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SanDisk, Transcend and PhotoFast roll out speedy cards up to 64GB  
Monday, September 14, 2009 | by Rob Galbraith
SanDisk today has rolled out a series of CompactFlash cards featuring the fastest performance we've ever seen in card-to-computer transfers. Called Extreme Pro, the new line is capable of up to nearly 97MB/s read speeds in our testing and offers class leading write speed performance in the Nikon cameras we've tested so far (they're not quite as quick in newer Canon models). Extreme Pro comes in 16GB, 32GB and whopping 64GB capacities.

Extreme Pro isn't the only speedier offering emerging. SanDisk is in the process of replacing its Extreme III 30MB/s Edition CompactFlash with new 8GB, 16GB and 32GB cards simply called Extreme that deliver up to about 62MB/s during card-to-computer transfers.

Transcend has also released new 8GB and 16GB 600X CompactFlash that are the company's fastest ever, while PhotoFast - a Taiwanese card maker that's not well known outside of Asia - is offering two series of cards, and capacities up to 64GB, with performance from its 533X Plus that trumps all others in the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 50D.

We have a rundown of the new cards from all three makers, followed by results from initial performance testing.

SanDisk Extreme Pro and Extreme

With Extreme Pro, SanDisk is emphasizing three key design areas: durability, reliability and speed. A newly-developed controller called Power Core features enhanced error correction, optimized wear leveling, a simplified circuit board design that uses fewer components plus an architecture that's designed to move data quickly. A coating of RTV silicone sealant internally provides protection in humid conditions.

Taken together, these design elements contribute to Extreme Pro's temperature range rating of -13F (-25C) to 185F (85C), ability to withstand drops of up to nine feet (2.74m) and official read/write speed specification of 90MB/s. To achieve the maximum possible speed to and from an Extreme Pro memory card, the camera or card reader must support UDMA Mode 6, which is the fastest data timing mode in the current CompactFlash specification. Devices that aren't capable of UDMA Mode 6 operation will still be compatible. Extreme Pro's Power Core controller supports slower levels of UDMA too, plus PIO data timing modes.

Mucho Fasto: SanDisk's 16GB, 32GB and 64GB Extreme Pro line. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

SanDisk is shipping Extreme Pro in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB versions, all CompactFlash Type I for compatibility with the broadest range of CompactFlash-capable cameras.

Note: While most Canon and Nikon digital SLRs will take the thinner Type I or thicker Type II CompactFlash variants, the card slots in Nikon's D300s and D700 are Type I only.

The 64GB capacity will not be compatible with some cameras. The models that have been verified by SanDisk to work with the Extreme Pro 64GB, both recognizing its full capacity as well as functioning properly, include:
  • Canon EOS 10D
  • Canon EOS 50D
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
  • Olympus E30
  • Sony DSLR A-900
We've so far found the Extreme Pro 64GB to work a-ok with the following cameras as well:
  • Nikon D300s
  • Canon EOS 5D
  • Canon EOS-1D Mark III
 SanDisk's list of 64GB-incompatible cameras includes the following:
  • Nikon D300
  • Nikon D2Xs
  • Nikon D3X
And we've found these cameras to be 64GB-incompatible also:
  • Nikon D700
  • Nikon D3
Extreme Pro replaces Extreme IV 45MB/s Edition in SanDisk's lineup, though it will take some time for Extreme IV cards to disappear from store shelves. All three capacities of Extreme Pro will begin to appear at dealers this week in the U.S. and Europe, and Canada by the end of the month. Manufacturer's suggested list prices (MSRP) for Extreme Pro CompactFlash will range from about US$300 for the 16GB card to about US$800 for the 64GB card in the U.S.

