Memory cards and related issues

Whilst it’s early days for this ‘blog’ section as I’m still awaiting delivery of my D850, there are a couple of specific issues that can be looked at in advance of actually using the camera - the first of these is memory cards.

Immediately after placing my D850 on pre-order I started thinking about memory cards, because I knew that I was going to be faced with a pretty hefty additional expense. Although I had a good idea where this exercise would take me, I had to consider a number of factors before making any final decisions - the format, capacity/size, brand/speed, quantity required and, not to be forgotten, the need for a new card reader.

You may be surprised by the number of issues these questions raise.

We'll start with the most straightforward - the card format
Over the past five years or so Nikon have been slowly adopting the still relatively new XQD card format as their natural successor to CF (CompactFlash). Whilst certain cameras such as the D7500 will continue to use the much smaller SD format, higher specification models with a dual memory card facility should support the faster XQD format in at least one of the slots. Nikon first used XQD in conjunction with CF in the D4 back in 2012, and subsequently in the D4s upgrade a couple of years later. The D800 was released at much the same time as the D4, but supported CF and SD, as does the D810. But when Nikon introduced the D5 and D500 at the beginning of 2016 they signalled their intention to completely drop CF. The D5 had dual XQD slots as standard with a more expensive dual CF card option if you could source one as most suppliers only stocked the XQD model. The D500 also incorporated XQD, but in conjunction with SD.

Understandably, Nikon has followed suit with the D850, albeit with an XQD primary slot and UHS-II SD backup/overflow facility as with the D500 rather than dual XQD as with the D5. Some professionals will find this rather annoying as the concept of having two matched slots allows for an identical backup copy to the same card format. The primary and secondary slots can be selected and, if required, the secondary slot could be used for JPEG copies if shooting RAW rather than normal backup or overflow use.

The D850 supports both XQD and fast UHS-II SD memory card formats
The D850 supports both XQD and fast UHS-II SD memory card formats

If I was shooting a wedding or a very special event, then having a backup facility where files are being replicated could be sensible. But I’m not, so I use the secondary slot for overflow. I prefer to maximise the speed and efficiency of the camera by only writing files to the fastest card in the primary slot, whilst knowing that if I inadvertently fill up my primary card I will be able to continue taking photos as any overflow will simply and automatically be transferred to the other card. Obviously this strategy works as long as you don’t have a problem with your memory card - if that becomes a concern then you need to use the secondary slot for backup as previously noted. The other point to bear in mind is that you may notice a slight drop in performance if you’re using a fast XQD card in the primary slot and then start overflowing to the slower SD card, although in real terms this would only be noticeable if you were really pushing the camera at the time.

The two main benefits of XQD cards are their very fast read/write speeds and their high-capacity storage limits. When the first cards were introduced by Sony (N series) they had speeds of 125MB/s. The fastest cards today are around 400MB/s, with the possibility of going even higher in the future. The need for more storage capacity has increased over the years as cameras produce larger and larger file sizes - the next issue to be addressed. I think it’s also worth pointing out that XQD cards are more robust than the old CF design or indeed the much smaller SD cards. I’ve used CF cards in all my Nikon DSLR cameras and have only experienced one problem over the years, which resulted from a bent pin in a faulty reader. This was the weak point of the design - the 25+25 rows of little holes in the card had to connect perfectly with the pins in the camera and card reader. Anyway, given that they’ve been around for the past 20 odd years, it’s about time we had a new format even if it means that my not insubstantial stock of CF cards will shortly be redundant. Personally I like the feel of an XQD card. It’s a good size being slightly thicker and a bit smaller than a CF card, and certainly more solid than SD.

Whilst you could possibly get away with using a quality UHS-II SD card as your primary format, the fastest available at the time of writing max out at about 300MB/s. If you’re shooting sports or wildlife action with occasional long bursts, or indeed video, then it makes sense to adopt the fastest available option your camera gives you, which in the case of the D850 is XQD.

