If you’ve shopped for a new camera in the past couple of years, you’ve noticed how rapidly memory card formats are changing. XQD cards were released not too long ago, and now there’s a new type of card available that promises to change the game: CFexpress.
A lot of newer mirrorless cameras are using this format, usually backward compatible with SD cards and/or XQD cards. You’ll find CFexpress card slots in everything from the high-end Sony A1 to the more intro-level Nikon Z6ii.
So what are they? Do you need them? Are they really that great? We’ll start by looking at just what makes CFexpress cards so special.
What Are CFexpress Cards and Why Should I Care?
What makes this new format unique is its speed. Cameras are being released that can record 8K video and shoot data-heavy RAW files at burst rates of 30 frames per second. Those things require a camera’s processor to handle mountains of data very, very quickly. And for that, you need a fast write speed.
CFexpress cards were designed to meet that need. They use Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) 3.0, the same standard used by the solid-state drives (SSDs) built into laptop and desktop computers.
CFexpress cards come in three types: A, B, and C. Types A and C are the newest cards, introduced in 2019. As of early 2022, you can only buy type A and B memory cards, and cameras currently being sold use one of the two. Sony’s A1, for example, accommodates type A, and Nikon’s Z7 supports type B.
What’s the difference between them? Each card has at least one PCIe pipeline built into it, and the more pipelines they have the faster the card will be. Type A cards have one PCIe pipeline and can transfer data at a max speed of 1GB/s (gigabytes per second). Type B has two pipelines, which doubles that speed to 2GB/s. Type C has four pipelines, which doubles that speed again to a whopping 4GB/s.
Does the everyday consumer need this much speed? Probably not. But when you’re handling massive uncompressed photo and video files on a regular basis, it does become important.
Can You Use a CFexpress Card in Any Camera?
No. Where many cameras today are built to accommodate SD cards, CFexpress cards are still being worked into the rotation. Each type of CFexpress card is also a different size. Type A cards are a little smaller than conventional SD cards, while type B are the same size as XQD memory cards. Type C cards are even bigger than old-school compact flash cards.
These size differences mean a card slot has to be built for them specifically, so you can’t use a CFexpress card in an SD card slot. Cameras that have CFexpress card slots are usually compatible with SD cards, which is useful if you can’t afford or don’t need the extra power and want to stick with SD. Sony’s A7S iii has two card slots that fit either a type A CFexpress card or an SD card. Some CFexpress type B cards will also work in XQD slots.
What to Consider When Buying a CFexpress Card
First, think about whether you really need that much speed. Unless you’re a pro photographer that regularly shoots things like sports and wildlife, or a serious filmmaker that needs to record super-high quality footage on a regular basis, you’ll probably be fine with something like a high-speed SD card.
CFexpress cards are also expensive. One 160 GB type A card from Sony will set you back almost $400, while a 256 GB high-speed SD card is less than $100. The SD card’s max read speed is significantly lower than the CFexpress card at 250 MB/s, but if you’re using a lower-end camera or don’t shoot a lot of fast action at high burst rates it should work just fine.
Many of the big names in memory card manufacturing are making CFexpress type B cards, including SanDisk, Lexar, and ProGrade. Prices and features will vary depending on which manufacturer you go with. More expensive cards might be built more ruggedly and be better sealed against dust and moisture, for example. Of type B card manufacturers, SanDisk’s Extreme Pro line is a pretty good balance of affordability and functionality.
SanDisk 64GB Extreme PRO CFexpress Card Type B
If you're looking for a starting point in your CFexpress card journey, you can't go wrong with this reasonably priced card from a reliable brand.
As of early 2022, Sony and ProGrade both manufacture type A cards and both will set you back quite a bit. ProGrade is the slightly cheaper option, but you’ll still be spending over $300 for 160 GB.
Another important factor when buying any memory card is the card’s sustained write speed. Sustained write speed is how fast the card transfers data when being used steadily over a longer period of time — basically the overall average write speed of the card.
The fastest write speeds are reserved for short data sprints like burst photography, so as not to overload the card. Sony’s Tough series of CFexpress type A cards, for example, offers 700MB/s burst write speed and a sustained write speed of 400MB/s. While it may not be as fast as the burst rate, high-end cards still lose less speed over sustained use and have a higher sustained write rate overall than SD cards.
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