Pitching Your Customers on the Need for Speedier Flash Media
During most of my years as a photographer, silver halide was the medium of choice for the vast majority of consumers. Even ten years ago, every retailer stocked at least a few colour print films and the specialists took advantage of the full spectrum. Slide films, professional films, low and high ISO films plus processing could generate decent returns. As digital cameras and camcorders became more popular, the re-useable electronic media decimated the film market. And as flash media became an inexpensive commodity by 2008, it became difficult to justify a lot of space for cards and accessories.
The situation is a lot rosier today because of new product developments. These include the trend toward cameras with even higher resolution plus video capture mode and faster processors. The combination has accelerated the demand for flash memory with greater speed and capacity. Many HD camcorders accept memory cards as the primary storage medium, or as extra capacity in addition to the built-in hard drive. And buyers of the latest, super-fast cards can benefit from accessories to accelerate the transfer of data to a computer.
Prices have also stabilized and are actually increasing in some segments because of new high-tech flash media.
For example, we've already seen the introduction the super fast Class 10 SDHC cards and even faster 400x, 600x and 675x CompactFlash cards. By late spring the entirely new SDXC media with huge capacity will be available. The latest cards offer greater potential with average prices at retail often exceeding $200. For example, Panasonic's 32GB Class 10 gold SDHC card should go out your door for about $370 and the 48GB SDXC Class 10 card should command over $550 a pop. Granted, not everyone needs that much capacity, but the average sale on flash media can be boosted significantly.
Naturally, that calls for educating customers about the new technology and the value of upgrading. Based on questions asked by students in my on-line digital courses, the vast majority of consumers are in the dark about the tech stuff. Photo and video enthusiasts would certainly benefit from a five-minute chat at your counter. So, let's review the developments, the benefits of new technology and the target market for the latest flash cards and accessories.
It's likely that the trend to very high capacity and speed was motivated by the growing number of HD camcorders with SD card slots, and DSLRs with a high-resolution/high-speed movie mode.
The Need for Speed
As recently as three years ago, many consumer-grade DSLRs employed a sensor with 6, 8, or perhaps 10 mega-pixel resolution, a relatively slow processor and a small buffer (temporary storage bank). This combination provided limited burst depth: it was not possible to shoot an extremely long series of photos regardless of the memory card that was used. A CompactFlash card with 133x write speed (up to 20 megabytes per second in some brands) or a Class 4 SD card (up to 15 MBps) was really quite suitable for most applications.
Faster media were available (at much higher prices); but they were necessary only for high-end or pro-grade DSLRs that could take advantage of the greater speed.
Faster Cameras: With each subsequent generation of consumer-grade DSLRs, both resolution and processor speed increased. These days, even some of the affordable cameras employ 12, 14 or 15 mega-pixel sensors. Improved processors and buffers allow for shooting 100 or more JPEGs in a burst. After blasting off a dozen shots, such cameras are ready to shoot another burst after a few seconds. Naturally, as a footnote in the cameras' specs usually indicates, a high-speed memory card is required for that level of performance.
A slower card will work fine, and it should maintain the stated framing rate (such as 3fps or 5fps) but the burst depth will be limited. And after shooting a series of images, recording time will be frustratingly long, so the camera may not be ready for the next photo opp'. These cameras really benefit from a 300x CompactFlash (up to 45 MBps read/write speed), Class 6 SDHC (up to 20MBps), Memory Stick Pro-HG (up to 30MBps); or one of the yet faster new cards.
The burst mode and high-res video of which a modern DSLR like Nikon's D300s is capable can rapidly fill an SD memory card to capacity, or tax its writing speed.
Super Speed Cards: And the latest media are extremely fast in terms of the stated maximum read/write speed. For example, The Delkin, Panasonic Gold, and SanDisk Extreme Class 10 SDHC cards claim read/write speeds up to 34MBps, 22MBps and 30MBps, respectively. (Frankly, Panasonic may be too conservative in its specs since their card is super fast.) And the claimed maximum speed is even higher in CompactFlash. Recent products include the SanDisk Extreme 400x (60MBps), Delkin 420x (63MBps), Delkin Combat Flash 625x (91 MBps), Hoodman RAW 675x (100MBps), and the 600x Pro cards (90MBps) from SanDisk and Lexar.