Although that last statement is sound, I’m still trying to fully understand the concept of providing an optional slower SD card facility in the D850 rather than having dual XQD slots as the D5. I could be wrong, but I would have thought that there was even more justification to use the fastest format available in the D850 than in the D5. Yes the facility is there, but there’s still an SD option. I’m sure it’s not to do with the cost of having two XQD slots, so it must be in recognition of how expensive XQD cards are currently and that many users will opt for the cheaper alternative of using fast SD cards. But, if fast SD cards are perfectly acceptable, as they must be because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to use them, then why not have two matched SD slots?

Moving forward with XQD, let's now consider the card size/capacity options
I’ll try to keep this one brief, but this is my take on what appears to be the best option for me. Before purchasing the D800 and then the D810 I was happily using 8Gb or 16GB capacity cards. However, with the larger file sizes produced by the 36Mp sensor I had to move up to 32GB. Shooting 12-bit lossless compressed RAW files, my Lexar 32GB cards give me a theoretical 514 shots, although in practice it’s always a fair bit higher. The D850’s files will measure 8256 x 5504 pixels, compared with 7360 x 4912 from the D810, which is an increase of around 24%. If I was able to use my existing CF cards I would, as I have twelve of them! But I can’t, so consequently it makes sense to move to the larger 64GB size where the D850 manual states a capacity of 763 at my standard quality settings. Personally I like to use matched cards of a size that, in general, are more than adequate for a day’s shooting. Faster frame rates will almost certainly result in more files to process but, with an actual capacity that I expect to be somewhere between 800 to 900 shots, I feel that 64GB cards are the way to go.

Okay, I’ve now established that I need to purchase 64GB XQD cards …..
The first thing to be aware of is that you will only be able to source XQD cards manufactured by Sony or Lexar as no other company currently produces them. And to narrow your choice, or certainly complicate it, Micron, who were the parent company of Lexar, made an announcement in June that they were discontinuing the retail removable storage side of the business and, consequently, closing the Lexar division. I’ll ignore that problem just for the moment, as Lexar cards are still widely available at the time of writing this article.

So I suppose the sensible starting point before making any decision is to check what Nikon actually recommend or, to be more precise, what they confirm as approved and tested cards. The D850 manual lists the Sony G & M series cards (as well as their now discontinued S, N & H series), and the Lexar Professional 2933x model (plus the 1333x and 1100x, which have been replaced by a 1400x version).

The fastest are the Sony G series and the Lexar 2933x - both have similar maximum ‘read’ and ‘write’ speeds of 440MB/s and 400MB/s respectively. These theoretical speeds drop quite considerably in practical use, but they serve as a benchmark. Under controlled test conditions (using a 64GB card with 14bit, uncompressed RAW files in a D5) carried out by the on-line testing site the Lexar card had a slightly faster ‘write’ speed than the Sony card. And, not surprisingly, both cards were considerably faster than other lower rated cards that were tested from the same manufacturers.

I believe that all of the currently manufactured cards are available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities, with the higher spec'd versions noted above also in a larger 128GB option, which I guess would be useful for videographers.

The choice between Sony or Lexar is a personal one that may be influenced by what you’re currently using or, if you’ve been using another brand such as SanDisk, what you’re more comfortable switching to. I’ve used Lexar cards for the past few years and would like to stick with them, particularly as I prefer to match cards with a card reader from the same manufacturer.

So, what’s the latest news about Lexar?

Micron, or to be more precise Micron Technology Inc, are an American global corporation based in Ohio. They produce semiconductor devices, RAM, solid state drives etc. Their primary consumer brands were Crucial and Lexar. However, in June this year they confirmed that they would be shutting down the Lexar division. Whilst there were obvious concerns at the time that the brand could disappear, it has since been confirmed that it was purchased by a Chinese company called Longsys.

Shenzhen Longsys Electronics Ltd, to give them their full name, are a large, well-established business who specialise in the design and manufacture of consumer flash-based storage products. If you look at their portfolio today you will see SD cards, but not XQD or CFast (XQD’s rival) so, all things being equal, they’ve seen the potential gap in the market place and will continue with XQD production. However, they are primarily an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) with little direct experience of the retail market and no real company brand awareness outside China, so if they're going to be successful with this new venture they will need to make their intentions known as soon as possible.

