For a long time, there were only two primary formats for image storage: Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD). That changed with a groundbreaking announcement in 2010 that San Disk, Sony and Nikon were developing a new card format that could write data at 500 megabytes per second (MB/s) on cards with storage upwards of 2 terabytes.
At the time, that seemed a little far-fetched—but then, in 2012, Sony announced the first XQD memory card. And while the first generation of XQD cards maxed out at a write speed of 125 MB/s, the potential for such technology seemed clear: to meet the demands of increasingly large image and video file sizes.
Replacing the Compact Flash
With image file sizes getting larger and 4K video recording on the horizon, Nikon and Sony began looking for faster and larger memory cards. While robust and the longtime choice of professionals, Compact Flash cards have limits when it comes to speed: 167 MB/s.
It may seem strange, but the Compact Flash card technology is more than 15 years old. The cards are much larger than SD memory cards: The physical space it takes to store two CF cards could (in theory) hold more than a dozen SD cards. And while the XQD cards aren’t quite as small as SD, they are far more trimmed than CF while still maintaining that thickness to prevent bending and breaking.
Currently, some Nikon models offer both CF and XQD card slots. Newer cameras can swap out the card modules if you want to upgrade later on
XQD has three main advantages over CF technology: writing speed, transfer speed, and large storage space. The writing speed is what made headlines with the XQD cards—with a theoretical max speed of 1 GB per second. We’re not there yet, but each generation of XQD cards is getting faster. The first generation, released in 2012, was slower than most CF cards with a write speed of 80 MB/s. However, the most recent cards have surpassed the CF 167-MB/s barrier, reaching upwards of 350 MB/s.
This write speed is made possible by the new Peripheral Component Interconnect Express, or PCI Express. This replaces older technology, improving performance by increasing the maximum system bus throughput, which is essentially how much data can be moved at a time. So what does that translate to in layman’s terms? Currently, Nikon’s new D5 can shoot up to 200 consecutive 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images in 20 seconds (10fps).
Not to be overlooked is the impact this has on transferring images to your computer, or an external drive. As we mentioned, the XQD cards have a theoretical capacity of 2 TB, so it’s important to be able to get that on to your computer in a reasonable amount of time. The current generation of XQD cards can transfer 60 GB of image files to a computer in three minutes, compared to seven minutes with a Compact Flash card.
Who Should Use XQD Memory Cards?
All of this sounds great, but even if you want to use XQD cards, the list of compatible cameras is small. Currently, Nikon is the only manufacturer to support XQD cards on its DSLRs, and even then it’s found only in flagship models—most recently the full-frame D5 and cropped sensor D500.
The choice to include the technology on a cropped-sensor model indicates Nikon is interested in using XQD cards in the prosumer market, not just for professional models. Interestingly, Nikon announced the ability to switch out the Complact Flash module on the D500 and D5 with an XQD card reader. Perhaps it will be possible to install the XQD technology in older models as well.
Other companies, such as Canon, have yet to include XQD capabilities in their DSLRs. That’s not to say we won’t see XQD dominate in the future, but for now most manufacturers are sticking with CF for their top models. It will also be interesting to see if there is an attempt to phase out the more pervasive SD cards in favor of this faster, more-capable technology.
While only a select number of Nikon cameras offer XQD card slots, the faster write speed and capacity suggests this will be the format of the future
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