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The Memory Card Market

I've been thinking a lot lately about memory cards. And if you'll allow me to, I'd suggest you might want to as well. Things are changing.

My first digital camera was the Nikon Coolpix 990 bought back around the turn of the century. If that sounds like a long time ago, it was, at least in digital photography years. It took terrible photos, but at least I could use it for those random shots I wanted to see right away. Traditional film cameras forced me to fill an entire roll, then get the film processed, before I could see the results. That Coolpix was frustrating in so many ways, but it had its uses. It wan't until the Nikon D100 came out though that I seriously started contemplating giving up on film and shooting digital for everything.

Curiously, with all its problems and limitations, the one thing I don't recall disliking about that Coolpix was how it stored images. Believe it or not, it came with a measly eight-megabyte compact flash card. Yes, 8MB, not GB. Megabytes. Not only was that card ridiculously small by today's standards, but it was also ridiculously slow. But with Coolpix 990 images weighing in at just 3.2 megapixels, the limitations of the card were matched by the limitations of the camera, and all was well. At least in that regard.

Back then, all digital cameras used compact flash cards for storage. Yes, there were those clever but impractical IBM MicroDrives that were the same size and shape as a compact flash card, but had really tiny spinning hard disk platters inside that shape instead of flash memory. They were so fragile that one fall to a hard surface and they were almost guaranteed to fail. Maybe in the studio, but not in the field. And yes, Sony had already made their own foray into memory card market with their proprietary Memory Stick format. Sony was amazingly committed to the Memory Stick in the early 2000's, long refusing to support any other format across their entire product line. But other than outliers such as these, the digital camera world ran on compact flash cards.

Over the years, CF (compact flash) cards get faster and sported increasing capacities. As time went on though, compact flash encountered a formidable opponent in the form of the SD (Secure Digital) card. Already increasingly used by the newly burgeoning smart phone market, SD cards were much smaller than CF cards. As the capacities possible on CF cards continued to grow, at some point they began to surpass the capacity that the average shooter needed. Of course, over the same period, the capacities for SD cards increased as well. Once they got big enough, camera makers started switching from CF cards to the SD form factor (and variants thereof) to save both size and weight.

I had to make the switch to SD cards back when the Nikon D7100 came out, so these days, I'm pretty much used to the change. I have to admit, I almost prefer the larger CF form factor. I feel like sooner or later I'm going to drop an SD card and lose it. It may not die like a MicroDrive would, but it doesn't really matter if I can't find it. I haven't lost one yet though, so I guess I really needn't have worried.

I've had a Nikon D850 on backorder for a week and a half or so, so I've been trying to come to terms with the new XQD memory card format. SD cards are now so "old school." Nikon's first camera featuring support for XQD was the D4 well over a decade ago now, but the D850 will be my first. Sony introduced the XQD format, and my hope is that it won't suffer the same fate as the Sony Memory Stick did. Luckily, the D850 has slots for both SD and XQD cards.

Promising much faster speeds than SD could possibly support, XQD seems to be the best option for a camera with a 45.7-megapixel sensor. But I do find it curious that the format still hasn't seen broader support. Sony remains the primary manufacturer. Lexar has made multiple forays into the XQD market, each time following their new product announcements up with confusing signals as to their commitment to the format. A few smaller brands also do produce XQD cards, but no SanDisk, or even a PNY or Kingston offering.

Lately, Lexar has had their own troubles to worry about. In June of 2017, it was announced that the Lexar brand would end. Apparently, their parent company Micron decided that the memory card market was just too competitive, so they decided to get out. Shortly thereafter, a Chinese company named Longsys bought Lexar, but it remains to be seen if the quality of the old Lexar will continue under the new ownership.

So that leaves me with an XQD slot in my new D850, in which I will have my new Sony XQD card that I will then put in my new Sony XQD reader to copy my images to my laptop. And really, no significant competition to Sony in the XQD marketplace, more than 15 years after the format was first introduced. Somehow, this seems strange to me. As I said earlier, I consider it a plus that my new D850 will also have an SD card slot in case Sony's Memory Card history sees a repeat with XQD.

Lexar had always been my compact flash maker of choice, but when I switched to cameras with CD card slots, I switched to SanDisk. I can't really judge that those were the only or even the best manufacturers to go with, but they worked for me, and I know at least a few photographers who make similar choices and haven't needed to complain. I've had flash memory fail in USB thumb drives and the like, but never a Lexar CF card or a SanDisk SD card. Now with XQD cards, I guess I'm going with Sony. Here's to hoping this works out as well as Lexar and SanDisk did.

Now comes word that a group of former executives from all across the old Lexar have formed their own company named ProGrade. Their first memory cards are starting to ship, and early word is that they are serious about doing this right. At this point, they are producing SDXC and CFast cards. For now, they have no plans to produce XQD cards. Note too, that Lexar was big into CFast as a competitor to XQD that would be easier to adopt since it retained the same compact flash form factor but did allow for modest improvements in speed. I'd have to consider XQD the better technology, but that isn't always how winners in the marketplace are determined.


Date posted: February 25, 2018

 

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