Compact Flash madness

Lexar Professional Compact Flash 4GB 133x with Write Acceleration

With two cameras now, I needed a third memory card. Now I have a Lexar Professional 133x 4GB CF card to complement my other two: a 2GB SanDisk Extreme and a 1GB SanDisk Extreme III.

With the announcement of the SanDisk Extreme IV I realized the whole deal has gotten quite confusing to the average photographer, and there are more of us every day.

We have a simple question: What CF should I buy?

First, the definitive source

The first and last place to go is Rob Galbraith’s CF/SD Performance Database. There you can look up actual CF/SD card write speeds tested against your model camera. If the results are close enough to the top, he highlights them in blue. He even updated it to show the results from the new SanDisk Extreme IV—he probably got an advance copy of it in exchange for the quote in the press release, like you and me, SanDisk knows the importance of Rob’s database.

Yeah I realize it might not have your camera—I hope that changes in the near future.

When faster isn’t faster

You might say, “Hmm, that Extreme IV doesn’t look so fast.” That’s the fault of the manufacturers, not some deceptive advertising on SanDisk’s part. Here is where it starts getting a little bit complicated.

The key is to read Rob’s version of the press release and his performance metrics on the D2Xs. Here are the money quotes:

“We’ve run Extreme IV 2GB and 4GB CompactFlash cards through seven Canon and Nikon digital SLR models so far, and in all cases the Extreme IV 2GB model emerged in first or second place, duking it out for supremacy with the Hoodman PPO 150X-133X 2GB CompactFlash card in Canon cameras in particular. Because even the newest models from the two leading digital SLR makers lack support for either PIO Mode 6 or UDMA (any mode), the Extreme IV in-camera write speed bump is best described as an incremental improvement over Extreme III.”
(emphasis added)

“As of this writing, the D2Xs, D2X and D200 are the only cameras from the two leading digital SLR manufacturers to also support PIO Mode 5 (In all Canon and most older Nikon cameras, the fastest data timing mode supported is PIO Mode 4). Therefore, that makes it likely the fastest cards in the D2Xs, like the D2X and D200, are ones that also support PIO Mode 5.”
(emphasis added)

What’s that technobable?

PIO stands for Programmed input/output and is based on the ATA standard. In the computer world this has been replaced by Ultra DMA. In the latter case, a disk controller does the read and write allowing for faster speeds.

Unlike the computer world, the digital camera world never moved to DMA and just got faster speeds using PIO. The exceptions are medium format digital backs and cameras like the Hassleblad H2D 39 which support UDMA.

The technobabble in a chart

IO Canon Nikon readers Lexar SanDisk
PIO 3 10D, Rebel 40x Ultra
PIO 4 20D, Rebel XT, 1D (all models), 5D, 30D D100, D2H, D70, D70s most USB 2.0 readers 80x Extreme, Ultra II
PIO 5 D2X, D200, D2Hs, D2Xs 133x Extreme III
PIO 6 Lexar Pro CF, SanDisk Extreme USB 2.0 Extreme IV
UDMA 4 SanDisk Extreme Firewire Extreme IV

Notice the Extreme and the Ultra II are in the same category? I think that when the Extreme III was introduced, they relabeled the Extreme cards Ultra II and removed some of the software that comes with it. I wonder if future “Ultra III” cards will be relabeled Extreme III ones?

Notice something about Canon and Nikon here? This has always bugged me about Canon, because yet again, when they think nobody is looking, they cheap out on engineering that they should dominate in. If you are wondering how it was possible the D200 USB 2.0 transfer was faster than using an external USB 2.0 card readers, now you know! (BTW, the D50 is missing from the chart because it uses the Secure Digital format.)

When the Extreme IV really shines

If you are a pro, then it looks like the Extreme IV is currently the king of the hill. But why would anyone want that when there is no camera this side of $20,000 that supports it?

To use an argument from Moose Peterson, legendary Nikon wildlife photographer:

“Where does the big time saving come from? First, the actual speed of the 133x card and the controller in the Pro Card Reader. That in itself when uploading just one card you can see readily.”

If Moose thinks that a Lexar Pro 133x (PIO5) on a Lexar Pro Card Reader (PIO6) is fast, the transfer on a San Disk Extreme IV (UDMA 4) with a Sandisk Extreme Firewire CF reader (UDMA 4) has got to blow it away for single card transfers.

Now Moose’s only defense for using this setup is the fact that you can stack 4 Pro Lexar CF readers on a single cable. Which I’m sure he’ll use because he’s a Lexar Elite Photographer.

My favorite card reader

Lexar USB 2.0 CF reader

For compact flash, my favorite card reader is the Lexar USB 2.0 CompactFlash Reader. Why? Because it doubles as a case for my spare card and uses the same mini USB 2.0 cable that my camera and GPS do! (Note to Palm: Get off your ass and drop that sync cable standard and use USB 2.0.—you too Apple iPod) You can get a ZipLinq mini USB 2.0 cable to supplement this.

As for Secure Digital, my favorite reader is the IOGear Universal Memory Drive. Why? Because it doubles as a case for my spare card, is compact enough to fit in my pocket camera pouch, and doubles as a jump drive! Also, this means one less cable to carry—my Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX1 has “gone Palm” and uses a proprietary USB cable. Worthless.

IOGear SD Univeresal Memory Drive (Pocket Card Reader)

Why do I mention this? Because for non-pros like me, there is more to a card reader than speed. And having a card reader that doubles as a case is of high value if you own more than one media card per camera.

Just something to think about.

Other notes

It may interest some to note that the Lexar 133x is Made in the USA. My other cards (SanDisk) are Made in China. I don’t believe this covers the flash memory fabrication itself. SanDisk fabricates their own memory and controllers, whereas Lexar does not.

SanDisk is based in Milpitas and Lexar is based in Fremont. They’re practically next-door neighbors—both on east side of the South Bay! This reminds me of how AMD is in Sunnyvale and Intel is across the street in Santa Clara.

11 thoughts on “Compact Flash madness

  1. @James: I hope the memory card information helped and the IOGear Jumpdrive is useful (for more than just photography maybe).

    Unfortunately it isn’t you. My DSL is having issues. The irony is I turned off my web server last week to save power while I was away at OSCON and my DSL never went down once. I come back and it goes down 10 times in one day!

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