CFexpress: The Next Serious Media Format

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CFexpress: The Next Serious Media Format

Before you come storming the front doors of the B&H SuperStore with your torches and pitchforks, complaining about yet another new type of media you have to purchase, I should tell you that the latest format is a definite upgrade. This is no simple battle between two competing formats; this is an evolution that will make things better for everyone involved. What is this up-and-coming hero? CFexpress.

Why Do We Need CFexpress?

The reason is simply that CFexpress offers vastly superior speeds over current-generation media, such as XQD or SD. It also has room to improve and multiple formats for use in different types of equipment. We have even already moved on from CFexpress 1.0 to 2.0, unlocking different sizes and increased speeds.

The CompactFlash Association has a very clear goal with this format: to start unifying standards. CFexpress uses the PCIe 3.0 interface and can offer 1 to 4 lanes of 1 GB/s transfer. It will also work with NVMe for faster performance. Based on these numbers, you can have a card that transfers data at a rate of 4 GB/s. That is amazing. XQD can only reach target speeds of up to 0.5 GB/s. In the future, CFexpress could adopt PCIe 4.0 specifications and, hopefully, remain backward compatible with the same format.

Breaking down the different “Types” that are available, two are available for purchase, with a third waiting for its moment to shine. The two you’ll see on consumer photography and video equipment are Type A and Type B. Type C is larger and has greater potential speeds, but nobody has implemented it quite yet.

CFexpress Type A shown in use with the Sony a7S III. The card size offers enhanced speed while allowing the camera to support SD cards using a unique slot design.
CFexpress Type A shown in use with the Sony a7S III. The card size offers enhanced speed while allowing the camera to support SD cards using a unique slot design.

Type A is close in size to an SD card and is a little smaller, but thicker. The first consumer camera to use this format is the Sony a7S III, and the first manufacturer to produce them was also Sony with its CEA-G TOUGH series. I believe this format will become much more popular in coming years, on cameras with smaller form factors.

Stepping up, we have the more popular Type B format. Now, you might be thinking this looks familiar, and you’d be right. CFexpress Type B and XQD use the same exact form factor and connectors. Because of this, many cameras, such as Nikon Z Series and Panasonic S Series, which originally had XQD card support, have been able to enable CFexpress via firmware updates. XQD already offered benefits over many conventional card types and is notably smaller than the competing CFast format, so it is easy to see why it took off early in CFexpress’s expansion.

Finally, there is the Type C card. It is close in size to CFast and CompactFlash, though it offers much faster speeds. It hasn’t been used in any consumer products yet, but I could see it being popular for cinema cameras in the future with its added speed and the fact that the cameras themselves are larger.

Today we have two options for CFexpress formats: Type A and Type B. A vast majority of existing cameras make use of the Type B format, likely because it was a smooth transition from XQD. However, Sony produced the first CFexpress Type A cards when it launched the a7S III featuring CFexpress Type A slots. For most shooters, Type B is what you need.

Luckily, Type B has been around for a while, and a lot of big memory card players now produce their own lineups of high-performing cards. I’m going to run through a few right now.

SanDisk

The lineup from SanDisk is quite simple, which is helpful, in my opinion. The company offers a single lineup of Extreme PRO CFexpress Type B cards. These are bundled with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III DSLR to handle its impressive speed and raw video. Speeds offered on the 128GB and larger cards hit 1700 MB/s read and 1400 MB/s write. The 64GB version is a little more conservative, with 1500 MB/s read and 800 MB/s write.

SanDisk 128GB Extreme PRO CFexpress Card Type B
SanDisk 128GB Extreme PRO CFexpress Card Type B

ProGrade Digital

Another solid brand for media is ProGrade Digital, who jumped headfirst into CFexpress. It has multiple lineups and versions. Considering the two main options, we have Gold and Cobalt. Gold is going to be the go-to choice for most photographers and videographers, with sustained write speeds of 300 MB/s or greater (600-1000 MB/s for anything smaller than 256GB). There is also a max read speed of up to 1600 MB/s, so you can review and transfer files quickly.

ProGrade Digital 512GB CFexpress 2.0 Gold Memory Card
ProGrade Digital 512GB CFexpress 2.0 Gold Memory Card

Cobalt, on the other hand, steps things up to the extreme with minimum sustained write speeds of 1300 MB/s. This will handle the latest raw video formats without issue, because you can write at these speeds until you fill up the card. Pro video shooters will want Cobalt.

ProGrade Digital 650GB CFexpress 2.0 Cobalt Memory Card
ProGrade Digital 650GB CFexpress 2.0 Cobalt Memory Card

Delkin Devices

Another reliable memory brand breaking into the CFexpress space is Delkin Devices. It has one sensible Type B lineup, though it starts with the reasonable 64GB PRIME model and its 450 MB/s write and 1450 MB/s read speeds. Moving up to 128GB, you enter the POWER series, which bumps up to 600 MB/s write and 1600 MB/s read. Then, continuing on in POWER from 256GB up to a whopping 2TB, you get impressive 1430 MB/s write and 1730 MB/s read. This is a situation where greater sizes equal greater speeds.

