Many of the remarkable capabilities built into today’s digital cameras were made possible by rapid advances in imaging-processing software. However, for the capture-to-storage cycle to work efficiently, the memory card, the final link in the imaging chain, must keep pace.
That’s why the leading makers of memory cards have unleashed a new generation of SDXC, CF and XQD cards that meet or exceed the needs of today’s pros and enthusiasts. Photographers who use the latest ultrahigh-res DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are inclined to shoot more 4K video and rapid-action sequences than ever, and to save their images as large files.
All the memory cards featured here provide faster read/write speeds and higher capacities than most previous cards. In addition, many offer added security features, enhanced ruggedness and weather resistance. Although they’re primarily aimed at high-end shooters, today’s top memory cards offer significant advantages for practically anyone who captures their precious memories with a digital camera, especially if they love to shoot video.
While most of these cards come in various capacities, we’ve zoned in on the middle ground.
Quick Guide to Memory Card Labels
Memory card capacity is pretty straightforward; the greater the number of GB (gigabytes) appearing on the label, the greater the storage capacity. For most shooters a 64GB card is more than sufficient, but pros and enthusiasts that specialize in shooting 4K video or extended action sequences at 10 fps or higher may be better off with a 128GB, 256GB or an even higher capacity card.
Card speeds are a bit more complicated, because several rating systems are simultaneously in use. There is a Speed Class, UHS Speed Class and a Video Speed Class. The UHS Speed Class rating is probably the most useful. A UHS-I card (marked I) will support read speeds up to 104MB/sec; a UHS-II card will support a read speed up to 312MB/s, and UHS-III up to 624MB/s. In the older 1–10 speed rating system still seen on cards, a top-tier Class 10 card (10-in-circle logo) is equivalent to UHS-I. It is verified to write no slower than 10MB/s. A Class 4 card has a minimum write speed of 4MB/s, which is okay for shooting single frames, but not great for capturing high-res video and bursts.
What Are All Those Letters?
Most of today’s top-tier SD (Secure Digital) cards are SDXC (Xtended Capacity), a file format that covers capacities ranging from 32GB to 2TB. SDHC (High Capacity) cards that range from 2GB to 32GB are still available. All current cameras are compatible with both.
The newest high-end CF (CompactFlash) cards for pro-caliber cameras are marked CFast 2.0. That classification corresponds to a sizzling read speed of 560MB/s and an impressive write speed of 495MB/s. The flagship Canon 1D X Mark II has one CFast 2.0 slot and one regular CF slot; the formidable Nikon D5 is available in dual CF and dual XQD card slot configurations. The Nikon Z 7, Z 6 and D500 also have slots for XQD cards, as do some Sony high-end pro-caliber video cameras.
XQD cards, originally designed as a replacement for the CF cards they resemble, provide much faster data transfer rates along with higher capacities—over 2TB. They use the PCI Express data transfer interface and they’re optimized for ultrahigh-res cameras and high-definition camcorders. However, they’re not backward compatible with CF or CFast cards and only work in cameras with XQD slots.
Yes, SDXC cards (in full size and micro versions) are by far the most popular memory cards worldwide. Since most mirrorless cameras also use them, they will likely continue to dominate the market. But CFast and XQD cards are now definitely contenders in the high-performance memory card game. They’re excellent choices for those who shoot with the high-performance cameras that support them.
Eight High-Performance Memory Cards
SanDisk 128GB Extreme Pro UHS-II microSDXC
Optimized for 4K video content, this U3, Class 10 card provides a maximum read speed of 275MB/s, a maximum write speed of 100 MB/s, and a minimum video write speed of 30MB/s. SanDisk made it shock, temperature and water resistant as well as X-ray proof.
It comes with a USB 3.0 card reader for enhanced transfer rates as well as downloadable RescuePro Deluxe software for easy file recovery. $99.95.
Sony 128GB SF-G Tough Series UHS-II SDXC
Acclaimed for its robust design that omits the built-in write protect switch to enhance ruggedness, this UHS-II, V90, U3, Class 10 card also delivers impressive performance. The Sony Tough features a maximum read speed of 300MB/s and a maximum write speed of 299MB/s.
Moreover, its minimum video performance speed of 90MB/s makes it suitable for 8K, 4K, 3D and 60p video applications. It’s said to be bend/drop/water/temperature/X-ray/UV proof and comes with downloadable File Rescue software. $274.99.
This Lexar card is designed for such applications as capturing high-speed imagery and 1080p Full HD, 3D and 4K video with a DSLR, HD camcorder or 3D camera. The SDXC UHS-II Class 10 card (rated at 2000x in the old speed rating system) delivers a maximum read speed of 300MB/s and a maximum write speed of 260MB/s.
Moreover, it’s bundled with an SD UHS-II card reader to transfer files to computers and tablets. It also includes downloadable Image Rescue software to retrieve lost files. $199.99.
Built to withstand temperatures from -13º to 185°F, this UHS-II, V90, U3, Class 10 card provides a maximum read speed of 250MB/s and a maximum write speed of 200MB/s. Moreover, its V90 rating ensures that its video performance speed will not drop below 90MB/s. And that is a speed sufficient to record 6K, 4K and 3D video.
In addition, the ProGrade Digital card records high bit-rate MPEG-4 files as well as rapid-fire bursts in RAW. It also has a built-in write protect switch to safeguard recorded images. $189.99.
Rated at UHS-I, U3, Class 10, this water-, shock- and magnet-proof card from PNY can withstand extreme temperatures.
It delivers a maximum read speed up to 95MB/s. The card includes a built-in write protect switch to help safeguard recorded images and videos. $39.99.
Samsung 128MB EVO Plus microSDXC
Compatible with cameras accepting full-size or microSD cards, Samsung’s high-capacity UHS-I, U3, Class 10 card provides a maximum read speed of 100MB/s and a maximum write speed of 90MB/s. For recording 4K and 3D video, it provides a 30MB/s minimum write speed.
It is waterproof as well as magnet and X-ray proof. In addition, it can withstand extreme temperatures of -32º to 158°F or exposure to a high-field MRI scanner. It comes with a full-size SD card adapter. $99.99.
This card is aimed at professional photographers and videographers using high-end Nikon and Sony cameras with XQD slots. The card has a PCI Express interface. It provides a maximum read speed of 440MB/s and a maximum write speed of 400MB/s.
The Delkin also records DCI 4K video and Full HD 1080p video at 180 fps and captures RAW bursts of up to 200 images. The card, which is XQD format v2 compliant, is shock, magnet and waterproof as well as X-ray proof. Moreover, it can withstand extreme temperatures. $229.95.
SanDisk 128GB Extreme Pro CFast 2.0
A great solution for pro shooters who want to upgrade the performance of their CFast 2.0-compatible DSLRs, this SanDisk card uses a SATA III 6GB/s bus to deliver a blazing maximum read speed of 525MB/s and a maximum write speed of 450MB/s.
It also has an impressive video performance guarantee of 130MB/s (VPG-130). It records DCI 4K video (4,096×2,160). In addition, testing verifies it works reliably in extreme temperatures. The card comes with a RescuePro Deluxe recovery software download offer. $339.99.