Copying Images from Your Camera to Your Computer
After shooting a bunch of great images, you have to get them onto your computer. Given that most cameras come with a USB cable, it would seem that this should be an easy problem to solve. But there are other options you really should consider.
First, let's look at that USB cable option in more detail. It is reasonably convenient, but to work, it requires that you leave your camera on while copying. This consumes battery power which you may prefer to save for actual shooting. It also means your compact flash card has to be in the camera. If you're at all like me, you have more than one card. Having to put them back into the camera to get at their contents can complicate things, especially if you're still using the card that is currently in the camera. Older USB 1.1 wasn't very fast either, and a surprising number of cameras still use it so copying speed may be an issue. Speed with the newer USB 2.0 can be up to forty times faster than 1.1.
The most frequently used alternative is a compact flash card reader. Even if your camera only supports USB 1.1, you can read cards quickly with a USB 2.0 card reader. Instead of plugging your camera in, you plug in a card reader, or keep it plugged in and save a step. Cards that you have already filled and taken out of your camera can be inserted into the reader one after another without disturbing the card in your camera or even turning the camera on. Card readers can be had these days for dirt cheap. If your computer doesn't support USB 2.0, you can add support for not much more. If you have a lot of USB peripherals, try to plug the reader directly into your computer rather than via a USB hub for maximum reliability. This would hold true even if you connect your camera rather than a card reader.
Instead of USB, your computer may have FireWire built in. While not as common, you can get FireWire card readers. Rated throughput for USB 2.0 is 480 megabits per second while FireWire is only 400 megabits, but actual throughput tends to be quite similar.
You can also get card readers that plug into the PC Card (formerly known as PCMCIA) slot found on most laptops. These generally aren't as fast as USB 2.0 or FireWire, but Delkin makes a nice one that uses a protocol known as CardBus that has a theoretical top speed of 132 megabits per second. You are unlikely to achieve anywhere near that due to other limiting factors but you should still see speeds several times faster than a regular PC Card product and likely somewhat faster even than USB 2.0.
For traveling, I have a tiny USB 2.0 card reader that consists only of the CF card slot on one end and a USB plug on the other. It has no cable at all. I can easily plug a card into it and then stick it into the back of my laptop to get at what is on the card.
Another excellent option, and what I most often use, is to invest in a storage device or "digital wallet." These are small boxes with a hard drive in them and a card slot that permits you to offload your cards onto the enclosed drive while away from home. When you get home, you can then copy from there onto your computer via USB 2.0 or FireWire. Such devices run on battery power and start up quickly meaning you can copy off your images without taking time to boot up your laptop and get back to shooting. Although I've traded up as technology has improved, I've used one or another of these for several years now and definitely appreciate having one. I recently upgraded to the new Epson P4000 storage viewer that features a gorgeous 3.8 inch diagonal screen for viewing images in addition to its built in 80 GB hard drive. While virtually all such devices connect to your computer via USB 2.0 or FireWire, many don't get anywhere near that speed reading from a compact flash card. One thing I like about the Epson is how fast it is. Battery life is excellent too.
There are also similar devices that burn directly to CD or DVD rather than to an internal hard drive. I've never used one of these since the size of CD's and DVD's really don't match well to the size of compact flash cards, but some people swear by them, feeling safer knowing that they won't lose everything if the drive in their digital wallet crashes. This really shouldn't be a common occurrence but could indeed happen. Just in case, I back up my digital wallet to my laptop at the end of each day. This way, I have two copies. I did have a laptop drive die just after getting home from a trip once but have never had the drive in my digital wallet crash. Drives really aren't that fragile unless mishandled.
Yet another option that has recently started to become available is wireless 802.11b/g or Wi-Fi. This already common way to network computers is now starting to make inroads into other areas as well. Several cameras are now available with Wi-Fi and several others have options to add on a wireless network interface. If you are shooting near your computer, you could actually have things configured to bypass the need for a compact flash card completely. As you shoot, images will automatically copy themselves over with no wires attached. It's not really an option for me when I'm shooting out in the middle of nowhere, but if you're a studio shooter or just looking for a good solution for picture taking around the house, this may be worth looking into.
It's up to you which option you choose, but pick something that will work for your needs. After all, the more you shoot, the more images you'll need to copy to your computer.