The Deepening XQD Card Mystery
With the first cards announced in January 2012, the XQD format is only supported by higher end broadcast camcorders and DSLR cameras, notably including my new Nikon D850. But beyond that, XQD hasn't gained much traction, and of late, the future of XQD seems increasingly shrouded in mystery.
The whole reason for developing the XQD format was to provide increased capacities and, more importantly perhaps, increased speeds when compared to the existing CompactFlash and SD card standards. One of the biggest bottlenecks in digital shooting is the time it takes to offload images from the camera's internal buffer to the storage card once they have been shot. All cameras include image buffers, so they can handle bursts. But at some point, rapid, continuous shooting can fill that buffer faster than previous shots can be moved safely to a memory card. Hold down the shutter release long enough, and you have a traffic jam. And the problem only gets worse with increasingly higher resolution sensors creating ever larger files.
The design for XQD was jointly co-developed by a partnership between Sony, SanDisk, and Nikon, but was later adopted by the CompactFlash Association as an official standard. So far as I am aware, among digital SLR makers, only Nikon has adopted XQD.
But following directly on the heels of the XQD announcement, the CFast 2.0 specification was announced. CFast had been around since 2009, but it wasn't until version 2.0 that it started to catch on at all. CFast is based on the legacy CompactFlash form factor but replaces the parallel ATA/IDE interface with a Serial SATA bus to provide faster throughput. This is basically the same SATA interface now widely used by hard drive makers. In April 2015, Canon announced that it would make use of CFast 2.0 in its professional video cameras, and in the EOS-1D X Mark II DSLR the following year.
In the fall of 2016, the CompactFlash Association announced CFexpress as the successor of XQD. CFexpress cards look pretty much like XQD cards, and both use the same interface. But notably CFexpress promises even higher speeds and improved power efficiency for less battery drain. Supposedly, a firmware update will make it possible to use CFexpress in cameras designed for XQD.
Late last year, Micron announced that it was discontinuing the Lexar brand of removable storage. Then came word that Longsys, a Chinese manufacturer had acquired the Lexar brand and that it would indeed live on. Initial shipments were delayed though, with Longsys initially blaming the delay on the packaging. They needed to change all the wording to say Lexar/Longsys as opposed to Lexar/Micron. At the time, the new Lexar also stated that CFexpress will replace XQD over time, but everything would be OK since the new format is fully backward compatible with XQD. They assured everyone that updated product would begin shipping "in a few weeks." Anyone who has shopped for a XQD lately knows that events have not borne out this prediction. The mystery deepens.
Now comes a bit of clarification from the good folks at Nikon Rumors that apparently some of the patents for XQD are now owned by a "rogue" South American subsidiary of Sony who wants Lexar and everyone else to pay licensing (the word Nikon Rumors uses is "ransom") to use it. Lexar terms the situation an "unforeseen memory constraint from our XQD technology partners." How quaint. Nikon has threatened to intervene as one of the originators of XQD. Long story short, this has all gotten messy. Meanwhile, its us consumers that are the ones caught in the middle. Right now, Sony is the only supplier for XQD cards, and clearly, they have their own internal problems.
Everybody wants faster cards, but not everyone can agree on the best way to get there. This whole situation is somewhat similar to the great VHS versus Betamax wars in the early days of the video cassette market. And wasn't that a fun time for all? When Betamax finally threw in the towel, users who had chosen that format were stuck with a system that was at a dead end. In the end of course, both formats thankfully finally died once DVD and Blu-ray began to take over the market. And we all got to buy new media regardless.
So, what is anyone supposed to make of this convoluted XQD card mystery? Only time will tell. Will the legal logjam surrounding XQD get resolved soon so that Lexar and others can resume sales, so we don't have to be completely dependent on Sony? Will CFexpress replace XQD without our needing to do anything other than update camera firmware? And what of CFast? I really wish I knew. But I'm glad my D850 has slots for both XQD and the more widely available SD formats. Thankfully, I predominantly shoot landscape and don't tend to hold the shutter release down and fire away like a machine gun, but wildlife and sports shooters should obviously be concerned.