Lexar Longsys logo

You can never be sure how business or brand acquisitions like this will pan out in the longterm, but a couple of positive things have happened within the last few weeks. The first is that we now know for sure that the Lexar trademark and brand rights were included in the deal as the above ‘marketing splash’ shows. We also have confirmation direct from Longsys that the purchase “provides assurance to existing Lexar customers that the solutions and support they have come to expect from Lexar branded products will continue to be available” and “the mission to make Lexar the go-to brand for high-performance removable storage continues”.

We’ll have to see how Longsys take this forward, but in the meantime will SanDisk or Kingston decide it’s a good time to try to obtain a licence to manufacture XQD cards? I know some people were saying that SanDisk were holding out in the hope that Nikon would abandon XQD and move to the CFast format. Obviously that hasn’t happened and, with the D850 following the D5 and D500, Nikon will surely have to continue down the same path for any upcoming or future camera upgrades even if we were left with Sony being the only XQD manufacturer. Personally I can’t see that happening and, although there is bound to be some disruption with supply, I will remain positive about Lexar’s future.
XQD card

The ‘Lexar Professional 2933x (440MB/s) XQD 2.0 64GB' cards I’ve opted to use are still currently available from various sources and, if you look around, at a good price (certainly not cheap, but good when compared with the full RRP), so I’ve already purchased my first batch before there becomes a stock shortage. I shall also acquire a single ‘Lexar Professional 2000x (300MB/s) UHS-II U3 SDHC 32GB’ card for the secondary overflow slot.

First batch! - how many do you need?
I guess that for many people a single XQD card would be sufficient for their needs - possibly two if they’re into any type of action photography. But, if you travel, you may well need more. Under one of my provisional ‘my gear’ entries (a section of the website that I’m still developing) I made comments about travelling light. I won’t repeat all of my reasons here but, for many of the trips I do, I often travel without a laptop and, therefore, need eight cards minimum, ideally ten.

In my preamble I made the comment about expecting a pretty hefty additional expense, and that’s exactly what has happened.

Card readers
To finish this article, I thought that it made sense to make a few comments about XQD card readers. As far as I can see the only real options are the readers manufactured by Sony or Lexar. Notwithstanding the fact that the Sony reader seems to have mixed reviews, I would naturally gravitate to one of the two available Lexar readers if I’m using Lexar cards. There’s a simple USB3 plug-in version or the more expensive module from their 'professional workflow' system.

Sony XQD (series G) USB3 card reader
Sony XQD (series G) USB3 card reader
Lexar XQD 2.0 USB3 card reader
Lexar XQD 2.0 USB3 card reader

I need a reader that I can use at home to connect to my iMac and also to use when I’m away from home with my MacAir laptop. At present I have a Lexar USB3 CF/SD reader and was initially thinking that I would just need to replace it but then, of course, I still need it for the D810 CF cards, at least for the foreseeable future (as it will effectively become my second/backup camera), and also for any SD card overflow from the D850. But I’m already maxed out in terms of USB3 connection on my iMac with various backup drives and other peripheries so, after a bit of research, I decided to spend even more money and purchase the HR-1 ‘professional workflow’ four-bay hub together with removable XQD, CF and SD reader modules, as well as a dual USB connection module and a 512GB portable SSD unit. This setup gives me many options, both at home and when travelling. The modules can be easily removed and connected directly to my MacAir and then, when back at home, slipped into the hub, which has a single connection to the iMac. Hopefully this workflow system will work well, but if I do come across any problems or unexpected issues I’ll be sure to share them in a future post.

Lexar 'Professional Workflow' XQD 2.0 USB3 card reader
Lexar 'Professional Workflow' XQD 2.0 USB3 card reader
Lexar 'Professional Workflow' 4-bay hub
Lexar 'Professional Workflow' 4-bay hub

Final words
I seem to have written quite a lot here - I hope that some of it is useful. From a personal point of view, I’ve gone through every consideration I can think of to justify my purchasing decisions. The choices I’ve made, particularly in sticking with Lexar, are right for me.

Sony is a solid alternative and obviously many people will have very good reason to choose that brand. They may even go for the slower M series rather than the expensive, currently top of the range, G series and may favour the smaller 32GB card capacity rather than the 64GB size I've chosen. Everybody’s needs are different, but at least the above considerations give some food for thought.

Tony - 'tickspics'
Sunday, 15th October 2017

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