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Lexar rejoins speed race with Pro 600X CompactFlash  
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
Lexar has taken the wraps off a new series of CompactFlash cards geared towards the pro digital SLR shooter. Called Professional 600X, the series will be available in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB capacities that relaunch Lexar into the speed race in a serious way.

The Fremont, California-based division of Micron has also unveiled the ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader, an ExpressCard/34 adapter for CompactFlash cards that gets the design right, as well as an updated version of Image Rescue that sports an all-new interface and more powerful photo recovery algorithms.

Lexar Professional 600X

With the introduction of the Professional 600X line, Lexar is - for the first time in several years - producing a CompactFlash series for working photographers that provides class-leading read and write speeds. In our test of the 600X 16GB it came out on top in several of the most popular digital SLRs - including the Canon EOS 7D - plus turned in the fastest card-to-computer transfer rates in FireWire 800 reader testing on the Mac and ExpressCard adapter testing in Windows.

If the 8GB and 32GB 600X models turn out to be similarly speedy overall, Lexar will be able to compete for CompactFlash card speed supremacy against arch rival SanDisk in a way that hasn't been true in awhile.

lexar_600x_line.jpg
Racers: The Lexar Professional 600X CompactFlash series (Photo courtesy Lexar)

The tables below show how the Lexar Professional 600X 16GB stack up in the two newest cameras from Canon and Nikon, as well as in card-to-computer transfers.

In-camera write speed The MB/s figures in the table below were derived by timing how long it took to write an extended burst of RAW photos to the CompactFlash card. Timing commenced when the camera's card status light illuminated, and stopped when the light went out. Each test cycle was performed three times. The fastest card in each camera is marked in bold.

The RAW+JPEG column lists how many RAW+JPEG pairs the Canon EOS 7D was able to record in 30 seconds of continuous shooting. Not shown in the table is that the slowest cards shipping today are able to capture no more than 16 RAW+JPEG pairs in this amount of time, so that's effectively the baseline for this test. A higher number indicates a card that will allow the 7D to shoot again sooner and more often once the buffer has filled, which occurs quickly when this camera is set to RAW+JPEG.

reader_table_02.jpg

Card-to-computer For the Mac test, the computer was a 2009 MacBook Pro 17 inch running Mac OS X 10.5.8. For the Windows test, the computer was a Lenovo T60 running Windows Vista SP3. QuickBench software was used to benchmark read speed on both platforms. The fastest card in each reader is marked in bold.

reader_table_01.jpg

As the data shows, the Lexar Professional 600X 16GB is quick, and in several columns its the quickest. Only in Mac ExpressCard/34 adapter benchmarking does it come a distant second to SanDisk's Extreme Pro line, which is unmatched in throughput in this type of adapter on the Mac. Like all of the speediest CompactFlash cards that have emerged recently, Lexar's 600X supports UDMA Mode 6, which is the fastest data timing mode in the current CompactFlash specification.

You'll also notice in the tables that the Lexar Professional 600X 16GB consistently turns in performance numbers close to but just ahead of the PhotoFast GMonster 533X Plus 16GB. The numbers are so close, so often that it's very likely the two are using similar controller components but a slightly different grade of NAND flash memory. The PhotoFast product uses a controller developed by SMI, and while Lexar won't confirm that they too are working with SMI in the development of the 600X controller, the test results strongly suggest this is the case.

Jeff Cable, Lexar's Director of Marketing, notes that while he understands it's important to a segment of professional photographers that their memory cards be fast, and the 600X series delivers on that, it's important to all photographers that they also be durable and compatible, shoot after shoot. Cable touts the Lexar Reliability Lab, a company test facility in which a staff of over a dozen people put new Lexar cards through extensive tests involving over 800 digital camera models past and present.

His unspoken point is that even if another card maker out there is using a similar controller, it's highly unlikely that it has been tested as Lexar does or that its firmware has been optimized for camera compatibility as Lexar's has. It's a fair point and one to consider, along with the potential quality of service and support you can expect down the road, when you're weighing the purchase of a brand name card like the Lexar Professional 600X vs a relatively unknown competitor.

Lexar ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader

Lexar has also unveiled the Lexar ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader, an ExpressCard/34 adapter for CompactFlash cards that's compatible with both Mac and Windows. It supports UDMA Mode 6.

