At Photokina 2004, Lexar announced several products for the pro digital SLR shooter, including new CompactFlash card readers and two new series of CompactFlash cards: LockTight and ActiveMemory System.
While Lexar hasn't yet shipped any of these pro-focused goodies unveiled in Germany in late September of last year, it's clear that at least two of the three products are darn close to heading out the door. This we've been able to glean from recent discussions with John Omvik, Lexar's Director of Professional Product Marketing.
Though reluctant to set firm ship dates, he has hinted that the FireWire version of the Pro CompactFlash Reader, as well as LockTight secure CompactFlash cards, are nearing completion. So, while we can't say when the new stuff will hit store shelves, we have gleaned some additional details on each product:
Pro CompactFlash FireWire and USB 2.0 Readers
We've had early prototype units of the FireWire 400 version of the Pro CompactFlash Reader in-house for some time. Our experience suggests that it's shaping up to be one of the finest CompactFlash card readers going, for both owners of Lexar and other brands of CompactFlash cards.
The Pro CompactFlash Reader is designed to be stacked, up to four of the FireWire version can be daisy-chained together using the included short, gold-plated FireWire cables (though some computer and/or hub configurations may only support a maximum of 2 or 3 linked readers) and the status light indicates when the card is mounted, reading/writing or unmounted.
Rear view of early prototypes of the FireWire version of the Pro CompactFlash Reader
The USB 2.0 version will be identical in most respects to the FireWire version, though there are two differences worth noting. First, daisy-chaining won't be possible, since USB doesn't support this type of device linking. Lexar is readying a 4-port USB 2.0 hub, similar in appearance to the card readers, and stackable too; the hub will include short USB cables, such that up to four USB readers and the hub can be stacked together then wired up using the short cables.
Early prototypes of the USB 2.0 Pro CompactFlash Reader and companion hub
Second, the USB 2.0 version will support the PIO Mode 5 and 6 data timing modes that form part of the recently-ratified CompactFlash v3.0 specification. A CompactFlash card that contains fast flash memory, a speed-optimized controller and has support for these new data timing modes should be able to achieve particularly quick card-to-computer transfer rates in the USB 2.0 version of this reader.
Currently, the only CompactFlash cards we know of that are PIO Mode 5/6-capable are SanDisk's Extreme III, though it seems likely that other speed-oriented manufacturers, including Lexar, will introduce their own PIO Mode 5/6 CompactFlash models this year.
The FireWire version of the Pro CompactFlash Reader will not be similarly PIO Mode 5/6-savvy, however. This reader should still end up being impressively quick, and perhaps as fast as the company's current speed leader, the FireWire CompactFlash Reader RW019 (we won't comment more on the new reader's performance until we've tested a production-level unit).
Lack of support for the new data timing modes, though, will prevent it from delivering potentially blazing speed with PIO Mode 5/6-capable cards such as SanDisk's Extreme III. Though the firmware in the Lexar Pro CompactFlash Readers will be user-upgradeable, Omvik indicates that it will not be possible to inject PIO Mode 5/6 support into the FireWire version through new firmware.
Only actual testing of the USB 2.0 and FireWire versions will indicate what sort of throughput each reader is capable of. It may emerge, however, that the USB 2.0 version is the better choice for SanDisk Extreme III owners who want to extract every ounce of performance from those cards.
Shipping first will be the FireWire version, ahead of its USB 2.0 counterpart, says Omvik, though as noted earlier, Lexar is not announcing precise ship dates at this time.
Though the Pro CompactFlash Readers will accept and work with any compatible CompactFlash card, only these readers will be able to take advantage of the special features in LockTight and ActiveMemory System Lexar cards.
The manufacturer's suggested list price (MSRP) for the new readers will be US$99.99. They will be available at pro photo retailers that carry Lexar products. The existing FireWire (model RW019) and USB 2.0 (model RW020) CompactFlash card readers will continue to be manufactured and sold even after the Pro CompactFlash Readers come available, says Omvik.
LockTight CompactFlash cards from Lexar will have the optional ability to limit access to the data on the card to certain users and cameras. The D2X and the D2Hs are the first cameras to support the technology.
For law enforcement agencies - or any other users of photography - where either establishing a chain of evidence or keeping photos private is a priority, LockTight will enable a reasonably high level of security. Using the included LockTight Administration Utility, a LockTight card can be configured to operate in a specified camera body or bodies, and be accessible on any computer only by those who can supply one of the correct name/password combos stored on the card via the utility previously.
Once configured, the card will operate normally and without a slowdown in performance in designated D2X or D2Hs cameras, says Omvik. Insert the card, then shoot and review pictures as usual - the card and camera perform their verification routine automatically and transparently when the card is inserted.
Place a configured LockTight card in a D2X or D2Hs that's not on the card's internal list and the card will simply fail to function: CHA (change card) will blink on the top display and the in-camera formatter won't work. Place a LockTight card into any other brand or model of camera and the same thing will happen: the card will be inaccessible. That's because the card's controller allows/denies access to the data on the card based on how it has been configured; if the camera in question isn't on the list of allowed camera bodies stored in special memory on the card, or isn't LockTight-compatible (only the D2X and D2Hs are at this point), then the controller prevents the reading and writing of data. The data itself isn't encrypted; the controller simply allows or denies access to it.
The LockTight Administration Utility
One of Lexar's new Pro CompactFlash Readers will be required to configure the LockTight features of a LockTight card. To access the contents of the card it must also be tucked inside one of the Pro CompactFlash Readers; the LockTight Access Utility on the computer prompts for a name and password, then mounts the card on the system if the name and password are correct. Put a configured LockTight card into any other reader and it will appear to the system as an unformatted card that can't be formatted.
LockTight CompactFlash cards, which will have an 80X speed rating, will be available in 512MB and 2GB capacities, and are to ship at about the same time as the FireWire version of the Pro CompactFlash Reader, says Omvik. LockTight CompactFlash will be roughly double the price of their Pro Series 80X counterpart. The LockTight software utilities will ship on the card.
The ActiveMemory System (AMS) technology is still being developed, says Omvik, and will emerge sometime after the Pro CompactFlash Readers and LockTight CompactFlash card have shipped (though both the FireWire and USB 2.0 Pro readers will be ready from the outset for AMS CompactFlash cards).