Which memory cards to buy, and why?
8th February, 2015
I have been asked many times which memory cards I use and what do I recommend. It is very easy to be tempted and go for a cheaper brand and since it serves the same purpose of storing photos, expensive one often gets overlooked. But a memory card in reality serves more than just a storage. It is the only media that stores and protects your photo from the moment you take it and up to the moment you copy them in your computer. Regardless of how good your backup strategy is, a good and reliable memory card is your only line of defense against photo loss or corruption. It could be the snapshots of a day out walking in the nearest park or wedding photos of your client that you took, they are only as safe as the reliability of the memory card.
Here are some of the factors you should be looking at when purchasing a memory card:
What kind of memory card your camera supports:
Most camera these days supports SD cards, and some professional camera supports compact flash cards. Many camera also supports dual card usage, which is important if you want to avoid changing memory cards while shooting or if you want increased protection and use two cards in a backup mode. Compact flash cards are faster than SD cards and more durable, although the speed gap is narrowing due to SD cards getting faster. SD cards are also cheaper when compared to compact flash cards.
Photos shows a SDXC card and a compact flash card from reputable manufacturers.
What kind of photography you will be doing:
What type of photography you will be doing is also a determining factor. If you are a sports or action shooter, you will need a fast card so the camera can quickly write the images from your camera buffer to the card and clear it for further shots. On the other hand, if you shoot landscape or macro or a portrait shooter, you may not need a very fast card. The price of the card greatly depends on how fast the card is. You should also check the memory card speed / specification and compatibility with your camera as the camera internal subsystem may not support the speed in which case, buying a fast card will not give you the speed that you require.
Some manufacturers mentions speed on the label of the card as MB/S (Megabytes per second), and some mentions it with a number and then 'X', where X equals to the speed of 150 KB/S. You just need to simply multiply the number with 150 KB or 0.15 MB. For example: the photo above, Lexar SDXC cards mentions a speed of 600x. Which means the speed is (600 x 0.15) = 90MB/s.
If the manufacturer is a reputable brand:
It is important to also keep in mind the manufacturer of the memory card. Reputable manufacturers uses higher quality memory chips which is crucial to data safety and they are also usually lasts long. Wear level on different memory chips are different, and reputable brands uses the good ones as they offer longer warranty and tries to keep the reputation of their card. They also implement error check and CRC check which corrects any error the memory chip may have and move data to another location to ensure its integrity.
If the card ticks the reliability features you want:
It is very important to ensure the memory cards are durable enough to work in less than ideal environments, and can keep the data safe. Many reputable brand memory cards are water-proof, shock proof, x-ray proof, magnetic proof and temperature proof. This are important as they can be the most unique feature that can save the data at harsh environments. For example: Airport x-ray system might damage a normal card, but not the x-ray proof ones. If you travel to a place where temp. Is below -10 C, a temperature proof card will survive and so on.
How is the warranty in case of failure:
Some manufacturers offers lifetime warranty for their flash memory products. This ensures that the company will stand by their product for the product lifetime and will offer support/replacement where necessary. The longer the warranty, the better.
If there is a recovery option provided:
Some manufacturers also provide a recovery program with their product. They use the most suitable software or software that knows how the memory card is designed, and offers recovery in case of corruption or accidental deletion. It is a good option to have and can offer a level of safety after data corruption or similar issues where images are lost.
If you can afford the card:
Lastly, the price of the card. Check and compare the cards that you can afford, and then buy the one that offers the features you need within your budget.
I always use backup mode in my camera so it stores duplicate copies of raw files in each memory card (One SD card and one CF card). I travel frequently and usually for weekends or longer trips, and hence it is important to have a good amount of storage with me. So, over time I acquired a good amount of memory cards, and recently I tested all of them to ensure they are all operational. I also wanted to get the speed they can be read and written at, so I did a thorough read and write test throughout the card capacity to ensure I get a good average speed. I did not have any Lexar cards and it did not feel fair to publish a speed comparison without one of the major memory manufacturer so I asked Lexar and they kindly provided me with two memory cards so that I can include their speed test results too.
All my tests were done using Lexar Professional USB 3.0 card reader in my computer, and was connected to ASMedia USB controller in my Desktop PC. I used Check Flash 1.16.2 to determine read and write speed of the cards. Please note that the speed is subject to variables i.e. computer specification, controllers, memory card readers etc.
The cards that I have tested are listed below with their advertised read and write speed:
* PNY Elite Performance Compact Flash 64GB - (100MB/s Read, 50MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Compact Flash 120MB/s 128GB - (120MB/s Read, 85MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Compact Flash 60MB/s 64GB - (60MB/s Read, 60MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Pro Compact Flash 90MB/s 64GB - (90MB/s Read, 90MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Pro Compact Flash 100MB/s 128GB - (100MB/s Read, 100MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Pro Compact Flash 160MB/s 128GB - (160MB/s Read, 150MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Pro Compact Flash 160MB/s 256GB - (160MB/s Read, 140MB/s Write)
* Transcend Premium 400X Compact Flash 64GB - (90MB/s Read, 60MB/s Write)
* Lexar Professional 1066x Compact Flash 64GB - (160MB/s Read, 155MB/s Write)
* PNY Elite Performance SDXC 90MB/s 256GB - (90MB/s Read, 60MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme PLUS SDXC 80MB/s 64GB - (80MB/s Read, 60MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme PLUS SDXC 80MB/s 128GB - (80MB/s Read, 60MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC 95MB/s 64GB - (95MB/s Read, 90MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC 95MB/s 128GB - (95MB/s Read, 90MB/s Write)
* SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC 95MB/s 512GB - (95MB/s Read, 90MB/s Write)
* Sony SF-G1UX2 U3 SDXC 94MB/s 128GB - (94MB/s Read, 60MB/s Write)
* Transcend Premium 600x SDXC 90MB/s 64GB - (90MB/s Read, 45MB/s Write)
* Transcend Ultimate U3 SDXC 64GB - (95MB/s Read, 60MB/s Write)
* Transcend Premium 300x SDHC 45MB/s 32GB - (45MB/s Read, 25MB/s Write)
* Lexar Professional 600x SDXC 90MB/s 64GB - (90MB/s Read, 45MB/s Write)
I have included the results for all the cards that was available to me, ranging from 64GB to 512GB. Note that SanDisk Extreme Pro 512GB SDXC card had some issues with the benchmark software, so instead I provided windows read and write speed results.
