CFast 2.0 splits high-end flash card market

Sony and Nikon brought XQD to market last year for higher-end cameras. This week, Canon and Phase One backed a rival memory card format, CFast 2.0. SD Card will mop up the mess.

SanDisk showed this CFast 2.0 prototype flash-memory card at Photokina 2012 in Germany. The card is for high-end cameras and is the same size as a CompactFlash card. Canon committed to support CFast 2.0 in future cameras, but Nikon is backing a different would-be CompactFlash successor called XQD.
SanDisk showed this CFast 2.0 prototype flash-memory card at Photokina 2012 in Germany. The card is for high-end cameras and is the same size as a CompactFlash card. Canon committed to support CFast 2.0 in future cameras, but Nikon is backing a different would-be CompactFlash successor called XQD. Stephen Shankland/CNET

COLOGNE, Germany -- There's room for a higher-end flash card format that's faster and more capacious than SD Card, and for years, CompactFlash has occupied that market niche.

But CompactFlash is running out of steam, and finding a successor to CompactFlash just got a lot messier courtesy of a new standard that arrived this week at the Photokina trade show here.

Last year, Nikon and Sony carried the XQD format to market as the would-be CompactFlash successor, with Nikon's flagship D4 camera accepting the cards and Sony making the cards. But Canon and professional camera maker Phase One announced support for the new standard, CFast 2.0.

Sony's new 32GB QD-H32, a XQD flash memory card, has a retail price of $229.99.
Sony's new 32GB QD-H32, a XQD flash memory card, has a retail price of $229.99. Sony

Who'll win the battle between these two formats? Neither. SD Card will.

SD has spread far and wide and now is supported even on high-end SLRs. Examples include high-profile, high-end models such as Canon's $3,500 EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon's $3,000 D800 , both of which pair a CompactFlash slot with an SD slot. And a notch down the line but still in the ethereal world of full-frame SLRs, Nikon's D600 has two SD slots and Canon's EOS 6D has a single SD slot.

SD's performance is increasing, with faster transfer speeds and guarantees that higher-end cards will keep up with video. Today's UHS-1 rating will be exceeded by a faster UHS-2 in the works. And with ever-smaller flash memory chips, capacity is increasing, too. Lexar announced a 256GB SDXC card at Photokina, for example, and its top rival, SanDisk, is steadily improving its SD products , too.

No, SD can't match CompactFlash, but it comes close and is plenty fast for most people's needs today. And for people upgrading from lesser cameras, chances are good that customers already have some SD cards ready for use. And don't forget that many computers, including all newer Apple Macs, have built-in SD card readers.

Who will lose this battle? Today's CompactFlash customers.

CompactFlash already costs more per gigabyte by a long shot than SD, and with the high-end market split between XQD and CFast, you can expect lower sales volumes for each. You also will have a harder time finding them in stores if you're vacationing or cadging one from a fellow photographer in a pinch. Now it won't just be lenses that Nikon and Canon shooters can't share.

It's not easy to bring a new flash-card format to market. Manufacturers have to find the right flash memory chips, design or buy controllers to embed on the cards, and test to make sure the cards meet standards for longevity and durability.

Right now it's not clear whether SanDisk and Lexar will each manufacture both of the new formats, but it appears unlikely.

A CFast 2.0 card, at left, is the same size as cards for today's prevailing format for high-end cameras, CompactFlash.
A CFast 2.0 card, at left, is the same size as cards for today's prevailing format for high-end cameras, CompactFlash. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Sony is the sole supplier of XQD cards today, but Lexar announced its support of XQD to keep its business partner Nikon happy. It still hasn't brought any XQD products to market, though that should change in a few months. "The likelihood is you'll have something at CES," the January electronics show, said Steve McDonald, market development manager for Micron's consumer products group, which runs Lexar.

He also wouldn't commit Lexar to making CFast cards, though having SLR leader Canon in the market could be a draw even if it's only with high-end SLRs. "We're looking at various types of technology," McDonald said.

SanDisk, on the other hand, announced its support for CFast 2.0.

"We believe in CFast," said Gerry Edward, director of product marketing. Its top speed is 600 megabytes per second compared to 250MBps for XQD. "We're not going to productize XQD any time soon."

But when it comes to speed, that's not the whole story. The CompactFlash Association, a consortium that standardizes both CFast and XQD, also just announced it's working on XQD 2.0 that'll reach to 1,000MBps.

The two specifications different? Because different companies chose a different path to better performance.

CFast 2.0 is the same width as CompactFlash, but its electrical connections use a fin with metal contacts rather than CompactFlash's recessed pins that must poke into holes. The new design is more reliable, SanDisk said.
CFast 2.0 is the same width as CompactFlash, but its electrical connections use a fin with metal contacts rather than CompactFlash's recessed pins that must poke into holes. The new design is more reliable, SanDisk said. Stephen Shankland/CNET

CompactFlash is based on the old PATA (Parallel Advanced Technology Attachment) standard that was phased out years ago as a way to plug hard drives into computers. CFast 2.0 uses the newer SATA (Serial ATA) that modern hard drives use. But XQD uses a different data pathway that's deeper in a computer's architecture, PCI Express.

Neither CFast 2.0 nor XQD is compatible with CompactFlash, so cameras and card readers need new slots to use either.

CFast cards are the same relatively large size as CompactFlash cards: 42.8mm x 36.4mm x 3.6mm. That makes it easier to reach higher capacities and makes it a bit less likely that photographers will lose track of the cards. But XQD's smaller size -- a bit larger than SD cards -- makes it easier for designers to squeeze one or two slots into camera bodies.

For the card manufacturers, though, standards wars can be tough, as the videotape industry of decades past showed. "We need to make sure we're not backing Betamax, we're backing VHS," McDonald said.

 

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