SanDisk's new Extreme CompactFlash has the same name as a card series that was introduced in 2003, but with a whole lot more capacity and speed. In its 2009 incarnation, Extreme CompactFlash comes in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB capacities, has the same -13F (-25C) to 185F (85C) temperature range rating as Extreme Pro and includes the same RTV silicone sealant inside. The key difference between Extreme and Extreme Pro is throughput: Extreme supports up to UDMA Mode 5 and is specified to deliver read/write speeds of 60MB/s, compared to UDMA Mode 6 and 90MB/s for Extreme Pro.

Extreme Reboot: SanDisk's Extreme CompactFlash line lives again in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB capacities. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Later in this article we'll talk about the actual performance you can expect from both Extreme and Extreme Pro.

The new Extreme CompactFlash will gradually replace Extreme III 30MB/s Edition CompactFlash in stores. All three capacities of the new cards are to come available at dealers in the U.S., Canada and Europe starting this week (they're already for sale in some locations). MSRP in the U.S. ranges from about US$130 for the 8GB card to about US$375 for the 32GB card.

SanDisk has also announced the SanDisk Extreme Pro ExpressCard Adapter, a UDMA Mode 6-capable ExpressCard/34 CompactFlash adapter that's meant to extract every ounce of speed from Extreme Pro cards in particular. Several accessory makers already sell what is essentially the same product as SanDisk's adapter, including Delkin and Synchrotech, with a different label and customized drivers for Mac and Windows (an up-to-date driver is a must with these adapters to avoid kernel panics on the Mac and the blue screen of death in Windows).

Card Express: The SanDisk Extreme Pro ExpressCard Adapter. Click photo to enlarge (Photo courtesy SanDisk)

The SanDisk Extreme Pro ExpressCard Adapter will be compatible with Mac OS X 10.4 and later (including OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard) and Windows XP and Vista (Windows 7 support will, presumably, follow at a later date). It's slated to ship in late-October 2009 at an MSRP of US49.99 in the U.S.

Like similar adapters from others companies, the SanDisk variant has a particularly shallow card slot. This design makes it all but impossible to slide the card in perfectly straight every time, which eventually - or immediately, depending on how ham-fisted you are - leads to bent contact pins inside the adapter.

We've killed two Delkins and a Synchrotech in the last couple of years by making exactly this mistake, despite using the adapters only for testing purposes and taking care to line up the CompactFlash card properly in each instance. We don't yet have a SanDisk Extreme Pro ExpressCard Adapter to test, but from what we've been able to determine it's all but guaranteed to be the same unit with the same poorly-designed slot as those sold by Delkin and Synchrotech.

Fortunately, there is an ExpressCard/34 alternative that does the job, and with Extreme Pro delivers the nearly 97MB/s read speeds mentioned earlier. We'll describe that in the performance section.

Transcend 600X

Transcend has for several years produced CompactFlash cards that offer fairly quick in-camera write speeds and very quick card-to-computer transfers. Their latest flagship series, called 600X and available in 8GB and 16GB capacities, carries on this tradition.

Budget Speed: Transcend's 600X 8GB and 16GB cards. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Both 600X cards are CompactFlash Type I, support UDMA Mode 6, and are specified by Transcend to give 87MB/s write speeds and 92MB/s read speeds. They have a temperature range rating that matches SanDisk's Extreme Pro and Extreme lines: -13F (-25C) to 185F (85C).

Transcend 600X cards are shipping now, at a street price of just under US$100 for the 8GB card, and just under US$200 for the 16GB card, in the U.S.

PhotoFast GMonster 533X and 533X Plus

As you'll see in the next section, perhaps the biggest spoiler in SanDisk's Extreme Pro and Extreme announcements today is PhotoFast and its 533X and 533X Plus series of CompactFlash. The Taipei-based manufacturer of SSDs, memory cards and more has produced a collection of premium-performance memory cards at non-premium prices.

The 533X series is available in 8GB, 16GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities and are rated for 40MB/s write speeds and 90MB/s read speeds, while 533X Plus comes in 8GB, 16GB and 32GB capacities and is rated for 80MB/s write speeds and 90MB/s read speeds. Both series support up to UDMA Mode 6. All capacities are CompactFlash Type I.

