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When digital was first catching on, it seemed like there were new memory- card formats coming out almost as fast as new cameras. It was bewildering. In the subsequent shakeout, a few formats have endured and continue to be significant for DSLR shooters—Secure Digital (SD), CompactFlash and Memory Stick.
For nature shooters, our priorities for a memory card are speed and capacity. The card needs to be able to keep up when we’re shooting a fast sports or wildlife-action sequence, and it needs to have enough space to let us keep shooting. Beyond these main criteria, the best thing one can usually say about their memory card is that they didn’t notice it at all. With all of the aspects of taking a good photograph that we have to think about, a memory card should just work, plain and simple.
Many DSLRs now feature two memory-card slots. This is particularly convenient if you’re shooting RAW and JPEG simultaneously or if you’re shooting HD video. You can set up the camera to use each card slot for the different file types. It’s a nice feature because it allows you to designate a faster card for the files that need the speed most. For example, HD video needs high speed to avoid dropping frames. You can set up a dual-slot DSLR to record your HD video to your fastest card, while using a slower card in the slot you designate for the still frames. You can save a few dollars on a slightly slower card that’s exclusively for still shooting.
When you’re choosing a card, it’s not as simple as getting “the best” or “the fastest” because the performance and the compatibility of the card hinge on the camera. For example, when it comes to CompactFlash, newer cameras make use of a fast data transfer protocol called UDMA (Ultra Direct Memory Access). Older DSLRs used a different protocol called PIO (Programmed I/O). If your DSLR isn’t UDMA capable, don’t pay the extra money for a UDMA card, because the cards will default to the older, slower PIO protocol. SD has similar issues. There are several types of SD cards now, including SD, SDHC and SDXC. The cards are all the same physical size, but they use slightly different internal technologies.
To avoid getting the wrong type of card or spending money for speed and capacity that you can’t use, check with the camera manufacturer about capacity and data-transfer capabilities. You can also check out the card manufacturers’ websites for information about compatibilities.
Here’s a brief overview of the different memory-card types available out there and a few select cards from the major manufacturers.
One of the very first memory card formats was the CompactFlash. The name immediately caused confusion among photographers due to the use of the word “flash,” but that subsided as digital cameras began replacing film for most enthusiasts. CompactFlash cards are bulkier than other formats, and their obsolescence was predicted several years ago as their maximum capacities and maximum speeds were estimated to be limited, but apparently someone forgot to relay that information to the card designers who have kept CF charging ahead. Today, you can find a CF card with up to 64 GB of space and with transfer rates up to 90 MB/s.
Once thought of as a format for point-and-shoot cameras only, the SD card has become common in DSLRs—even pro models—because of its speed and extremely high theoretical capacity. Although current cards top out around 64 GB, the format itself is projected to have the ability to go as high as 2 TB! The latest iteration of SD cards is the SDXC, which are available with up to 64 GB and offer transfer rates of 15 MB/s. That speed is particularly important for HD-video shooters who need the card to keep up with the camera to avoid dropping frames and having sound dropouts.
Exclusive to Sony, the Memory Stick continues to evolve with higher capacities and speeds. In 2010, Sony was seen largely as the most innovative of the major camera companies as they released mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras, new DSLRs, HD-video capability in their still cameras and a new hybrid video camera with an APS-C-sized image sensor and the ability to capture a still frame while shooting video. To keep up with the increasing demands being created by their cameras, the Sony Memory Stick has kept pace.
Hoodman’s top CompactFlash card is the 32 GB UDMA RAW unit (list price $499), with a super-speedy 675x (up to 100 MB/s) rating. Hoodman produces a single line of CompactFlash cards, the high-end UDMA RAW series. Cards also are available in 4 GB to 16 GB starting at $89. All Hoodman RAW memory cards are made in the United States and come with a lifetime warranty.
The Ultimate 600x is Kingston’s top CompactFlash card, available in capacities of 16 GB and 32 GB, and rated at up to 90 MB/s. For less demanding DSLRs, Kingston’s Elite Pro 133x is rated at 20 MB/s and comes in capacities from 4 GB to 32 GB. All Kingston memory cards come with a lifetime warranty.
