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Lexar 80X, Kingston Elite Pro, Transcend 60X added to CF Database  
Thursday, July 29, 2004 | by Rob Galbraith

The CompactFlash Performance Database on this site has been updated to include test data for the following CompactFlash cards:

  • Lexar Pro Series 80X 512MB second edition
  • Lexar Pro Series 80X 1GB first edition
  • Lexar Pro Series 80X 1GB second edition
  • Lexar Pro Series 80X 2GB second edition
  • Kingston Elite Pro 512MB
  • Kingston Elite Pro 1024MB

Performance results are also now published for the following Secure Digital (SD) cards:

A selection of Lexar's latest line of CompactFlash cards, both an 80X 1GB card shipping now and three performance-enhanced 80X capacities slated to ship next month, have been tested in 11 different digital SLR models from Canon, Fujifilm and Nikon, as have two CompactFlash models in Kingston's Elite Pro performance series. The Transcend 60X and Kingston SD cards have been put through their paces in the Canon EOS-1D Mark II.

All currently-shipping cards in the list above have also been tested for the card-to-computer transfer rate section.

Note: A Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n wasn't available during this round of testing, so the performance data for this camera hasn't been updated. We hope to remedy this in the near future. We've also moved the Nikon D1H to the list of retired cameras.

Some Lexar 80X are More Equal Than Others

Before we highlight the results of this round of benchmarking, it's important that we tackle the first edition/second edition Lexar 80X card confusion we created at the start of this article. If you've been waiting to see how Lexar's Pro Series 80X WA cards perform in our tests, you'll want to read this section carefully.

That's because Lexar is rolling out a new version of the 80X line in mid-to-late August 2004, or about two months after the original 80X line began to ship. The new 80X series, which we're calling 80X second edition, will replace the original 80X series, which we're calling 80X first edition (the first edition/second edition naming scheme is our own, not Lexar's).

The rolling change in Lexar's premium performance line is designed to eek out more speed in cameras such as the Nikon D70, Nikon D2H and Canon EOS-1D, as well as perk up card-to-computer transfer rates significantly. Clearly, Lexar is looking to meet or exceed the strong all-round performance of Sandisk's Extreme and Ultra II series, and the 80X second edition will be the version of 80X that comes closest to doing just that. As the database shows, 80X first edition cards fall well short of matching Sandisk's best in several pro digital SLR cameras and in card-to-computer transfers, so it's no surprise that Lexar has been working hard to improve their 80X CompactFlash cards and get the fruits of their labours onto store shelves.

The full range of first edition capacities, including the 512MB, 1GB and 2GB 80X cards shipping now, as well as the 4GB 80X slated to ship this week or next, will be replaced by 80X second edition versions starting next month, says John Omvik, Lexar's Director of OEM and Pro Product Marketing.

To simplify things, we're opting to view 80X second edition models as The Real 80X Cards. Going forward, we'll only be testing second edition 80X cards, though the data from the one first edition card now in the database will remain for comparison purposes. If you're the owner of a first edition 80X model we'll understand if you're not thrilled with this decision, and imagine that some of you aren't pleased to learn that a faster 80X version is being prepared for release already. That's something for you to discuss with Lexar, or your psychiatrist, as you see fit.

Though the 1GB 80X first edition card we tested was a full production model, the 512MB, 1GB and 2GB second edition cards were near-final engineering samples. Omvik indicates that while the in-camera write speed capabilities of the second edition cards we tested will be representative of production second edition cards when they ship, card-to-computer transfer speed is still being hammered on by Lexar engineers. We've elected to not post card-to-computer transfer data for the not-quite-finished second edition 80X cards as a result. As soon as we have production-level second edition cards on hand, we'll test their card-to-computer moxie and publish what we learn.

It will not be possible to transform a first edition 80X into a second edition 80X through the installation of new firmware. That's because second edition 80X models contain both new firmware and new hardware. Lexar does not plan to offer an upgrade program for owners of first edition 80X cards, says Omvik. As a result, we recommend that you compare the performance of the first edition and second edition cards closely in the CompactFlash Performance Database; in some cameras the performance difference is negligible, in others, significant. If you're like us, and you put an equal amount of emphasis on card-to-computer transfer rates, you may simply want to wait and see how production 80X second edition cards fare when we have an opportunity to test that aspect of their performance later this summer.