The CF cards rated at 233x and higher employ UDMA (Ultra Direct Memory Access), an advanced data-timing mode. That allows for very fast throughput from the camera's buffer to the memory card in UDMA compliant cameras: most DSLRs (with CF slots) made since mid-2007. The earlier cards employed the UDMA 4 specs, while the newer variants meet UDMA 5 specs for the 400x speed range, or UDMA 6 specs for the 600x range.
Fast Data Transfer: There is another benefit to very fast media: quicker uploading of photo and video files to a computer. That aspect is most valuable for those who often shoot numerous photos, particularly huge RAW format files. After a long event or a day of travel photography, an ultra fast card lets them "dump" the image files quickly. Naturally, that also requires a high-speed memory card reader and a fast computer (discussed in a subsequent section).
Speed Issues: Some customers believe that such cards will enable their cameras to provide a faster framing rate in continuous drive mode. That may sound logical but it's impossible. For instance, the EOS 7D can fire at a maximum rate of 8 frames per second and the Nikon D700 can fire at 5fps, or at 8fps when using the optional MB-D10 battery grip. Neither camera will ever be able to fire at a faster rate because of mechanical limitations.
The SD Card Association's standards for card speed provide the minimum guaranteed transfer rate to qualify for a certain speed Class: such as 6 MBps for Class 6, and 10MBps for Class 10. How fast are they, really?
The so-called "throughput rate" of some cards is very fast, but it's a theoretical maximum. And there's no single answer to the question, "What is the fastest card?" These important issues are particularly well addressed by Rob Galbraith of Digital Photography insights in Edmonton, who tested many SD and CF cards (primarily with Nikon and Canon DSLRs).
After examining all the data, he reached the following conclusion. "A card that is fastest with one camera isn't necessarily fastest with another, because of how the controller interacts with, and exchanges data with the camera," he explains. "The actual write speeds are a testament to this."
Galbraith made the data readily available (free of charge) in a CF/SD Database at www.robgalbraith.com. Even a quick review confirms that cards do vary dramatically depending on the camera.
More important, it's obvious that no card was able to achieve the claimed write speed in real world applications. That's likely because Galbraith used different test parameters (as detailed in the database) than the card manufacturers. But the performance data in the CF/SD Database is useful for comparing the performance of numerous memory cards in many DSLRs. Hopefully, the charts will be updated with the latest DSLRs and cards (and additional brands of media) to make this a valuable ongoing resource.
Canon's Rebel T2i is the first SDXC-compatible DLSR.
Cards for Video
Until recently, most of the "full HD" designated SDHC cards were in the Class 4 category, with claimed read/write speeds such as 10MBps or 15MBps. That's understandable, since there's no need for more with most camcorders as Panasonic Canada's Nadia Clark, Product Manager, Accessories Group, confirms. A camcorder will work fine with a faster card, of course, but there would be no benefit to the user, so maximum speed is not a selling feature for most such cameras.
Faster Cards: More recently however, some manufacturers have been releasing faster products such as the new SanDisk Class 6 "Video HD" series (20MBps). Panasonic's Class 10 (22 MBps) cards do not bear a "Video" logo, but some retailers are targeting camcorder owners in their promotional materials for these products. In fact, it's likely that the trend to very high capacity and speed was motivated by the growing number of HD camcorders with SD card slots, and DSLRs with a high-resolution/high-speed movie mode.
I discussed this issue with Ashley Yang, Product Category Administrator, Imaging Technology Division at Gentec International, a SanDisk distributor. "A camcorder like the Canon VIXIA HS11 needs only a Class 4 card, but some digital SLRs do need Class 6 specs because they can record 1080p at a very fast 30 frames per second," she explains. "A Class 4 card is suitable for [the more typical] DSLR cameras that capture video at only 24fps. But for shooting a very long series of still images, a user will want the speed provided by a Class 6 SDHC card."
CompactFlash for Video: Some DSLRs use CF cards instead of SDHC, but the concept of speed-for-video capture holds true. For example, the Canon EOS 5D Mk II can record 1080p video at 30 fps, and that can be handled by a 233x card. But the owner of a high res DSLR who often shoots numerous still photos in a sequence should be steered to 300x, or to one of the even faster cards, like the SanDisk Extreme Pro 600x UDMA 6 that I'm now using.
Estimating Capacity: For most video applications, capacity is more important than maximum speed, but that's not easy to quantify in general terms. The number of minutes that a card can hold depends on the file format, the resolution, and the compression setting that's used, as well as each specific camera's speed rate in megabits per second. That's why the ads for various brands of Video HD cards may be quite different with regard to the stated capacity.