Fast Company: Some of the cards in PhotoFast's GMonster 533X and 533X Plus series. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

PhotoFast CompactFlash cards are not widely available. In the United States, for example, they're sold by a single dealer currently. You can also expect service and support to be minimal in some places, in the event of a card error that requires expert recovery or you encounter some other mission critical problem.

But, the performance data ahead will reveal that if you want a fast card -  in some cases the fastest card - and you're prepared to roll the dice on a company with almost no presence in many countries worldwide, PhotoFast may be your next CompactFlash purchase.

In the U.S., the 533X 16GB is US$85, the 533X 32GB is US$129, the 533X Plus 8GB is US$85 and the 533X Plus 16GB is US$129. All four cards are shipping now, with the 533X Plus 32GB and 533X 64GB to come available soon.

By the numbers

Manufacturer-supplied performance data is at best a rough indicator of how a CompactFlash card will perform in your camera or card reader. At worst, there's no connection at all between what the manufacturer says and what you experience. This section describes the results of our testing so far of the newest SanDisk, Transcend and PhotoFast CompactFlash cards.

Let's start with what's coolest of all, especially if your workflow gets stuck in molasses when copying dozens of gigabytes worth of picture files off a card wallet full of CompactFlash. Here's where SanDisk's Extreme Pro really shines, clocking in at 96.8MB/s (using the same methodology and software as for the card-to-computer section of the CF/SD Performance Database).

This number represents the throughput possible from a SanDisk Extreme Pro 16GB when inserted into a Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 and the computer is a 2009 MacBook Pro 17 inch running Mac OS X 10.5.8. This is well over twice as quick as the Extreme IV 45MB/s Edition line being replaced, and about 20MB/s faster than the next quickest card. At almost 97MB/s, a full 16GB card flies over to the computer in under three minutes.

The Extreme Pro 32GB and 64GB cards are similarly speedy. If you need to move pictures to your computer in a big hurry and you have a Mac with an ExpressCard slot, Extreme Pro offers unprecedented performance.

Slot Machine: An Extreme Pro 64GB card inserted into the top slot of a Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 adapter. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 utilizes an underlying chipset that is largely the same, if not identical to, the Delkin and Syncrotech ExpressCard adapters we groused about earlier. Which, in turn, is almost certainly a match for SanDisk's Extreme Pro ExpressCard Adapter. There are two key differences to note: the Sonnet has two card slots, rather than one, but more importantly, the card guides in each of its slots is sufficiently long to greatly reduce the possibility of bending a contact pin in regular use.

What this means is the Sonnet product can deliver the same blazing Extreme Pro speed as SanDisk's upcoming adapter, but without the lousy slot design. You still have to pay attention when you insert a card into the Sonnet adapter, but you shouldn't have to fret about irreparably damaging it every time you slide in a CompactFlash card. As a bonus, it has two slots, which enables two cards to be offloaded simultaneously. As a drawback, however, it's more costly than single-slot units.

Double Double: A pair of Extreme Pro cards inserted into the twin slots of a Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

If you want to copy pictures to your computer faster than ever before, then the combination of an Extreme Pro card, the Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 and a computer like the MacBook Pro 17 inch will get the job done.

Update, September 22, 2009 : The driver for the Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 is currently incompatible with Mac OS X 10.6.x. Also note the Sonnet website warns against using the adapter in Macs with over 2GB of RAM, though we've experienced no problems ourselves with both 3GB- and 4GB-equipped MacBook Pro 17 inch models. An updated driver is expected in November, says Sonnet's Martin Muggee, that will bring with it OS X 10.6.x compatibility as well as correct the 2GB+ RAM problem. Muggee indicates the Windows driver has been pulled from the website temporarily while they do additional Windows 7 testing, but that it will be made available again soon.

