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.
Why Do We Need CFexpress?
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 formats for use in different types of equipment. We have even already moved on from CFexpress 1.0 to 2.0, unlocking different sizes and increased speeds.
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.
Breaking down the different “Types” that are available, two are available for purchase, with a third waiting for its moment to shine. The two you’ll see on consumer photography and video equipment are Type A and Type B. Type C is larger and has greater potential speeds, but nobody has implemented it quite yet.
Type A is close in size to an SD card and is a little smaller, but thicker. The first consumer camera to use this format is the Sony a7S III, and the first manufacturer to produce them was also Sony with its CEA-G TOUGH series. I believe this format will become much more popular in coming years, on cameras with smaller form factors.
Stepping up, we have the more popular Type B format. Now, you might be thinking this looks familiar, and you’d be right. CFexpress Type B and XQD use the same exact form factor and connectors. Because of this, many cameras, such as Nikon Z Series and Panasonic S Series, which originally had XQD card support, have been able to enable CFexpress via firmware updates. XQD already offered benefits over many conventional card types and is notably smaller than the competing CFast format, so it is easy to see why it took off early in CFexpress’s expansion.
Finally, there is the Type C card. It is close in size to CFast and CompactFlash, though it offers much faster speeds. It hasn’t been used in any consumer products yet, but I could see it being popular for cinema cameras in the future with its added speed and the fact that the cameras themselves are larger.
Today we have two options for CFexpress formats: Type A and Type B. A vast majority of existing cameras make use of the Type B format, likely because it was a smooth transition from XQD. However, Sony produced the first CFexpress Type A cards when it launched the a7S III featuring CFexpress Type A slots. For most shooters, Type B is what you need.
Luckily, Type B has been around for a while, and a lot of big memory card players now produce their own lineups of high-performing cards. I’m going to run through a few right now.
The lineup from SanDisk is quite simple, which is helpful, in my opinion. The company offers a single lineup of Extreme PRO CFexpress Type B cards. These are bundled with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III DSLR to handle its impressive speed and raw video. Speeds offered on the 128GB and larger cards hit 1700 MB/s read and 1400 MB/s write. The 64GB version is a little more conservative, with 1500 MB/s read and 800 MB/s write.
Another solid brand for media is ProGrade Digital, who jumped headfirst into CFexpress. It has multiple lineups and versions. Considering the two main options, we have Gold and Cobalt. Gold is going to be the go-to choice for most photographers and videographers, with sustained write speeds of 300 MB/s or greater (600-1000 MB/s for anything smaller than 256GB). There is also a max read speed of up to 1600 MB/s, so you can review and transfer files quickly.
Cobalt, on the other hand, steps things up to the extreme with minimum sustained write speeds of 1300 MB/s. This will handle the latest raw video formats without issue, because you can write at these speeds until you fill up the card. Pro video shooters will want Cobalt.
Another reliable memory brand breaking into the CFexpress space is Delkin Devices. It has one sensible Type B lineup, though it starts with the reasonable 64GB PRIME model and its 450 MB/s write and 1450 MB/s read speeds. Moving up to 128GB, you enter the POWER series, which bumps up to 600 MB/s write and 1600 MB/s read. Then, continuing on in POWER from 256GB up to a whopping 2TB, you get impressive 1430 MB/s write and 1730 MB/s read. This is a situation where greater sizes equal greater speeds.
Well known in the memory space, it only makes sense to see Lexar entering the CFexpress Type B arena. Lexar maintains its “Professional” branding and it makes sense with all of its cards—from 64GB up to 512GB—hitting 1000 MB/s write and 1750 MB/s read speeds. Not much more to go into there. It’s solid performance from a solid company.
Last on this list is Sony, who got a nice callout earlier for being the only one offering CFexpress Type A cards. These blow SD out of the water with 700 MB/s write and 800 MB/s read. They are also rated as part of Sony’s TOUGH memory card lineup, meaning they are durable and will hold up to professional workflows—and accidents—without worry. At the moment there are only 80GB and 160GB options, and they only work with the a7S III.
Type B is still something Sony offers, with a straightforward lineup of 128, 256, and 512GB cards. These are also rugged, TOUGH cards and offer max speeds of 1480 MB/s write and 1700 MB/s read. Another great choice.
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 in the way 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 don’t yet 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? I know I am. I’m also ready for an abbreviation. What are we thinking? CFx? Let us know your thoughts and questions in the Comments section, below.