Lexar’s top CompactFlash model is the super-quick UDMA Professional 600x, available in 8 GB, 16 GB and 32 GB capacities for $199, $299 and $499, respectively. When transfer rates of 30 MB/s will do, the Platinum II 200x media come in 4 GB, 8 GB and 16 GB capacities for $39, $49 and $89, respectively. All come with limited lifetime warranties.
The world’s biggest memory-card manufacturer, SanDisk offers the Extreme Pro (UDMA 6, up to 90 MB/s) card in capacities of 16-64 GB (starting at $335) for extreme users, and the Extreme (UDMA 5, up to a still very respectable 60 MB/s) in capacities of 8 GB, 16 GB and 32 GB (starting at $145) for more budget-minded DSLR shooters. All come with limited lifetime warranties.
As with its CompactFlash cards, Hoodman offers a single, U.S.-made line of SD cards, the high-end RAW SDHC (RAW Steel). The 8 GB, 16 GB and 32 GB cards are Class 10 speed, the 4 GB is Class 6. Prices range from $49 to $189. Like all Hoodman memory cards, they carry a lifetime warranty.
The top SD card in Kingston’s lineup is the 64 GB Ultimate X SDXC Class 10, rated at 233x (up to 35 MB/s). For those on a budget but still wanting performance, the Ultimate X SDHC Class 10 can write at up to 18 MB/s, and comes in 8 GB, 16 GB and 32 GB capacities. All come with a lifetime warranty.
Lexar’s top SD card is the Professional 133x SDHC, available in 8 GB, 16 GB and 32 GB capacities and priced from $89 to $259. The cards are Class 10 speed rated (minimum guaranteed speed of 20 MB/s). For the economy-minded shooter, the Platinum II SDHC cards are rated Class 6 (100x, 15 MB/s) and come in capacities from 4 GB to 32 GB at prices from $19 to $139. All carry a limited lifetime warranty.
Panasonic’s Class 10 Gold Series SDXC (64 GB and 48 GB) and SDHC (32 GB, 16 GB, 8 GB and 4 GB) cards can transfer data at up to 22 MB/s. Their economy Class 4 Blue SDHC cards come in 4-16 GB capacities and can transfer data up to 15 MB/s (there’s also a 2 GB Blue SD card).
PNY’s top SD card is the High Speed Professional SDHC Class 10, which comes in 8 GB and 16 GB capacities ($34 and $49, respectively), with up to 20 MB/s transfer speeds. PNY also offers slower, lower-cost cards, but at those prices, why not go for the top end?
SanDisk’s Ultra SDXC offers 64 GB capacity and Class 4 (15 MB/s) speed for $349. Users who can live with 4-32 GB capacity can get one of the faster Extreme SDHC Class 10 (30 MB/s) cards. Both types come with a lifetime limited warranty.
Most Sony digital cameras use Sony’s Memory Stick memory cards, but recent ones can also use SD cards. Sony offers Class 4 SDHC cards from 4 GB to 32 GB, priced from $24 to $129.
Lexar’s Memory Stick PRO Duo Mark2 comes in capacities from 4 GB to 32 GB, and is compatible with many Sony digital cameras. Lexar doesn’t provide speed data for the PRO Duo Mark2, but it comes with Lexar’s limited lifetime warranty.
SanDisk coinvented the Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo with Sony, and offers its own version. The Ultra Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo comes in capacities from 4 GB to 32 GB, with prices ranging from $48 to $279. The cards can read/write at up to 30 MB/s, and carry SanDisk’s limited lifetime warranty.
Sony created the Memory Stick back in 1998, and the latest version, the 32 GB Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo HX ($149), is four times faster than the previous Memory Stick PRO Duo, able to read up to 30 MB/s and write up to 20 MB/s in compatible Sony DSLRs (the A900, A850, A55 and A33, plus the NEX-3 and NEX-5 mirrorless models and some other recent Sony still and video cameras).