To see how much offload speed we could squeeze from Apple's top-end laptop, we put about 39GB of Nikon D3X RAW and JPEG files onto three Extreme Pro cards, and then measured the sustained throughput with all three cards copying to the computer simultaneously. One card was in a Lexar Professional UDMA Dual-Slot USB card reader, another in a SanDisk Extreme FireWire reader and the third in the aforementioned Sonnet ExpressCard/34 adapter.

To make a long story short, this setup mustered a sustained throughput of 162MB/s, which meant that all three cards were done in an incredibly short time: nearly five times faster than if the cards were copied one at a time in a USB reader.

It's worth mentioning that the speed at which you can copy pictures to your computer is impacted by the efficiency of the operating system or program doing the copying, as well as the write speed of your computer's internal hard drive. Hard drive speed will often be the biggest bottleneck, though not in this case. The Mac laptop used for testing was configured with two internal Seagate Momentus 7200.4 320GB hard drives (one in an MCE OptiBay) in a RAID 0 configuration, and is capable of sustained larger-file write speeds of almost 190MB/s.

So far, Extreme Pro looks like the ticket to CompactFlash nirvana. But the total speed story gets more complicated when you begin to examine how Extreme Pro, Extreme, Transcend 600X and PhotoFast's cards perform in newer Canon and Nikon cameras, as well as other readers.

In newer Nikon cameras, the Extreme Pro 16GB and 32GB cards have been the fastest. This is true in the D300, D300s, D700, D3 and D3X. In the D300, for example, the speed bump is noticeable - sufficient to squeeze out an extra NEF frame at the end of a burst, relative to previous speed leaders - and represents about a 10-15% write speed boost overall.

In newer Canon digital SLRs, however, Extreme Pro cards take a back seat to both Transcend 600X and PhotoFast 533X Plus. Comparing the Extreme Pro 16GB to the PhotoFast GMonster 533X Plus 16GB at writing RAW CR2s in the EOS 50D, the SanDisk card weighed in at an impressive 41.8MB/s, but was eclipsed by the PhotoFast card at 47MB/s. The Transcend 600X 16GB landed in the middle, at 44MB/s.

We've already established that the Extreme Pro's speeds are untouchable in a Sonnet adapter. The same Extreme Pro 16GB card that's capable of 96.8MB/s drops to a still-healthy 63.3MB/s when inside a SanDisk Extreme FireWire reader connected to a MacBook Pro 17 inch, but trails behind both the PhotoFast GMonster 533X Plus 16GB at 74.5MB/s and the Transcend 600X 16GB at 72.4MB/s. The SanDisk Extreme (not Pro) 16GB isn't far off its Extreme Pro counterpart, at 62.2MB/s.

Peekaboo: A PhotoFast GMonster 533X Plus 16GB in a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Click photo to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Are you getting the picture? If in-camera write speed or card-to-computer throughput is a key factor in your selection of a CompactFlash card, then you'll want to look closely at the tables below.

Card-to-computer For the SanDisk Extreme FireWire and Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash Adapter ExpressCard/34 tests, the computer was a 2009 MacBook Pro 17 inch running Mac OS X 10.5.8. For the Delkin ExpressCard 54 adapter, the computer was a Lenovo T60 running Windows Vista SP3. The fastest card in each reader is marked in bold.

cf_reader_table.jpg

In-camera write speed The table below was 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.

cf_camera_table.jpg

Conclusion

CompactFlash card speed has taken a great leap forward, and if you're planning on partaking, SanDisk, Transcend and PhotoFast have made your decision tough. This article has focused primarily on read and write speed, which in some workflows is critical to getting work completed on time. Card speed is also easy to quantify. What's much harder to measure is brand reputation, product reliability over time and the effectiveness of a company's service and support, not to mention whether paying more gives you greater assurance that you won't lose vital photos to card problems down the road. All these memory card selection factors, in addition to speed, are important ones to consider if you make a living from your photographs.
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