Card Express: The Lexar ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

We've whined at length on this site about the poor design of ExpressCard/34 CompactFlash adapters from Delkin, Synchrotech and SanDisk (in their upcoming Extreme Pro ExpressCard Adapter). The problem is a too-short card slot that leads to bent contact pins inside the adapter if you're not careful, or even if you are. It's a silly and obvious design flaw in all of them, since they're all relabeled versions of the same thing.

The Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 is better, thanks to card guides in each of its pair of slots that are sufficiently long to greatly reduce the possibility of bending a contact pin in regular use. This is the only ExpressCard/34 adapter we've been prepared to use in the field, because there's minimal risk of wrecking it while inserting a card.

The best of them all, however, is the upcoming Lexar ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader. While the Delkin, Lexar, Synchrotech, SanDisk and Sonnet ExpressCard/34 adapters all use a similar or identical JMicron chipset, Lexar's variation on this theme is the only one in which you can slide in a CompactFlash card without worrying about damaging the adapter or having to take care to line up the card with the card guides first. The process with the Lexar ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader is much simpler: pick it up, slide the card in, and that's it.

By adding about half an inch of length to the enclosed card slot, Lexar jumps to the head of the class.

Playing the Slots: The Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34, upper left, Synchrotech CFExpressPro+, upper right, and Lexar ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

We still like the Sonnet product, because it's almost as easy to get the CompactFlash card and adapter mated up as the Lexar. Plus, the Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 will accept two cards simultaneously, though the practical benefit of this is mitigated by the fact the adapter has to be physically removed from the computer before another card can be inserted. This means you can't replace one card while the other is still completing a transfer.

For most shooters wanting an ExpressCard/34 CompactFlash adapter, Lexar's ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader is going to be the best choice.

Image Rescue 4

Rounding out today's announcements is Image Rescue 4, a new-from-the-ground-up version of Lexar's photo recovery and memory card maintenance program. It's based on Klix from Prosoft Engineering, a powerful photo recovery application that has been refined further in the Lexar version.

lexar_ir4.jpg
In Recovery: Lexar Image Rescue 4

Image Rescue 4 can recover JPEGs, various RAW formats, movie files and more and can save a card image and perform the recovery from that rather than directly from a nearly-failing card. It includes both erase and format functions as well.

Image Rescue 4 will ship in eight languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Japanese and Dutch) and will be included with all Lexar Professional CompactFlash and SD cards.

Price and availability

The Lexar Professional 600X 8GB and 16GB cards should begin to appear on store shelves worldwide the first week of November 2009. The 32GB card is expected to follow later that same month. The manufacturer's suggested list price (MSRP) for the 600X 8GB in the U.S. is US$199; for the 16GB, US$299. Street prices may be somewhat less than MSRP. A price for the 32GB has not been set.

All Lexar Professional 600X cards come with Image Rescue 4 for Mac and Windows as well as a discount coupon for several Adobe products that includes US$100 off the US$299 direct-from-Adobe price for Photoshop Lightroom (and a simple mechanism for obtaining the discount). The Adobe deal is available worldwide, at the equivalent of about 30% off the going rate for Photoshop Lightroom in the currency of the Adobe online store you purchase from, says Cable.

The Lexar Professional 300X CompactFlash series continues and is not being replaced by 600X. Lexar is also including Adobe discount offers with 300X cards, which includes US$50 off the purchase of Photoshop Lightroom.

The Lexar ExpressCard CompactFlash Reader is slated to reach store shelves mid-November 2009. The MSRP is US$44.99 in the U.S. It will be compatible with Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 (possibly OS X 10.4 also), and Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. A downloadable Mac or Windows driver, available about the time product is reaching store shelves, must be installed for full OS compatibility, up to and including OS X 10.6 and Windows 7.

As mentioned, a fully-working version of Image Rescue 4 will be included with all Lexar Professional-series CompactFlash and SD cards. The software is also available for purchase, exclusively from Lexar's online store for US$33.99.

A downloadable free trial version will allow the software to be taken for a test drive. The trial version will show you what can be recovered, and permit the recovery of one file. As of this writing, the free trial version doesn't appear to be posted on the Lexar site yet.
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