Later this week, Sandisk will announce a new line of high speed CompactFlash, SD and Memory Stick Pro cards, two new USB 2.0 readers designed to realize the speed potential of these new cards and a revamp of the Ultra II line that includes capacities up to 8GB.
Introducing Sandisk Extreme III
When Sandisk shipped the original Extreme CompactFlash and Secure Digital (SD) card line in 2003, they immediately became the write speed performance leaders in the majority of actively-tested digital SLR models in the CompactFlash Performance Database on this site.
It’s more than a year later, and the Extreme cards, as well as their close cousins in Sandisk’s Ultra II series, still sit at or near the top position in most popular digital SLR models. And in card-to-computer transfers, the Extreme and Ultra II CompactFlash cards set the pace; their ability to quickly move data up a FireWire or USB link to a fast Mac or PC is unmatched.
On Wednesday, September 29, Sandisk will unveil the next chapter in their performance line of CompactFlash and SD. Dubbed Extreme III, the official specifications are astounding: write and read speeds of 20MB/second for both CompactFlash and SD, up from the 9MB/second write and 10MB/second read speeds for the current Extreme and Ultra II cards.
Sandisk Extreme III CompactFlash
More on those numbers in a moment. First, a quick look at the technology inside Extreme III. To improve upon the raw speed of the company’s current top-performing cards, Sandisk took a two-pronged approach:
First, they chose to design to version 3.0 of the CompactFlash specification, which adds support for two additional, faster data transfer timing modes. Called Programmed Input/Output (PIO) modes, version 2.1 of the CompactFlash specification enables the use of PIO modes 0-4, where PIO mode 4 tops out at 16.6MB/sec. In version 3.0 of the CompactFlash specification, which has been completed and is to be ratified in November 2004, PIO modes 5 and 6 have been added, with top throughput for each mode of 20MB/sec and 25MB/sec, respectively.
This brings the CompactFlash specification in line with that of SD cards (25MB/second was added to version 1.1 of the SD specification in the first half of 2004). So, by building Extreme III CompactFlash and SD cards in step with the latest specifications for each format, they removed a significant performance barrier.
Second, they designed the card’s controller to do what Kevin Conley, Director of NAND Systems Engineering at Sandisk, calls “massively parallel processing.” For competitive reasons, Conley is guarded about revealing too much about the inner workings of Extreme III cards, except to say that a wide data bus, combined with the ability to transfer and process a whole lot of data simultaneously, adds up to “an enormous data pipe.”
A data pipe, he adds, that is so fast that it may take some time for compatible devices, including digital SLR cameras, to be designed to take advantage of Extreme III’s speed potential.
Sandisk has put a name to the technology they’ve developed: Enhanced Super-Parallel Processing, or ESP.
Which brings us back to the numbers. Regular readers of this site know that we prefer to report only data derived from real-world scenarios, not synthetic benchmarks, so that the information will be more applicable to the workflow of a digital SLR photographer. In this instance, it’s important to understand how Sandisk has come up with the sky-high speed ratings for their Extreme III cards before discussing any real-world scenarios.
The 20MB/second for both read and write speeds is derived through internal testing at Sandisk, using their own test procedure.
Note: Sandisk's 20MB/second figure is based on 1,000,000 bytes in a megabyte, a quirky but established practice in the storage media industry that we've chosen not to follow. Using 1,048,576 bytes in a megabyte as the conversion rate, as cameras, computers and other devices that use storage media do, this is actually about 19.1MB/second. All our own calculations, in the CompactFlash Performance Database and in this article, are also based on 1,048,576 bytes in a megabyte. And for the remainder of this article, we'll refer to Sandisk's 20MB/second as 19.1MB/second, for easier comparison with our own test data.
The Windows benchmarking application HDBench, says Conley, is also used, but merely to demonstrate that on a non-bottlenecked system, the throughput numbers promised for Extreme III are valid. And to achieve numbers at or near 19.1MB/second in HDBench, the stars really have to align. Since, as Conley notes, different motherboards and USB 2.0 controllers in the computer impact the result, as can the applications running on the computer as well as other devices connected to the USB ports. In other words, it’s not just a matter of having a system with the fastest processor, though that helps. There are other factors that come into play as well.
Armed with engineering sample Extreme III 1GB CompactFlash and SD cards, as well as engineering samples of Sandisk’s upcoming CompactFlash and 5-in-1 USB 2.0 card readers (which support up to the 25MB/second throughput of the respective CompactFlash and SD specifications), we set out first to see if we could make the Windows systems we had access to produce HDBench numbers within spitting distance of Sandisk’s numbers.