Note: And speaking of firmware updates, starting with 80X first edition cards, Lexar has dispensed with support for their Jumpshot cable, a card reader that works exclusively with Lexar USB 1.1-enabled CompactFlash cards. The Jumpshot link tops out at under 1MB/sec in card-to-computer transfers, which means it has long been surpassed in speed by USB 2.0 and FireWire card readers. Therefore, few serious and pro shooters are likely to mourn the passing of this functionality in Lexar's 80X line. Over time, Jumpshot support is expected to disappear altogether from the company's CompactFlash products from the Pro Series on down.

In the short term at least, this means that any firmware updates for either first edition or second edition Lexar cards that might be released will not be user-installable, since the firmware update function in Lexar's Image Rescue 2.0 works exclusively with the Jumpshot. We suspect that Lexar will remedy this at some point, perhaps by expanding Image Rescue's firmware update feature to work with other readers, or through some other workaround.

Closer to the release date of the 80X second edition line, Lexar will be providing us with information on how to identify second edition 80X cards at your favourite pro photo retailer. Omvik promises that it will be straightforward, both by looking at the card itself and the packaging in which it's sold, to tell whether you're holding a first edition or second edition 80X card in your hand.

By now, you may be wondering why some 80X cards are more equal than others. It's a good question. Lexar's X rating system, where 1X = 150KB/sec, is a measure of the minimum sustained write speed of the card as determined by a CompactFlash Association-approved testing device from Testmetrix. While Lexar is to be commended for speed rating their CompactFlash products using an industry-standard device, the first edition/second edition discussion here exposes the weakness in this and all other generic throughput ratings: they don't take into account controller- and firmware-based performance enhancements aimed at certain digital SLR cameras and CompactFlash card readers, enhancements that could dramatically impact speed.

As a result, it's entirely possible that an 80X first edition and 80X second edition CompactFlash card will test near-identically on a Testmetrix unit, even though their performance in some devices may be altogether different. Because Lexar's speed rating system is a guarantee of minimum performance only (minimum being the operative word), it's also possible that a typical 80X first edition card could be somewhat slower than a typical 80X second edition card, even though both meet Lexar's minimum 80X sustained write speed criteria. Note that we haven't run a sampling of 80X cards through a Testmetrix session, so this last point only emphasizes what's possible within Lexar's speed rating system, not what we've measured.

The disparity between generic speed ratings and real world performance, as well as the use of deliberately misleading speed ratings by makers of CompactFlash that are less scrupulous than Lexar, reinforce the notion that there's no better way to measure how a card will perform in a certain camera than to test it in that camera. Which is why you'll find data for both first edition and second edition Pro Series 80X Lexar cards in the CompactFlash Performance Database, so you can determine whether there is a speed difference between the two in your camera (the speed difference varies with digital SLR model), as well as to see how both editions of 80X line up against competitors' CompactFlash offerings.

Results Highlights

As you'll see if you peruse the CompactFlash Performance Database, Lexar is once again neck-and-neck with the write speed leaders in a broad range of digital SLR models, or at least they will be when second edition 80X cards are released. The first edition 1GB 80X card we tested nearly matched the second edition 1GB 80X in some cameras, but trailed by a significant margin in others. For example, the 1GB 80X first edition and 1GB 80X second edition measure up to be about the same in the Canon EOS-1Ds, which has a notoriously slow write interface for a high-resolution pro digital SLR. By comparison, the 1GB 80X second edition is over 28% faster than the 1GB 80X first edition in D2H JPEG write testing.

Ultimately, second edition 80X cards sit just above or just below similar-capacity cards in Sandisk's speedy Extreme and Ultra II lineup in most of the cameras we're actively testing. And in the Nikon D1X, which has favoured Lexar's 40X cards in the past, the love affair continues: Lexar's second edition 80X cards hog all of the top spots on the chart, especially in RAW NEF throughput. In newer Nikon models, and in digital SLR's from Canon and Fujifilm, the differences between second edition Lexar 80X and Sandisk Extreme and Ultra II are statistically insignificant in most cases. Lexar has done a good job with 80X second edition cards of matching Sandisk write speed performance in the most popular digital SLR cameras shipping today, which is great, because Sandisk's fast cards are impressively quick. But Lexar hasn't completely leapfrogged Sandisk as some might have expected.

