CFexpress, the Next Serious Media Format

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Before you come storming the front doors of the B&H SuperStore with your torches and pitchforks, complaining about yet another new type of media you have to purchase, I should tell you that the latest format is a definite upgrade. This is no simple battle between two competing formats, this is an evolution that will make things better for everyone involved. What is this up-and-coming hero? CFexpress.

SanDisk 128GB Extreme PRO CFexpress Card Type B

Why Do We Need CFexpress?

To be honest, most people don’t need CFexpress yet. That doesn’t mean it isn’t popping up already. CFexpress is appearing in mirrorless cameras and becoming essential to the latest cinema releases. The reason is simply that CFexpress offers vastly superior speeds over current-generation media, such as XQD or SD. It also has room to improve and multiple possible formats for use in different types of equipment.

The CompactFlash Association has a very clear goal with this format: to start unifying standards. CFexpress uses the PCIe 3.0 interface and can offer 1 to 4 lanes of 1 GB/s transfer. It will also work with NVMe for faster performance. Based on these numbers, you can have a card that transfers data at a rate of 4 GB/s. That is amazing. XQD can only reach target speeds of up to 0.5 GB/s. In the future, CFexpress could adopt PCIe 4.0 specifications and, hopefully, remain backward compatible with the same format.

Most recently, the CompactFlash Association has released the CFexpress 2.0 specification. This allows for three different card formats. Type A is the smallest and can feature up to 1 lane for 1 GB/s transfers. Type B is looking to be the new standard and is the same form factor as existing XQD cards, though with two PCIe lanes for 2 GB/s. At the top end is Type C, which in terms of size is closer to CompactFlash or CFast 2.0 cards and offers four PCIe lanes for up to 4 GB/s. With a more universal design compatible with a standard found elsewhere in computing, this card should be easier to implement.

What is CFexpress Like Today?

Focusing on the currently available options we have the “Type B” CFexpress card. This shouldn’t be wholly unfamiliar to those up to date with current cameras because it looks identical to XQD. In fact, it is identical in form, and some cameras (e.g. Nikon Z Series and Panasonic S Series) are providing free firmware updates that make their current XQD slots compatible with CFexpress. Canon and Sony have introduced it in their latest full-frame cinema cameras to handle higher data rates with ease.

Sony 64GB G Series XQD Memory Card

Today, you can pick up some brand-new cards from many major media manufacturers. These are all of the Type B variant and offer quite respectable speeds for what are essentially first-generation releases. Many exceed 1000 MB/s and can reach up to 1400 or 1600 MB/s. As the cards themselves say, these should be able to handle the latest 4K raw video codecs and fast continuous shooting. And, considering that the theoretical maximum is 2000 MB/s, or 2 GB/s, it is nice to see these cards already approaching that limit.

ProGrade Digital 325GB CFexpress 1.0 Cobalt Memory Card

I’m definitely ready for some upcoming cameras to take advantage of this new format and will certainly be upgrading when the time comes. If you want some current recommendations, B&H carries current-generation cards from SanDisk, Delkin Devices, and Lexar, among others.

Looking Forward

A major advantage of the format is that it can theoretically be planned to work with the upcoming PCIe 4.0 spec, leading to dramatically increased speeds. Much like how SD cards got their staying power from being upgraded to handle faster and faster speeds, I hope that CFexpress becomes the next standard for a long while.

We also don’t know what this new media format will make possible. Early moves see it being able to support raw 4K video and high data rates, but camera and device makers will soon be able to make use of this extra throughput in their upcoming plans. Who knows, maybe 30+ fps unlimited full-resolution raw shooting is on the horizon or 6K and 8K in a pocketable camera. Time will tell.

Are you ready for CFexpress? Are you one of the lucky few able to use it in your current camera or are you dreading the day your SD cards effectively become obsolete. Let us know your thoughts and questions in the Comments section, below.

7 Comments

Can I use CFexpress in my canon 7d mark ii ?

No, unfortunately. Only newer cameras (Nikon Z 6 and Panasonic S1, for example) will be able to support this format. It is physically different than the older SD, CompactFlash, and even CFast card types. 

I always look forward to better and faster technology even if I don't need it right now. I'm sure the future will dictate that need. That is if I live long enough to find out. I'm old enough to remember when my first 1G CF card cost me three hundred dollars and came no where near the speeds of today.

It is going to be very nice once they become more common and, hopefully, a little more affordable. I'm looking forward to the next wave of cameras that will offer it.

Fine...<sigh>.  But I'm keeping my pitchfork handy!  :-)

You should always keep the pitchforks handy, though I'm glad to hear they aren't being used now!

I am sure the CFexpress will make to our new camera like Nikon Z. I will upgrade it for sure. I am tired of fragile SD card for its slow read/write speed and how easy to damage it. I know there is Sony Tough card out there but it does not giving high speed. Welcome CFexpress!

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