Sandisk USB 2.0 CompactFlash and 5-in-1 card readers
Using the computer’s built-in USB ports and the Sandisk readers, here’s what we measured:
- On a Vision3000 system from Canadian PC maker MDG, the computer’s Intel 865GBFL motherboard, P4/3.0GHz processor, 512MB of dual-channel DDR RAM and Windows XP Home allowed HDBench read speed numbers of 18.7MB/second for the Extreme III SD card, and 18.1MB/second for the Extreme III CompactFlash card. This was using the manufacturer’s stock configuration for XP Home and no other applications running besides HDBench (except for the myriad of background applications that are always loaded).
- On a Dell Inspiron 8500 laptop (Intel 845-series motherboard, P4-M/2.6GHz processor, 1GB DDR SDRAM and Windows XP Home), we managed HDBench read speed numbers of 17.6MB/second for Extreme III 1GB SD and 16.9MB/second for Extreme III 1GB CompactFlash.
In both cases, the HDBench read speed for the Extreme III cards was 7-9MB/second faster than original Extreme cards in the engineering sample Sandisk reader, with the Extreme III 1GB SD card seeing the biggest performance bump over the Extreme 512MB SD card (the highest capacity in the Extreme SD line is 512MB).
We weren’t able to quite match the lofty read speed numbers Sandisk has put forth for the Extreme III cards, but we got close enough with HDBench – with one of the two Windows test machines – to feel confident that when the Extreme III CompactFlash and SD cards reach the production stage that they’ll meet Sandisk’s 19.1MB/second read speed target under Sandisk’s test conditions. And that they'll be the fastest CompactFlash and SD cards we’ve ever tested with HDBench.
HDBench write speed numbers were less than those for read speed in all cases, though there was too much variation from round to round of write speed testing for us to be comfortable reporting specific figures. This is likely because a process on the computer was interfering, rather than this being caused by the Extreme III engineering sample cards themselves. It would be accurate to say, however, that the write speed as reported in HDBench was at least 5MB/second higher for Extreme III cards than their Extreme predecessors, though that number probably underestimates the true throughput difference.
But benchmarks are one thing, actual performance is another. In this regard, the engineering sample cards demonstrate both that Sandisk will almost certainly continue to lead in card-to-computer transfer rates. But they won’t be as quick as the 19.1MB/second specification might suggest, even with Sandisk’s new card readers.
For example, until now the fastest 1GB CompactFlash card we’ve tested at transferring photos from card to computer was the Sandisk Extreme 1GB, at about 10.5MB/second. Using the same Lexar FireWire CompactFlash RW019 card reader, the same Mac G5/2.0GHz Dual machine and the same mix of about 225MB of Nikon D1X JPEG and NEF files, the Extreme III 1GB CompactFlash engineering sample card managed 12.8MB/second. This card reader doesn’t support the faster PIO 5 and 6 data transfer timing modes of the Extreme III cards, so the fact that throughput still climbs about 2.3MB/second is impressive.
Performing the same test using the engineering sample Sandisk USB 2.0 CompactFlash card reader, which does support PIO modes 5 and 6, and this number jumps to 13.8MB/second. This is well shy of the official spec, and is unlikely to get anywhere close to it with file system overhead and possibly USB overhead clawing performance back from the maximum. But this is fantastic real world performance nonetheless.
Note: the Extreme III SD 1GB card wasn’t tested on the Mac because of both time constraints and the fact that the engineering sample Sandisk 5-in-1 reader was not yet compatible with our G5 test mule (full Mac compatibility is promised for the shipping version of this reader).
We also ran a similar battery of tests on the MDG Vision3000 system, with both the Extreme III CompactFlash and SD cards and their corresponding Sandisk USB 2.0 reader. The cards transferred data at about 14MB/second and 14.2MB/second, respectively. These numbers are the highest we’ve seen to date in this test.
Sandisk’s Conley had indicated that, because existing digital SLR cameras don't yet fully support the revised CompactFlash and SD specifications, we weren’t likely to see a major in-camera write speed improvement. In the small sampling of cameras we’ve been able to test so far with both the Extreme III 1GB CompactFlash and SD cards (the latter in the EOS-1D Mark II only), the EOS 20D showed a small increase in throughput over 1GB Extreme CompactFlash, while Extreme III cards in other cameras roughly tied the Extreme cards (the Extreme III engineering sample cards were actually a hair slower). Note that we tested only Canon models, as the engineering sample cards sent to us contained a small glitch, now fixed, that prevented them from being tested in cameras from Nikon in time for this article.
