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Photo by Shawn Barnett, Copyright Imaging-Resource.com, 2007 Testing the Lexar 8GB 300x CF card
(Tuesday, February 20, 2007 - 15:52 EST)

Though we won't spend a lot of time telling you that you have to have the latest, highest-megapixel camera offered, we will stay up late to test a new high-speed card designed to help you deal with that ever-increasing onslaught of ones and zeros.

Today, Lexar announced several new products that will help professional photographers offload images faster, and also help their camera buffers clear faster, depending on the camera they own.

Like I did with Lexar's 4GB SDHC card last week, I tried the new 8GB Lexar Professional UDMA 300x Speed CompactFlash card and the new Firewire 800 reader with some of the cameras and computer equipment at my disposal. The new cards are supposed to be capable of a minimum of 45MB per second write speed, but I didn't actually expect to achieve that with some of my older hardware. I don't have the fastest computers, but my setup is similar to what many intermediate photographers looking for a speed improvement will have. Then I tested it with some more recent computers we have in the office, and even on our server. As I mentioned last time, it's clear that bus and hard disk speed are major factors in whether you'll get much benefit from a faster card, at least on the read/write cycle with a computer.

First I tested the Lexar Pro 300x card with a few cameras, comparing to an older SanDisk 1GB Extreme card, rated at about 60x. ISO was between 800 and 1,600 depending on the lens, and the shutter speed was between 1/200 and 1/250 second for the cameras, depending on the maximum aperture of the lens (remember, I'm doing this late at night, so I'm working with desk lamps, shooting printed pictures on the wall). The Canon Rebel XTi captured 28 JPEG frames with both the older 1GB card and the new Lexar 300x card, and wrote them in 13.2 seconds with the 1GB, and 12.18 seconds with the 8GB Lexar 300x. Not a huge improvement. Shooting RAW+JPEG Fine, the difference was a little more noticeable, taking 23.62 seconds for the 1GB and only 18.4 seconds to clear on the 8GB 300x card.

I found the same small difference with other cameras, including the 20D and the 5D. Shooting RAW+JPEG Fine, the slower card took 13.3 seconds, while the new card cleared in 12.0 seconds on the 20D. The 5D cleared in 27.18 seconds with the 1GB card, and in 23.5 seconds on the 300x Lexar. Not a huge difference, but a lot can happen in four to five seconds during a football game or even a model shoot.

Where the increased speed was more noticeable was with the Nikon D2Xs, where the 1GB SanDisk took 75 seconds to clear, compared to the Lexar 300x card's 57 seconds. Lest it seem like I'm picking on SanDisk, their Extreme IV 2GB, which just happened to be in the camera when I grabbed it off of Dave's desk, shaved a few seconds off of that, coming in at 54 seconds.

We've long known that different cameras can write at different speeds, and variables can include both the in-camera image processors, the buffer memory speed, and even the image content. So putting a faster card in your camera is not guaranteed to make a difference. The Nikon D2Xs seemed to get the most speed benefit with the new card; though I can't confirm that the 300x card is indeed faster than Lexar's older professional cards (because I don't have one). Sometimes, one card is better than another in different brands of cameras.

Because most cameras aren't yet up to the speeds possible with the new card, I got more impressive results with read than with write speeds with the new card. I tested it in both real world equipment (for those of us on a budget) and the faster stuff we have here at the office.

One of my slower computers happens to be the one a great many photographers will still have in their arsenal, a PowerBook G4 1.2GHz, which does have Firewire 800. With the new CompactFlash Firewire 800 reader I was able to read the near-maximum 7.42GB that fit on the 8GB card (only 1.3MB left available) to the PowerBook's 5400RPM drive in 9 minutes 42 seconds (582 seconds). That's 13MB per second. Write speed was similar, taking 9:52 (592 seconds), or 12.83MB per second, quite shy of the 45MB per second minimum sustained write speed potential stated in the press release. As the tests that follow will make clear, the limitation is on the side of this older PowerBook, not the card and reader.

Next I tried it in an iMac G5 1.9GHz. This computer doesn't have Firewire 800, so I used the 800 to 400 adapter cable, an optional accessory to the new reader. I didn't expect much of an improvement over the PowerBook due to this limitation, but clearly a faster computer bus makes for a greater performance boost. The read speed for the same 7.42GB was an impressive 4:04 minutes (244 seconds), or 31.13MB per second. Now we're getting somewhere. Write speed was slower, taking 7:09 minutes (429 seconds), or 17.71MB per second. For reference, I took an older portable Lexar Firewire reader from two years ago and wrote the same 7.42GB to it. That took 13:48 minutes (828 seconds), only 9.17MB per second.

Back here at the office this morning, we were able to see the card's real potential, rivaling very fast SATA drives. Copying to a very fast 500GB SATA drive on a dual-processor PowerMac G5, the Lexar 300x card copied its 7.42GB in 3:10 (190 seconds). That's 39.98MB per second, quite close to our goal. The fastest we were able to copy the same files from one drive to another -- on different cards in the computer -- was 3:03 (183 seconds), which equals 41.5MB per second. The Lexar is pretty darn close to that, and is likely limited by the bus speed and the hard drives themselves.

Write speed was a little slower, though, taking 5:40 (340 seconds), which equals 22.3MB per second.

But that didn't satisfy us inquisitive types here at Imaging Resource. So off to the server room, where our XServe, coupled with a screaming-fast SCSI RAID array revealed the card's best read potential. The fastest read we saw as the server copied was 46.5MB per second, resulting in a lowest time of 2:51 minutes (171 seconds), or an average of 44.43GB per second.

Turning in times faster than our SATA drives, the Lexar Pro 300x is one insanely fast card. It's clear that you also need the new Firewire 800 reader to achieve these speeds, and a fast computer platform to enable such throughput. There are faster computers on the market today than ours, so the 45MB per second is most likely achievable, but I wanted to give you some real-world perspective on how that might apply to you and your current hardware.

It's a little like adding a K&N high performance air filter to my 5.8 liter, 6,000 pound 1994 F-150. I know it's going to give me 11 more horses and save a little gas, but the limitations built into the vehicle when was built (with California smog components and all that weight) will prevent me from seeing the same results I'd get adding the same type of filter to a 4.6 liter 2007 Mustang bought in Georgia.

Your mileage will vary.

Prices for the 2, 4, and 8GB Professional cards have not yet been announced, but the cards are expected to ship in April. The Firewire 800 card reader I used will be available for $80 in April. Though I didn't have cause to mention it, the most impressive feature of these professional readers is that you can snap them together into a stack of up to four, daisy-chain them together, and they'll offload several cards simultaneously, a must for busy event photographers.

For more on this card and the new readers, see Lexar.com

For an excellent ongoing comparison among fast professional cards, see Rob Galbraith's site, where he's compiled an impressive database on how various cards perform with an array of cameras and readers. http://www.robgalbraith.com/bins/multi_page.asp?cid=6007

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