SanDisk estimates that 10 minutes of the best (lowest compression) HD quality video will use 1GB. My experience with one DSLR indicates that an 8GB card holds roughly an hour of 1080p video of the best quality. With this camera, a 32GB card would provide capacity for only 4 hours of clips; so it would not likely be adequate for a vacation trip unless the user can regularly dump files to a laptop or another storage device.
New Extended-Capacity Cards
Customers who shoot wedding or sports videos may ask about the brand new SDXC (SD eXtended Capacity) cards with a capacity of 48GB and 64GB. These will be available soon from Panasonic, with a Class 10 speed rating, and will employ a newly developed Super Intelligent Controller that automatically refreshes error corrections for a longer useful life.
By Q2, SDXC will be available from SanDisk too (though only in Class 4 at this time), targeting camcorder owners.
Expect to see other SDXC brands in the near future, including some made by Toshiba. This manufacturer has a stellar reputation for speed, quality and reliability; but Toshiba does not market cards under its own brand name in North America.
Do note that all SDXC cards will employ the entirely new Microsoft exFAT file system, so they'll be compatible only with SDXC-compliant devices. At the time of this writing, that includes only a few cameras: Panasonic's Lumix models and camcorders cameras announced in 2010, and Canon's EOS T2i. And the SDXC cards will be very expensive. (The MSRP for the Panasonic 64MB card is $700.)
As the volume of demand increases, and as technology advances, prices will come down, predicts Gentec's Yang. For the near future however, SDHC (and CompactFlash or Memory Stick, depending on the camera) will remain the standard for video enthusiasts.
Photographers with high-end Windows or Mac laptop computers may want to consider a Delkin, SanDisk, or Lexar ExpressCard Adapter/CF Reader if they use CompactFlash cards.
Other Card Types
The xD Picture Card is waning in use, but the Memory Stick remains the number three flash format. The small/fast Pro Duo and Pro-HG Duo version from Sony, SanDisk and others, is available in capacities to 32GB. (Current cameras do not accept the original, larger/slower Memory Sticks). The HG designated card boasts the greater read/write speed, stated as 30MBps (or 200x) by SanDisk for their Ultra card, and as 20MBps by Sony for their HX-designated card. A Pro-HG Duo would be a fine choice for owners of cameras that can take advantage of its great speed.
Memory Stick XC: In 2009 Sony and SanDisk announced the joint development of a "Memory Stick Pro Format for Extended High Capacity," up to a theoretical maximum of 2 terabytes. The XC card would be similar to SDHC in both capacity and the use of the exFAT file system. However, this product remains a concept, and I was unable to obtain any information about plans for actual manufacturing.
Note too, that the current Alpha cameras accept either CompactFlash or SDHC cards in addition to the Memory Stick Pro Duo and HG. Sony Canada also indicates that all of their imaging products to be announced in 2010 will be able to use both SDHC cards and Memory Sticks. Some industry observers have suggested that this development signals an end to the "format war," but it's unlikely that the Memory Stick will disappear anytime soon, if ever.
Wi-Fi Pro Cards: Although they have not taken off in Canada, the Eye-Fi SD cards from Eye-Fi Inc. in Mountain View, CA, have done well in the U.S., France, Japan, and the U.K., thanks to enthusiastic reviews. These cards include built-in Wi-Fi that uses an owner's wireless network to transfer photos and videos to a computer. The card can be programmed with up to 32 networks and can also upload photos to one of the specified photo sharing Web sites.
The previous Wi-Fi products attracted little interest among Canadian retailers, but the company has announced an interesting new product. The new Class 6 Pro X2 offers greater capacity at 8GB, and provides faster wireless upload on supported networks, thanks to 802.11n technology and a redesigned (built-in) antenna. (It will retail in the U.S. for $150.)
The many Pro X2 features include automatic geo-tagging and automatic backup to a computer. There's a cool new amenity that will attract some tech fans. Endless Memory allows for automatically deleting photos from the card that have already been safely uploaded. This Wi-Fi card was not available for testing at press time, but if it works as advertised, it may deserve consideration.
Eye-Fi SD cards from Eye-Fi Inc. in Mountain View, CA, include built-in Wi-Fi that uses an owner's wireless network to transfer photos and videos to a computer. The card can be programmed with up to 32 networks and can also upload photos to one of the specified photo sharing Web sites.