Boil all the numbers down and here’s what you have: the engineering sample Sandisk Extreme III CompactFlash and SD cards are the fastest we’ve ever tested in card-to-computer transfers, by a significant margin, and at minimum appear to about match the original Extreme’s write speed performance in current digital SLR cameras. As new digital SLR models are designed to utilize the faster transfer modes, it’s likely that we’ll then see Extreme III cards able to write pictures in the camera significantly faster than the already speedy Extreme line. In short, Sandisk appears poised to remain the maker of the fastest CompactFlash and SD cards for the serious and pro digital photographer.
Sandisk will release Extreme III CompactFlash in 1GB, 2GB and 4GB capacities (all Type I in size), and Extreme III SD in a 1GB capacity. Extreme III Memory Stick Pro cards are also planned, in 1GB and 2GB capacities. Unlike the Extreme series, which are available in North America only, Extreme III cards will be available worldwide, from retailers that carry pro digital SLR cameras.
Projected shipping dates vary with the card. For example, the Extreme III CompactFlash 1GB and 2GB cards are slated to ship in late October 2004; the Extreme III SD 1GB is to ship in November 2004. Extreme III cards will be bundled with RescuePRO recovery software for Mac and Windows, a priority tech support number and a lifetime warranty (the warranty is 10 years in Europe, the Middle East and Africa).
The Extreme III series will not replace the Extreme series for the time being. Both CompactFlash and SD Extreme cards will continue to be sold in North America.
Sandisk’s new USB 2.0 CompactFlash and 5-in-1 card readers are to ship in December 2004.
Ultra II is Dead; Long Live Ultra II
At the same time that Sandisk introduced the Extreme series in 2003, they also revved their Ultra line to Ultra II. The Ultra II CompactFlash and SD cards contain the same controller and flash memory as the Extreme series, and as such offer essentially identical performance (though, in our tests, Extreme-labeled cards are consistently a touch quicker). The Extreme cards are qualified to work in a broad temperature range (13F below/-25C to 185F/85C), have a layer of vibration-absorbing RTV silicone coating the internal components and also include RescuePRO and priority tech support. But, the read and write speeds of an Ultra II and Extreme card of similar capacity are effectively the same, which has meant that a prospective purchaser would chose between Ultra II and Extreme based on the other differentiating features.
As Extreme III cards begin to emerge on store shelves, Sandisk will also be revamping the Ultra II line. The Ultra II will not be keeping up with Extreme III. Instead, the company will convert Ultra II to use multi level cell (MLC) flash memory while also adding higher capacities to the CompactFlash, SD and Memory Stick Pro lines.
In the past, MLC has been an acronym for s-l-o-w. MLC-based flash memory cards are less expensive to build than ones that use binary-based flash memory (often referred to as SLC), which has meant that high performance and MLC were not to be found in the same sentence.
The new, MLC-based Ultra II line, says Sandisk’s Conley, will not be pokey performers. In fact, he’s expecting that both the official specifications of 9MB/second write and 10MB/second read (both specs are based on 1000KB=1MB) for existing Ultra II cards will carry forward to the MLC-based Ultra II models. And that real world performance, in both digital SLR cameras and card readers, will be the same or better than the current Ultra II. If that holds true, and pricing on the Ultra II cards is aggressive, they may well offer really good performance for the money.
Besides being less expensive to manufacture for a given capacity, using MLC flash memory enables higher capacities to be stuffed into the tiny CompactFlash, SD and Memory Stick Pro form factors. As such, new card capacities will be added to the Ultra II series also: 4GB and 8GB CompactFlash (both Type I in size), 1GB and 2GB SD and 2GB and 4GB Memory Stick Pro cards will join existing capacities. Going forward, all capacities of Ultra II will be MLC, though the transition will take some time before it’s nothing-but-MLC Ultra II on store shelves.
It’s not that long ago that Sandisk products were synonymous with snail’s pace performance. Starting with the Extreme and Ultra II cards last year, the company signaled that they’d gotten the message that a segment of serious and pro digital SLR photographers have a need for maximum card speed.
With the Extreme III and revamped Ultra II series cards, as well as the new USB 2.0 CompactFlash and 5-in-1 card readers, Sandisk continues to push the performance and price/performance envelope, as well as lead all other card makers in the sheer speed of their camera storage media products.
Thanks to Kevin Conley, David Howard, Tanya Chuang, Wes Brewer, Mike Wong and Bob Goligoski for their assistance in the preparation of this article.