Hi-Tech Studio: Fast, Pro CF Cards

The trend today in higher-end DSLRs is to provide two media slots, but the pro models still rely primarily on CompactFlash cards because of their speed and capacity capabilities. The Canon EOS-1D X has two CompactFlash slots, and the Nikon D4, a CompactFlash slot and a slot for the new XQD cards (more than a year after its introduction, it’s still the only DSLR to use XQD cards). Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon’s D800 and D800E each has two card slots: one for CompactFlash and one for SD/SDHC/SDXC (see the sidebar). Sigma’s SD1 Merrill has one card slot, for CompactFlash.

Today, you can get CompactFlash cards in capacities of up to 256 GB, with read/write speeds of up to 160 MB/s. If you shoot RAW still sequences with high-megapixel DSLRs, or full HD or 4K video, you need fast, high-capacity memory cards so you can shoot as fast as the camera was designed to shoot without a bottleneck at the storage end of the pipeline. Conversely, when it’s time to download, you can transfer images from the CF card to your computer’s hard drive in less time (assuming you have a compatibly fast card reader).

A common way to rate memory-card performance is based on the old standard CD transfer rate of 150 KB/s, or 0.15 MB/s. That’s "1X." Thus, 100X is 15 MB/s, 600X is 90 MB/s, and 1000X is 150 MB/sec. Note that these are maximum read rates; the write rate is generally slower—and that’s the rate you’re concerned with in-camera. Newer cards also have a VPG (Video Performance Guarantee) rating—currently, 20 or 65—the minimum MB/s rate at which the card can handle sustained pro video recording without dropping frames.

The Delkin 128 GB CF 1050X UDMA 7 Cinema memory card is UDMA 7-enabled and promises read/write speeds of 160/120 MB/s (1050X). It also offers VPG 20 profiling, with sustained 20 MB/s recording speeds with no dropped frames. Like all UDMA 7 cards, it delivers best performance when used with UDMA-compatible cameras and card readers. Included are a travel-safe case and a lifetime limited warranty. www.delkin.com.

The Hoodman Steel CompactFlash card offers 1000X performance (150 MB/s read, 145 MB/s write), is UDMA 7-compliant and VPG 20-rated, and comes in capacities from 16 GB to 64 GB. Hoodman memory cards are made in the USA and offer a lifetime limited warranty. Although the name includes the word "RAW," they serve all file formats; RAW is the adjective that Hoodman uses to describe their cards’ speed. Hoodman RAW CF cards now use an SSD (solid-state-drive) flash in their construction. SSD flash is among the most reliable available and is said to endure one-half-million life cycles (one life cycle equals a complete fill with data and a complete download). www.hoodmanusa.com.

Kingston’s 32 GB CompactFlash Ultimate 600x card offers write and read speeds of 600x (90 MB/s). Their Ultimate line of CF cards is gaining popularity among pros because of the consistent performance and enhanced reliability. Hailed as a major player in the computer-memory arena, Kingston Technology is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of memory. They produce a variety of memory products for computers and Flash memory for digital cameras, mobile phones, MP3 players and PDAs. Kingston CF cards come with a bonus: Data-recovery software from MediaRECOVER (available via download), so you can restore accidentally deleted image files. www.kingston.com. Lexar’s Professional 1000X UDMA 7 CompactFlash card features 1000X performance (150 MB/s read, 145 MB/s write), UDMA 7-compliance and VPG 20 video capability. If you need the high capacity but don’t need the speed, Lexar offers the same card in an 800X version (120 MB/s) that’s about one-half the price and still plenty fast enough for nearly every imaginable application. With either card, you’ll get best transfer rates when paired with a UDMA-enabled card reader like the Lexar Professional UDMA Dual-Slot USB Reader. Also included is the latest version of Lexar’s Image Rescue 4 software. This powerful image-recovery engine allows you to restore most types of photo and video files, even if they have been deleted or if the card has been formatted or corrupted. www.lexar.com.

The SanDisk 128 GB Extreme PRO CompactFlash card features 160/150 MB/s read/write performance, UDMA 7-compliance and a VPG 65 rating (65 MB/s sustained rate with no dropped frames, ideal for even 4K video). A 256 GB version is due soon. SanDisk has also announced the first CFast 2.0 card, the Extreme PRO CFast 2.0, with 450 MB/s read (3000X) and 350 MB/s write (2333X). It will be available in 60 GB and 120 GB capacities, and compatible with cameras and camcorders based on CFast 2.0 technology. SanDisk Extreme Pro cards are protected from moisture and humidity by a unique RTV silicone coating and are said to perform down to -13 degrees F. Add one of SanDisk’s Extreme Pro card readers, and you have a speed team that’s hard to beat. www.sandisk.com.

The Transcend 128 GB 1000X CF card offers 1000X performance (160 MB/s read, 120 MB/s write), UDMA 7-compliance and a VPG 20 rating. An up-and-coming name in memory cards, Transcend uses only the highest-quality MLC NAND Flash chips during the manufacturing process and utilizes built-in hardware ECC technology for detecting and correcting errors. www.transcend-info.com.


Many newer DSLRs and virtually all mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras use the smaller SD/SDHC/SDXC cards (which measure 24x32x2.1mm vs. 43x36x3.3mm for Type 1 CompactFlash). The newest SDXC (extended capacity) cards start above 32 GB and potentially can go to 2 TB (256 GB is the largest capacity available today). The fastest SDXC cards aren’t as fast as the fastest CompactFlash cards, topping out today at 633X (95 MB/s read, 90 MB/s write), but that’s still plenty fast for pro still-sequence and video use. Look for UHS-I or Class 6 or 10 cards (along with the MB/s ratings) for the best performance. As with CompactFlash, you need a camera and card reader compatible with the faster cards to get maximum performance.

SDHC (high-capacity) cards feature the same speed capabilites as SDXC, but top out at 32 GB capacity. The original SD cards topped out at 2 GB and are too slow and low-capacity for today’s high-megapixel DSLRs and video use.

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