SDXC Cards – What the New Format Means to Photographers

The SDXC card specification has been announced for more than a year now.  However, it’s only now that we are starting to see products supporting this new specification.  There are a few important things to note about SDXC cards and how they fit into photographers’ gear bags.

The SDXC specification comes from the SD Association, which is an industry standards organization founded by Panasonic, SanDisk and Toshiba in 2000.   If a manufacturer is going to use SD technology in product, they have to license the right to use that technology from the SD Association. Most, if not all, of the major camera manufacturers are members of the SD Association and license the patents and other intellectual property necessary for developing SD-compatible cameras and memory cards.

There are a number of different specifications that the SD Association has developed over the past decade, including SD, miniSD, microSD, SDHC, miniSDHC, microSDHC and SDXC, among others.  Each specification has its own limitations or capabilities.  For instance, the original SD specification offered storage only up to 2GB.  When SDHC came along, it took the capacity up to 32GB.  The latest specification, SDXC, offers storage capacities up to 2TB.

We’ve certainly come a long way since the first SD card was offered at 8MB in 2000.  Nowadays, a single file from a DSLR can reach 30+MB in size and SDHC capacities up to 16GB and 32GB are becoming more and more common in photographers’ camera bags.  It won’t be long before we start seeing those 64GB and larger cards more frequently in our bags.  As image sensor resolution and HD video options continue to grow, we are going to need more and more capacity to contain all of that content.

SDXC Speed Advantage

Along with the growth in capacity, SDXC also provides an increase in file transfer speed.  The SDXC specification calls for transfer speeds between 104MB/sec and 300MB/sec.  The starting point of 104MB/sec is faster than any current CF cards, including the recently released 600x speed cards with transfer rates in the neighborhood of 90MB/sec.  Granted, the SDXC transfer speed numbers are only theoretical speeds, but still promising for the future potential. At this point, however, there are no real world photography uses for the SDXC cards other than the capacity benefits – and those are limited to a few point and shoot and video cameras.

Panasonic launched a couple of new SDXC cards at CES 2010, and a number of manufacturers launched SDXC-compatible still and video cameras, including Panasonic and Sanyo.  Obviously, the point and shoot cameras won’t get much out of the speed side of the SDXC specification and will unlikely make full use of the extra capacity given the relatively small size of JPEG files.  Some people may be able to make immediate use of the capacity of SDXC cards in video cameras; however, that would still be a ton of video to fill up a 64GB card.

Future SDXC-Compatible Products

The real attraction to SDXC comes in its potential future though.  Since the form factor of SDXC cards is the same as that of the predecessor SDHC and SD cards, manufacturers will be able to produce future cameras that are backwards compatible with photographers’ current stock of SD and SDHC cards, while still offering the flexibility of the new format.

Speaking to SD Association reps at CES 2010, it is important to note that you cannot go out and buy an SDXC card and use it with current DSLR models.  The SDXC specification is backward compatible in the sense that devices, such as cameras, that are compliant with the SDXC specifications can use SD and SDHC cards.  However, the vice versa is not true.  Camera models that are not manufactured to the SDXC specification cannot use SDXC cards.

The real advantage to the SDXC cards will most likely be seen by DSLR users first.  As noted above, there are no current DSLR models that are SDXC-compliant.  When DSLR manufacturers start using the SDXC spec, we may start to see SDXC challenge Compact Flash as a main stream DSLR storage solution.  SD cards already have a stronghold in the entry-level DSLRs, having completely pushed CF cards out of this category on most models (the Nikon D5000 and Canon Rebel T1i being the most prominent).  SD cards are also making their way into prosumer and pro DSLR models as secondary card slots as in the Nikon D300s and Canon 1D Mark IV.  Some models like the Nikon D3s still use dual CF cards though.

With SDXC cards now a reality, I expect the move into the prosumer and pro DSLR market to continue with some new prosumer cameras featuring only SDXC card slots.  There is a significant size difference between the SD and CF format.  While I personally prefer the CF card size over the SD card size (and I know many other photographers do too), I think the build of the SD cards and the size of them will win out with manufacturers once the speed differences between SD and CF cards are inconsequential.  SD cards have a more robust physical interface with the camera contact points than CF cards.  While I have never bent a CF pin inside of a camera, I’ve heard horror stories of those who have.  You simply don’t have this type of problem with the SD card format.  As for the size advantage, camera manufacturers certainly benefit from the form factor of SD cards when it comes to building a camera, which will make it easier to make smaller cameras or add dual card slots.

I would expect all the DSLR makers to start taking advantage of the SDXC speed and capacity advantage very soon.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see several SDXC compliant DSLRs and hybrid cameras released in the lead up to PMA 2010 next month.  Based on Panasonic’s introduction of their SDXC cards and SDXC-equipped point & shoot cameras at CES, I would put a new SDXC-capable Micro Four Thirds or DSLR high on the list of probabilities.  I would expect other manufacturers to follow suit in order to maintain a competitive edge in this category of the ongoing specification wars.  Additionally, with SanDisk being a founding member of the SD Association and an industry leader in SD card manufacturing and sales, it makes sense that it should release some SDXC products soon.

Stay tuned for updates on the SDXC format, as we should be hearing a lot more about it in the near future.