600L until I reformatted it with my camera. Chances are that you may experience the same behavior, too!

 

FlashPath Status Monitor

The Windows version of the FlashPath software includes a status monitor which can be accessed from the start menu of the Taskbar. It lets the user know the status of the battery, the condition and availability of the SmartMedia itself, and whether the FlashPath is ready (on) or in standby (off). The only "bug" I noticed was that the Status Monitor continued to indicate all of the conditions were "go", even after the SmartMedia had been ejected. The Windows NT version behaved more reliably in this sense: as soon as the media was ejected (or the status of the FlashPath adapter changed) it was immediately reflected in the FlashPath Status monitor software.

 

Fig 8: FlashPath Status Monitor

 

Eject FlashPath When Not In Use

As mentioned earlier, the FlashPath adapter is turned "on" as soon as it is inserted into your floppy drive. It remains powered until it is ejected, or until it puts itself into "standby mode" after the adapter has not been accessed for five minutes or more. Windows users should remember to eject the FlashPath as soon as they've finished transferring files from it. Failure to remember to eject the FlashPath will dramatically shorten the life span of the batteries in the FlashPath. Mac users needn't worry about this, since the Macintosh version of the FlashPath software automatically ejects the adapter at the end of each session. This is one area where the Mac is certainly one-up on the PC.

 

Things To Come

In January, 1999, I had the opportunity to speak with Charles Klinker, FlashPath Product Manager at SmartDisk Corporation. I asked him about the future of the FlashPath, and what directions it might be taking in the months to come. What follows are selected questions from the interview.

Tom Beardmore Several readers have written to ask why the FlashPath can't be used with high-capacity floppy drives like the LS-120, which is becoming increasingly popular on Mac's and PC's. Although the current versions of the FlashPath drivers don't support it, can we expect the LS-120 to be supported in the future?
Charles Klinker We've been getting requests to add support for the LS-120 drive, but there are other competing high-capacity floppy drive formats we're watching, too. For the time being, we're adopting a 'wait-and-see' position to see how the high-capacity floppy drive market settles out.
TB In addition to Windows, I also use a Macintosh. The current Mac version of the FlashPath software is read-only and it's pretty sparse when compared with its Windows counterpart. When can we Mac users expect full read & write capabilities in the FlashPath software?
CK The FlashPath hardware is capable of supporting read & write functionality on the Macintosh; all that is needed is a driver that implements these features on the Mac. In fact, we've been looking at what it would take to add full support in the Macintosh drivers and, at the very least, we expect to have an enhanced read-only version this summer. We're still deciding on the feature set of the next version for the Mac, and we expect to be making a decision on this question very soon. Keep watching.
TB Toshiba has announced that 32MB SmartMedia will become available in March this year, with 64MB and 128MB SmartMedia expected to follow before year's end. Will the FlashPath support these higher capacities?
CK Actually, the current versions of the FlashPath drivers on SmartDisk.com's website already support 32MB SmartMedia. By the time 64MB and 128MB SmartMedia begins shipping, we'll have new versions of the drivers that will support it, available for downloading from our website. The FlashPath adapter itself is already compatible with the new capacities.
TB What about CompactFlash media? Is there any chance we'll ever see a FlashPath for CompactFlash?
CK CompactFlash is simply too thick to fit into the FlashPath's form factor, but we are investigating other possibilities. At this time it would be premature to discuss anything specific, but there are some other popular high-capacity form factors that could easily accommodate CompactFlash.
TB How about using the FlashPath to transfer MP3 music files to SmartMedia for use with MP3 players like the Diamond Rio?
CK If all MP3 players used the standard SSFDC format, this would certainly be possible. However, each vendor that offers an MP3 player has adopted its own proprietary formatting scheme, which is uniquely different from that of the other vendors. In order to use SmartMedia formatted by these MP3 players, we would have to secure agreements with each vendor and obtain confidential information about their formatting protocols. Drivers would have to be written that could read and write these formats, and the combined licensing and development costs could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The MP3 player market is very appealing, and we're still investigating the possibilities; we'll just have to see whether it would be prudent to invest the resources at this time.
 

Summary

If you have a digital camera that uses SmartMedia, the FlashPath adapter is a good addition for your gadget bag. It provides a faster and more convenient means of accessing the digital files you've captured with your camera, without the hassle of hooking up special serial cables that may only occasionally work without jockeying the camera and computer. Mac users, whose two serial ports are both always occupied with a modem and a printer, will especially appreciate the FlashPath since it means that they don't have to swap cables to download image files from their cameras. It permits the photographer to continue working simply by inserting a "fresh" SmartMedia, while the previous "full" SmartMedia can be downloaded to a computer using the adapter. Without the FlashPath adapter, the photographer might have to pause to download the files directly from the camera before being able to proceed. The Windows FlashPath software operates quite transparently and seamlessly under Windows, and we can hope that one day Mac users, too, will be offered a version with the same features and functionality. The FlashPath is a must-have for any owner whose digital camera uses SmartMedia.

Users with questions about this review are invited to write me at tbeardmore@aol.com.



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