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The Ongoing Memory Card Battle

My first digital camera utilized CompactFlash memory cards. My most recent supports dual SD card slots. Things change. But it gets quite complicated when you try to predict the future.

Back when I bought my first digital SLR, CompactFlash cards were expensive, and not very big. I know I had ones as small as 128 megabytes but there were probably even smaller ones I've forgotten about now. Many photographers just dipping their toes in the world of digital in those early days were tempted by a variant the CompactFlash format known as the Microdrive. Introduced by IBM, the Microdrive fit into the same slot as did regular CompactFlash cards but substituted a tiny spinning magnetic drive for the solid state memory normally used. Not all cameras could support the added power requirements of Microdrives, so some photographers specifically sought out models that could. It was only a matter of time though before most fell victim to a failed Microdrive. Those tiny spinning drive platters simply couldn't hold up to the requirements of use in the real world. Unless they were treated with great care, those tiny platters would eventually crash, literally. Microdrives mostly faded from the market by around 2004 but continued to be made by a Chinese company that got sued for patent infringement over rights to the IBM design. Today, Microdrives are thankfully gone.

Then there was the Sony Memory Stick. Back in 1998 when Sony introduced it, the CompactFlash format was a mere four years old. Sony clearly thought they could innovate faster by having a format that they controlled directly, giving them an advantage over the competition. This seems somewhat foolhardy in hindsight today, but there were already numerous other formats in the marketplace in those crazy early days. Few today have ever even heard of Miniature Card, SmartMedia card formats so Memory Stick has fared better than most. As of the beginning of 2010 though, it would appear that Sony quietly began admitting defeat. For the first time, everything they introduced at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show supported SD and SDHC cards in addition to the Memory Sticks. It would seem they want to continue supporting whatever portion of their customer base that may actually prefer the proprietary format, while at the same time not losing potential new customers who want something more standard.

Today, SD and SDHC cards have a growing slice of the market with CompactFlash slowly decreasing in popularity. Being smaller in size, early SD cards couldn't compete with CompactFlash in terms of capacity and were thus limited to lower-end consumer cameras. These days, both can hold more than most users truly require, and being smaller, SD card slots take up less space in a camera body than would CompactFlash sockets. As such, there's simply less need for CompactFlash than there once was.

When Nikon introduced the D4 digital SLR right around a year ago now, they surprised many by replacing the dual CompactFlash slots its predecessor had with a single CF slot and a slot for the brand new XQD card format. Touted as the wave of the future, XQD promised higher speeds and larger capacities than could be supported by CompactFlash. As far as I know, no other DSLR yet supports XQD, and it remains uncertain if any others will. SanDisk has already announced that will not releasing any XQD memory cards. The first XQD card was released by Sony, and it seems obvious that few other memory card makers are jumping to join them. Curiously, the Nikon Rumors website recently noticed that Lexar XQD cards are actually listed as discontinued on the B&H Photo website. Lexar insists they remain committed to XQD, but their actions don't appear to back that up. Lexar didn't release any new XQD cards at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

Just a year after XQD made its big debut, much of the buzz has shifted to CFast, a format based on CompactFlash, but one that replaces the older parallel ATA interface used in older computer IDE disk drives with the newer serial ATA (SATA) interface news in newer disk drives. Instead of XQD, SanDisk has declared that they will focus on CFast. Lexar too just announced a line of CFast cards.

So what should one make of all this? I honestly don't know either. The place SD seems secure for the time being, and CompactFlash isn't likely to go away anytime soon either. Should you be looking to move toward newer formats? Of necessity, the truth is that most users have to use what their camera lets them use. Only those in the market for a new camera have the motivation to consider which format they themselves prefer. Personally, I'd stay away from XQD for now though. Neither XQD nor CFast is backward compatible with current formats, but with both SanDisk and Lexar supporting CFast, its future seems more certain than that of XQD.

Date posted: January 19, 2014


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Compact Flash versus Micro Drives
What Does the Nikon D4 Announcement Mean for Nature Photographers?

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