One of the surprises for us in this round of testing was the write speed performance of the Kingston Elite Pro 512MB. Kingston has used Toshiba single level cell (SLC) memory in its premium performance CompactFlash cards for some time, and had indicated this trend would continue when their best-performing cards morphed from a special order item to the Elite Pro series announced in April 2004. Toshiba SLC cards aren't new to us; earlier this year, we added Pexagon's Microtech X-treme cards to the CompactFlash Performance Database, and they also use Toshiba SLC technology under the Microtech label. Based on our experience, we had predicted respectable though not quite class-leading performance, and from the Kingston Elite Pro 1024MB that's what we saw.

The Elite Pro 512MB is a different story. It was really quick in most cameras, and the fastest CompactFlash card in JPEG write speed tests in the Canon EOS-1D Mark II and the Nikon D2H (though quick SD cards are still faster in this Canon camera).  Some sleuthing revealed why there was a performance difference: the Elite Pro 512MB card we received for testing is from Samsung, not Toshiba. When we checked in with Kingston about this, we learned that to manage the demand for the Elite Pro line, they're drawing from both Toshiba and Samsung now, and plan to continue to do so. Therefore, if you have your heart set on a Kingston Elite Pro card with Samsung parts inside, you'll definitely need to have a peek at the card's trailing edge to see if the code stamped there is similar to or the same as the edge stamp listed beneath the card's name in our database. If a section of the code begins with THN, it's almost certainly a Toshiba card instead.

The performance parity of Sandisk's and Lexar's premium CompactFlash, along with the surprise showing by the Samsung-based Kingston Elite Pro 512MB, means that warranty, support options and card-to-computer transfer speed are all that much more important to look to when mulling over a card purchase. As the database shows, the rate at which photos move from a card in a card reader to the computer varies widely, with Sandisk Extreme and Ultra II CF cards maintaining a significant, time-saving lead over all others.

Comparing 512MB capacities, for example, we benchmarked the Samsung-based Kingston Elite Pro 512MB at about 4.3MB/second when transferring about 225MB of Nikon D1X JPEG and NEF files to a G5 Mac through a Lexar FireWire CompactFlash reader (model RW019). This is easily eclipsed by the Sandisk Extreme 512MB at about 10.9MB/sec. We didn't test a Lexar first edition 80X at this capacity, but the 1GB 80X first edition moves pictures from the card at about 7.1MB/sec. As noted earlier, Lexar is still optimizing the card-to-computer transfer speed of the second edition 80x line, so we'll not report on their throughput for now.

If your shooting day includes filling up and emptying a stack of CompactFlash cards, the time saved moving pictures off more quickly might well be an important factor in your card selection decision (as it definitely is for us). In this regard, Sandisk's entire line of Ultra II and Extreme CompactFlash cards continue to rule the roost. It will be interesting to see if Lexar 80X second edition cards are able to seriously challenge Sandisk in this area.

We're gradually building out the Secure Digital (SD) sections in the CompactFlash Performance Database (while we think up a new name for the database itself). The Transcend 512MB 60X acquitted itself well, while the Kingston 512MB, which is not in the company's Elite Pro line, is designed to be economical, not speedy, though it's performance was still decent.

Other Changes

We've converted the data in the CompactFlash Performance Database from kilobytes per second (K/sec) to megabytes per second (MB/sec). When we first began measuring card performance several years ago, most cards offered pokey performance by today's standards. That made the decision to standardize on KB/sec easy. Now, with the best CompactFlash and SD media capable of throughput that rivals entry-level laptop hard drives, it was time for a change. Going forward, all data will be expressed in MB/sec, unless the card has the nerve to be slower than 1MB/sec, in which case you'll still see the number expressed in KB/sec.

One other change: in the camera sections of the database, cards are ordered from fastest to slowest based on JPEG write speed (where applicable). While presenting the test data this way has several advantages, the arrangement tends to overemphasize a card's ranking (ie this card was 15th, that card was 4th, and so on). The sheer number of CompactFlash cards in the database exacerbates this effect. To help make it easier to interpret the data, we've marked in blue all cards that offer JPEG write speed performance within 10% of the leader in that camera. Since few photographers are likely to be able to feel the difference between the fastest card and one that is as much as 10% slower, this is our attempt to de-emphasize a card's ranking while highlighting a pool of cards that are likely to offer roughly comparable real-world performance.

There are other changes to how the data is displayed that we're working on, including the ability to sort the cards from fastest to slowest based on RAW write speed. This is all in the hopes of making the data in the CompactFlash Performance Database as useful as possible for the serious and professional photographer.

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