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CompactFlash revamp aimed at cameras

A higher-performance revamp of CompactFlash could start arriving in cameras in 2009. But it's not compatible with today's standard, so prepare to toss your old cards.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

A speed-boosting overhaul of CompactFlash memory technology could start arriving in cameras next year, but it's incompatible with the version used in today's higher-end models

The new version, called CFast, has faster data-transfer speeds that could let photographers take more continuous shots without waiting for the camera to catch up, cut camera makers' costs for built-in buffer memory, and make it swifter to review photos on a camera or copy them to a computer.

This a closeup of the a CFast-era CompactFlash card. Note that it's got a slot instead of pins and that it's got different ridges called keys down the sides to prevent it from being used in today's style of CompactFlash slot. Stephen Shankland/CNET News.com

"It's going to end up in the high-end cameras. The reason to move to it is purely for speed," said John Santoro, senior product marketing manager for Lexar, a flash card maker and Micron subsidiary. He predicts its arrival in 18 to 24 months. "It's my feeling the camera companies already have this on their road maps and want to start working on prototype samples as soon as the specification is finalized."

But as with many upgrades, the standard will break compatibility with today's technology. That means today's CompactFlash cards won't work in CFast slots, and CFast cards won't work in today's slots.

So the more certain you are that you'll buy a new high-end camera in the next couple years, the more cautious you should be before investing in an expensive collection of shiny new 32GB CompactFlash cards.

CFast spec almost done; prototypes to come
Last year, the CompactFlash Association began work on the new standard, and the specification is in its final stages, said Bill Frank, executive director of the CompactFlash Association.

"We expect the CFast specification to be published for distribution in the second quarter--hopefully in April or May," said Frank, who showed off CFast prototype cards and slots at the Photo Marketing Association trade show last month in Las Vegas.

Top-end CompactFlash today cards reach 45MB/sec, a speed rating also called 300x (1x is 150KB/sec). CFast, though, uses an interface called Serial ATA that today reaches about 375MB/sec.

In practice, today's cameras can't keep up with those speeds, and flash card readers struggle when transferring images to computers. But faster speeds are useful in cameras, as newer SLRs show: when data can be written to a flash card faster, it's easier to design faster burst-shooting modes into camera that otherwise must rely on more built-in conventional memory.

CFast cards have a different electronic signaling technology that requires a different physical interface, and cards and sockets are shaped differently to prevent people from mixing the older and newer cards. The new socket is tested for 10,000 insertions, just as with current CompactFlash, Frank said.

Camera adoption?
The next question is how CFast will arrive in cameras. CompactFlash today is used in higher-end SLRs from Nikon, Canon, Sony, and Olympus. But camera makers are reluctant to describe particular technology plans, and Nikon didn't even respond to a request for comment.

When I asked Chuck Westfall, technical adviser for Canon USA's professional products marketing division, whether CFast would catch on, he was equivocal. "It remains to be seen. What drives the market is cost and performance issues and availability," he said. Canon's caution, for example, meant it only moved its low-end Rebel SLR line to SD flash memory when the card format was very well established.

Richard Pelkowski, digital SLR product manager for Olympus America, also wouldn't commit, but he did acknowledge the general advantage of CFast. "Greater speed and greater capacity--we certainly realize the benefit of that," he said, adding that card speed not only lets images be written faster, but also lets photographers review them more easily and take advantage of features such as the side-by-side comparison in Olympus' new E-3 SLR.

SanDisk, another top flash card maker, was more circumspect than Lexar.

"At some point, the industry is going to have to transition to some other type of high-performance card," said Jonathan Hubert, SanDisk's director of strategic marketing for flash cards and accessories. CFast is one strong candidate, he said, but then suggested that the SD Card Association isn't resting on hits SDHC laurels.

Frank, perhaps unsurprisingly given his leadership at the CompactFlash Association, was the most bullish of all. He said that Canon and Nikon engineers are participating in the CFast specification development and that the first cards likely will hit the market in the second quarter of this year. "Since this affects the silicon (chips) in cameras, expect no less than a year for cameras to appear using CFast," he said.

Jump-starting the market
If it were up to the camera makers alone, CFast's future would be more uncertain. But there are industrial uses of CompactFlash, too, for computing devices embedded into all manner of things.

CompactFlash is used in routers, defibrillators, Apache attack helicopters, and General Electric locomotives, Frank said. Some slot machines have two--one for holding the operating system and another for logging transactions.

The CompactFlash future in some ways isn't hard to predict. The technology uses the same interfaces as conventional computer hard drives, and it's been following that road map with a few years' time lag.

Today's mainstream CompactFlash cards use an interface called IDE or parallel ATA, and a newer generation just arriving use a speed bump called Ultra Direct Memory Access (UDMA) that in practice tops out at about 80GB/sec. The CFast version uses Serial ATA technology, which was announced in 2001 and connects hard drives in virtually all PCs today.

Those industrial computing customers, who often don't suffer the power-consumption constraints of camera makers, are eager for the new technology, Frank said--indeed, they were the first to ask for it. Because they're using conventional SATA computer chips, it's not difficult to move to the new technology.

From there, it's a matter of jumping to the camera market, where Lexar focuses. "I think it's inevitable," Santoro said.