Please also note that, many of these memory card manufacturers do not have the advertised speed in their website, specially the write speed. I went through web searching and determined the speed of the cards once at least three web site information matched or the company press releases mentions them.
Compact Flash speed test screenshots
SD cards speed test screenshots
Please note that the test software did not work with the 512GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC cards, so I have included a windows transfer speed screenshot (Both read and write).
As you can see from the results, the SDXC cards can reach quite close to their advertised read speed. SanDisk Extreme PLUS models (both 64GB and 128GB) managed to exceed their advertised read speed. PNY Elite Performance and Transcend Ultimate SDXC cards have also reached very very close to their rated speed. SanDisk Extreme PLUS cards have actually managed to perform at the same level as the Extreme Pro cards, which are more expensive than the PLUS models. Transcend Premium SDHC cards broke through its rated speed (45MB/S) and recorded almost twice the rated speed (88.24MB/S). I was impressed with the Transcend Premium 300x SDHC card which has a rated read speed of 45MB/s but was able to read files at 88.24MB/s, almost double the advertised speed.
The write speed, which is more important than read speed as it determines how fast camera can record onto it and clear buffers for the next shots. From the chart, the PNY, Sony and Transcend cards exceeded their rated write speed. SanDisk Extreme PLUS models came very close to the rated speed. SanDisk Extreme Pro cards are the fastest in the test, although it is to note that their rated write speed is higher than other cards, and they also cost considerably more. Lexar 600x Professional SDXC card manages to outperformed its advertised speed by about 20MB/s.
From the chart, Lexar Professional 1066x card turned out to be the fastest one in the test, very closely followed by SanDisk Extreme Pro 160MB/s card. Transcend Premium and PNY Elite CF card manages to outperform their advertised read speed, and Transcend manages to perform as good as SanDisk Extreme Pro 160MB/s cards, at a much lower price point.
Lexar Professional manages to outperform all other cards in the write speed test too, closely followed by the SanDisk Extreme Pro 160MB/s. PNY and Transcend once again flexed their muscle and beat their own advertised write speed, by 32MB/s and 15MB/s respectively.
Durability, warranty and recovery software:
* All SanDisk Extreme, Extreme PLUS, Extreme Pro cards carries a lifetime warranty, which is around 30 years in UK. They can also withstand -25C to 85C temperature and the SDXC cards are rated to be shock proof, magnetic proof, x-ray proof and water-proof. They also comes with Recovery software license.
* PNY Elite Performance cards has a 10 year limited warranty, and is rated to be water-proof, temperature proof to -25C to 85C and magnetic proof.
* Transcend cards has a lifetime warranty, and can operate at temperature ranges from -25C to 85C. Some of the cards comes with recovery models, please check before purchase.
* Sony SDXC cards carries a 5 year limited warranty, and is tested to be waterproof, temperature proof and shock proof. There is an option to download a recovery software from Sony website, but I could not manage to do so. The link provided was invalid, and further search around the site only revealed a paid software option.
* Lexar Professional series cards comes with a lifetime warranty, and also comes with recovery software license. But in two different conversations with the Lexar support group confirmed that the cards are not waterproof, and can withstand temperature from 0C to 65C.
SanDisk Extreme Pro cards are very fast and expensive, so purchase when you really need the speed and the durability features. When you require the speed, Extreme Pro cards can really perform. All the durability features, lifetime warranty, recovery software license and excellent support makes it worth to buy their cards. The Extreme PLUS models were great too and showed great performance.
Lexar compact flash memory cards are the fastest in the test, and are priced better than SanDisk memory cards in the same performance category. Built for speed, but the durability features are not as good as SanDisk cards. Buy them if you need the absolute performance possible and when high environmental durability is not required.
PNY Elite Performance cards showed a very good performance, exceeding their rated speed in most tests, and they are cheaper than the competitive products and also durable. The warranty is not lifetime and they do not come with the recovery software, but I guess that helps cut down the price.
Transcend SDXC cards were the cheapest to purchase and showed very good performance too. Their CF cards are also available at a good price, and exceeded their rated read and write speed quite comfortably.
Sony 128GB SDXC card has a very good price, and comes with 5 year warranty and is durable so this is also a good purchase.Only negative point is the warranty which is only 5 years.
Remember to always check the camera manual and see what the manufacturers recommend. My Nikon D810 manual recommends SanDisk and Lexar cards, and I chose to use SanDisk because of the durability features which I require being a travel photographer. For my type of photography where I travel to different places, I need durable cards that can withstand extreme climate challenges so SanDisk is my choice of brand and my first line of defence against corruption or photo loss.
I hope this article will help you choose the right memory card for your camera. I admit this article does not cover all major memory cards available, but this is just a personal test of the cards that I have. And if you decide to purchase the cards that I have, then I hope the speed tests will help you too. I thank you kindly for reading and please feel free to share it or leave a comment should you wish.