If memory cards were like baseball cards, then specs would be stats and the top performers the most sought after. The analogy is largely true except the superstars of cardboard are mainly collected (or clipped by bike spokes), while the stars of flash memory are called up daily to bat. If you’re a professional photographer or prosumer, you’re acutely aware of the pitcher/catcher charts—I mean read/write rates—since a low performer could cause you to lose the shot.
Data waits for no one, and that’s especially true when you’re shooting high-def video or rapid-fire photos, also known as burst mode. You want transfer rates that speak in superlatives and capacity that doesn’t have you shuffling cards like a blackjack dealer.
Memory cards aren’t just for dedicated cameras any more. They’re also for photo- and video-taking smartphones and tablets (unless made by the slot-less Apple). Cards can slip into wireless handheld servers like Airstash and certain routers like the D-Link Amplifi HD Media Router 1000, 2000 or 3000. They fit into voice recorders, media players, TVs and projectors.
Memory cards are becoming physically smaller and more capacious at the same time. They’re resilient devices able to maintain data integrity without power, withstand the shock of being dropped, drowned, X-rayed or put through another year of extreme weather. Memory cards are survivors. They can be reused. They accumulate. Properly archived and labeled, a memory card will let you find a collection of photos, songs, videos or documents even before you can boot up a computer.
Of course, when it comes to the major-league application, memory cards are most closely identified as the film of the digital age. Memory cards don’t have an expiration date, but if you’re using a new camera or camcorder with cards you’ve excavated from the same drawer that stores socks from another decade, you’re not only cheating yourself on single-card capacity, but the card may not be able to keep up with the camera’s facility to capture and store image data quickly. That’s because as sensors have increased in resolution and video has moved from standard to high definition, the throughput of solid-state memory has had to step up its game, too.
Not to dwell on the baseball card comparison, but you could say from a photographer’s point of view that fan allegiance is roughly divided between teams playing in the CompactFlash (CF) league and those in the Secure Digital (SD) league. Though some advanced DSLR cameras can accept both formats, typically you buy into one or the other.
The Lexar Professional 1000x UDMA CompactFlash card in 16-, 32-, 64- and 128-Gigabyte (GB) iterations offers a write speed rating of 20 Megabytes per second (MB/s), which enables you to catch pro-quality Full HD video at high frame rates without any fouls. As for pitching pictures from the card, the 1000x series offers a sustained read speed of 150 MB/s. The card also complies with the Ultra Direct Memory Access 7 specifications, providing support for high-resolution UDMA-enabled DSLR cameras. UDMA greatly increases write speeds as well as read speeds when the card is inserted into a UDMA-enabled reader. That advantage can save you a lot of time waiting for large still-image or video files to transfer to a computer. Most high-end model cameras (D-SLR and video cameras) that use CompactFlash have supported UDMA since at least 2007. Check your camera’s user manual to confirm that it supports UDMA.
Lexar is not the only game in town. According to SanDisk, with the SanDisk 128 GB CompactFlash Memory Card Extreme Pro UDMA your camera will be able to achieve a lightning write speed of up to 100 MB/s, capturing more frames per second than ever before. The UDMA-7-enabled card inserted in a compatible camera enables you to experience shorter wait times between shots, faster continuous burst shooting and superior Full HD video performance. SanDisk’s Video Performance Guarantee (VPG) allows minimum sustained write speed of 20 MB/s when shooting Full HD. The card’s read speed approaches 100 MB/s.
Claiming a write speed of up to 50 MB/s, the Delkin CompactFlash Memory Card 1000x UDMA, in capacities of 16-, 32-, 64- 128- and 256GB, is UDMA-7 compatible. But it matches the Lexar cards' (above) read speed of 150 MB/s.
The Transcend 64GB CompactFlash Memory Card 600x UDMA 7 features a read/write speed of up to 90 MB/s. With a speed rating of 600x, the same specs apply to the Kingston CompactFlash Memory Card Ultimate 600x. One difference is that the Transcend comes as a 64GB card, while the Kingston is available in 16- or 32GB.
Combine the highest-capacity SD card type, SDXC (which has an on-paper spec of up to 2 Terabytes) and the fastest transfer rates available for the type, and this group of 64GB cards from four manufacturers rises to the top of the deck: the SanDisk 64GB SDXC Memory Card Extreme Pro Class 10 UHS-I, Lexar Professional Class 10 600x UHS-I SDXC, Delkin Devices 64GB SDXC Memory Card Elite 633x UHS-I and Kingston 64GB SDXC Memory Card Class 10 UHS-I.
The SanDisk card, for example, offers a write speed of 90 MB/s and read speed of 95 MB/s. The Class 10 Ultra High Speed (UHS) card is engineered for sustained RAW + JPEG continuous burst mode shooting and high-def video recording. Lexar claims a minimum 90 MB/s read transfer rate, but a minimum write speed of 10 MB/s. The Delkin sports a 95 MB/s read and 45 MB/s write speed, while the Kingston a 60 MB/s maximum read speed and 35 MB/s maximum write speed. Keep in mind that your camera (the host) must be SDXC compatible to use any of these cards. An SDXC UHS-1 card is not compatible with an SDHC host, but an SDHC card can be used in an SDXC host.
With SDHC cards, you’ll have a greater choice in capacities and compatibility (for now) with more host devices. Also, you’ll find the same Class 10, UHS-1 transfer rates. The performance standout is the SanDisk SDHC Memory Card Extreme Pro Class 10 UHS-I with a write speed of 90 MB/s and a read speed of 95 MB/s. The cards are available in 8-, 16- and 32GB capacities. The Lexar Professional Class 10 600x UHS-I SDHC cards offer a read speed of 90 MB/s and write speed of 10 MB/s. They’re available in 16-, 32- and 64GB capacities. The 16- and 32GB versions can be purchased as money-saving 2-packs. Also available are the PNY Technologies SDHC Memory Card Pro-Elite Series Hi-Speed Class 10 UHS-1 in 16- and 32GB versions and the Kingston SDHC Memory Card Gen 2 Ultimate X Class 10 in 8-, 16- and 32GB capacities. The PNY cards achieve write speeds of 35 MB/s and read speeds of 50 MB/s; the Kingston cards, 15 MB/s and 20 MB/s, respectively.
Among the contenders for top performers in this card type are the Samsung 16GB microSDHC Memory Card Plus Series Class 10 and Kingston microSDHC Class 10 memory cards. Samsung steals the show with a write speed of 21 MB/s and read speed of 24 MB/s. The company touts its quicker file transfers as “Extreme Speed Plus+ SDHC.” Kingston, though specifying a minimum read/write speed of 10 MB/s, offers more storage sizes. It’s available in 8 GB, 16 GB and 32GB versions, each with a full-size SD adapter. Also available are versions with 4GB, 8GB, 16GB and 32GB cards that come with both the SD adapter and a USB microSD reader bundled under the name Kingston microSDHC Memory Card Gen 2 Class 10 Mobility Kit.
XQD cards, backed by the CompactFlash Association, are so fresh they can only be used in one model, the new Nikon D4 Digital SLR Camera. However, since the Sony XQD Memory Card In 16-, 32- and 64GB versions is made by Sony, it’s widely expected that Sony will introduce its own cameras and camcorders to exploit the format. The first-to-arrive XQD cards, called the H Series, are said to have a read/write speed of 125 MB/s. On its heels are the S-Series with a transfer rate of 168 MB/s.
So, if it’s performance that you’re chasing, investing in memory cards with the best stats is the way to go. These players may not make the Baseball Hall of Fame, but they’ll keep you good at your game. Gum not included.