Delkin Devices 2TB CFexpress POWER Memory Card
Delkin Devices 2TB CFexpress POWER Memory Card

Lexar

Well known in the memory space, it only makes sense to see Lexar entering the CFexpress Type B arena. Lexar maintains its “Professional” branding and it makes sense with all of its cards—from 64GB up to 512GB—hitting 1000 MB/s write and 1750 MB/s read speeds. Not much more to go into there. It’s solid performance from a solid company.

Lexar 512GB Professional CFexpress Type-B Memory Card
Lexar 512GB Professional CFexpress Type-B Memory Card

Sony

Last on this list is Sony, who got a nice callout earlier for being the only one offering CFexpress Type A cards. These blow SD out of the water with 700 MB/s write and 800 MB/s read. They are also rated as part of Sony’s TOUGH memory card lineup, meaning they are durable and will hold up to professional workflows—and accidents—without worry. At the moment there are only 80GB and 160GB options, and they only work with the a7S III.

Sony 160GB CFexpress Type A TOUGH Memory Card
Sony 160GB CFexpress Type A TOUGH Memory Card

Type B is still something Sony offers, with a straightforward lineup of 128, 256, and 512GB cards. These are also rugged, TOUGH cards and offer max speeds of 1480 MB/s write and 1700 MB/s read. Another great choice.

Sony 512GB CFexpress Type B TOUGH Memory Card
Sony 512GB CFexpress Type B TOUGH Memory Card

Looking Forward

A major advantage of the format is that it can theoretically be planned to work with the upcoming PCIe 4.0 spec, leading to dramatically increased speeds. Much in the way SD cards got their staying power from being upgraded to handle faster and faster speeds, I hope that CFexpress becomes the next standard for a long while.

We dont yet know what this new media format will make possible. Early moves see it being able to support raw 4K video and high data rates, but camera and device makers will soon be able to make use of this extra throughput in their upcoming plans. Who knows? Maybe 30+ fps unlimited full-resolution raw shooting is on the horizon or 6K and 8K in a pocketable camera. Time will tell.

Are you ready for CFexpress? I know I am. I’m also ready for an abbreviation. What are we thinking? CFx? Let us know your thoughts and questions in the Comments section, below.

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21 Comments

I wonder if other brands are working on CFexpress Type A cards right now. Got about two months before we get our hands on the A7SIII, and i'm hoping to have more options for that type of card by then. 

As the standard is available, it is highly likely these are in development from many manufacturers. How long they will take to come out is still unknown. The rollout of CFexpress Type B took many months and is still taking place in some ways.

Hmmm...just my go the way of the memory stick. 

Benjamin H. wrote:

Hmmm...just may go the way of the memory stick. 

I love standards because there are so many to choose from.

Also, I upgraded the firmware on my Nikon to handle CFExpress, but if I buy such a card, I'll also have to spend an extra $100 for a reader. The XQD card readers are not upgradable with firmware. I'll also have to keep in mind I need CFExpress Type B and make sure I don't accidentally get Type A or Type C at some point. Um, yeah, I'm finding this memory card stuff to be rather irritating. It is starting to look like each manufacturer wants to consolidate the standards to the set of patents that they own. Grr. </griping>

Well, unfortunately I can’t confirm this information directly. But I would imagine that since recent cameras have a USB 3.1 or later spec, which is a theoretical 5 Gb/s transfer speed (625 MB/s) you could use the camera as a card reader in the meantime connected to your PC and still get faster transfers than SD. Though it would still depend on whether the camera will actually support real-world speeds that are faster.

But yea, the whole Type thing is going to be confusing for a good long while I agree.

I agree.... I  Type A B C will is already irritating to me. I can see this a issue for people who rent cameras or uses multiple camera platforms

I just purchased Nikon Z 6 that utilizes a CFExpress card, I use a iMac that doesn't seem to recconize the card when I connect it.

Hi Robert,

What type of reader are you using to attach the card to your computer?

Since I don't do video and I own a Z6 and Z50... I will stick with the ZQD and SD tough cards for now at 32gb. Plenty of space and speed for me.

If you don't need the extra speed there is no need to upgrade yet. This is the right decision. Though it is nice to have the newer cards if you plan on upgrading at any point in the near future.

I will switch if and when they get more affordable. I'm still trying to getting used to the price of XQD  :). 
I may be forced to buy open box or slightly used cards in the future

 

I would recommend keeping an eye out for our e-mail newsletter, where special pricing would be announced. 

Can I use CFexpress in my canon 7d mark ii ?

No, unfortunately. Only newer cameras (Nikon Z 6 and Panasonic S1, for example) will be able to support this format. It is physically different than the older SD, CompactFlash, and even CFast card types. 

I always look forward to better and faster technology even if I don't need it right now. I'm sure the future will dictate that need. That is if I live long enough to find out. I'm old enough to remember when my first 1G CF card cost me three hundred dollars and came no where near the speeds of today.

It is going to be very nice once they become more common and, hopefully, a little more affordable. I'm looking forward to the next wave of cameras that will offer it.

Fine...<sigh>.  But I'm keeping my pitchfork handy!  :-)

You should always keep the pitchforks handy, though I'm glad to hear they aren't being used now!

I am sure the CFexpress will make to our new camera like Nikon Z. I will upgrade it for sure. I am tired of fragile SD card for its slow read/write speed and how easy to damage it. I know there is Sony Tough card out there but it does not giving high speed. Welcome CFexpress!

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