Over recent years, prices on compact flash cards have been going down, capacities have been going up, and the reliability of Sandisk, Lexar, Kingston, and Transcend compact flash cards have all more or less stabilized. It is much less common these days to experience a card failure. In fact, we often never even think about it happening. I just had 2 cards fail though, and which came as a surprise, but I will discuss that issue further in a minute. First I want to talk more about what to look for when buying a compact flash card.
I use only cards with 120 megabytes per second minimum transfer speeds and I used to buy strictly Sandisk brand cards, but a couple of years ago I switched over to buying mainly Lexar brand cards because they started offering UDMA 7 high-speed CF cards with transfer speeds also up to 120 megabytes per second and for a considerably lower cost than the Sandisk cards at this speed.
Sandisk and Lexar both now make what are known as “Professional” level CF cards designed to withstand situations of extreme heat, cold, dust and dirt, drops, and etc. So I feel comfortable with either brand at this point.
Note though that transfer speeds will depend also upon the type of card reader you are using. If you use a low budget card reader with slow transfer speeds then you may never realize transfer speeds on files of up 120MB/s from the card to your computer even though the card offers those speeds.
Thus, a couple of years ago I also switched to using a very good card reader made by PixelFlash which has “No-Bend” pin technology. This avoids the connection pins inside the card reader from bending or breaking off which often occurs with many of the inexpensive card readers.
The PixelFlash reader is also a USB 3.0 card reader. So transfer speeds are very fast. If you are using a typical USB 2.0 card reader than you will only be able to transfer at 60 megabytes per second even if the card offers 120 megabytes per second speeds. USB 3.0 card readers can transfer up to 640 megabytes per second. So they can take full advantage of the card’s maximum 120mb transfer speed.
Also, most newer cards are using the UDMA 7 technology I mentioned above and so if the card reader is not specifically designed to support UDMA 7 then it is possible that the card reader can cause the card to develop bad sectors and eventually fail over time. So it is best to avoid a low quality card reader all together, especially with the newer cards. But the PixelFlash card reader is designed to support UDMA 7 cards so it is great in that sense too.
Back to the flash cards though. In terms of cost, recently Sandisk prices have come down a lot to nearly match Lexar’s historically lower pricing points and thus, I started buying Sandisk cards again even though they still cost a little bit more than Lexar. The reason being that write speeds, often not discussed as openly by the flash card manufacturers, are a lot faster now on Sandisk cards and even more important than transfer speeds.
This is because the write speeds will have some effect on how many photos you can actually capture in a burst of continuous shooting if your camera has only a small buffer. And write speeds are becoming increasingly more important as more people are shooting HD video with DSLR cameras now which requires the use of faster card write speeds to be able to capture 1080 video resolution.
On the most recent Sandisk card I purchased, which is a Sandisk Extreme 32GB CF card, the write speed is up to 85 megabytes per second. On the equivalent Lexar Professional 800 32GB CF card the write speed is only about half that of a Sandisk Extreme card, reaching only up to 45 megabytes per second. So at the moment I prefer to spend another $10 for a Sandisk card to get nearly double the write speed. But that price versus transfer and write speed matrix could change over time (as it often does) and Lexar may again start offering faster transfer and write speed cards at lower prices than Sandisk in the future. Time will tell though of course.
Also, card capacities keep going up as time goes on and topping out at about 128GB on most brands at present. I continue to use cards of no more than 32GB though for the simple reason that if one of a number of smaller cards fails on a photo shoot then I don’t risk losing as many shots from the shoot as I would if I have all my photos on one higher capacity card. In fact, if you really want to be safe, then 16GB cards are the best in order to avoid ever having too much content stored on one single card. A 16GB card will still capture about 500 RAW files when shooting with a 21-22MP DSLR camera, which is quite a bit. A 32GB card should give you a bit more than 1,000 RAW files on a single card. If you have only say a 16MP camera though then you will likely be able to capture even more RAW files than 500 on a 16GB card. At the moment I have two 16GB and two 32GB cards that I am shooting with. These four cards can capture a bit over 3,000 RAW frames in total on either a Canon 5D Mark II or Mark III camera. This pretty much provides me with enough storage for any type of photo shoot I may have. Multiple cards also allows me to separate the files from different segments of a shoot which can be quite useful as well.
I also mentioned the Kingston and Transcend brands. They make decent quality cards as well and I have used them in the past too. But at the moment Kingston’s equivalent card, the Kingston Ultimate 600X CF card, transfers at only 90MB/s and costs more than both the Sandisk and Lexar 120MB/s transfer speed cards. So they aren’t a good value at all. Transcend has a 32GB 800X CF card which transfers at 120MB and writes a little bit faster than the Lexar card at up to 60MB/s, which is good. But I haven’t bought a Transcend card in the last 4-5 years to be able to say how good they are. But basically all of these 32GB CF cards are in the $35-$45 price range at the moment.
Now, getting back to my card failures, all the brands seem to offer limited lifetime warranties on their cards (limited to card defects and failures not attributed to physical misuse of the card), but I haven’t had a card failure in years. So I hadn’t really been so concerned with warranties or customer support from any of the brands for a long time.
But recently I had both a Sandisk and a Lexar card fail right around the same time and I would say in terms of customer support and warranty coverage that Lexar is truly the winner over Sandisk in this category.
I contacted Lexar through their support email address at firstname.lastname@example.org and within 1 day they had already made arrangements with me to return the defective card to them for a free replacement. They were extremely polite and accommodating and even sent out the replacement card to me before receiving the faulty card back from me so that I would not have to be without my memory card for longer than necessary.
Sandisk on the other hand has provided terrible support so far. Their support is nonexistent in fact. I wrote to them about the failed card 10 days ago to their customer support email address at email@example.com and have received no reply from them at all. I wrote to them again 3 days ago and still no response from them on my request for product support. You would think as the largest manufacturer of flash memory in the world that they would offer better customer service, but apparently not.
So there you have it and, when deciding which card to buy, you should consider not only price, but transfer speed, write speed, warranty, and support service track records.
You can also click on the links below to see which cards I would recommend from each of the 3 main manufactures that are offering 120MB/s transfer speed UDMA 7 CF cards at this time.
Bear in mind, these are not necessarily the top of the line, highest capacity, or fastest cards available from each of the 3 brands, but these are the card models I feel have the best balance of cost versus speed:
If you have any questions on Compact Flash cards please free to post them below.