“The CFast was dead to begin with.”
That’s how Dickens would start this, and he’d be right. Given the smaller form factor and ability to evolve and scale, XQD looked like it was going to usurp CFast, but as it is with technology, we are often taken by surprise, and CFexpress is that surprise. News broke as reported and confirmed by DPReview that ProGrade Digital would not be pursuing the development of XQD but CFexpress instead, we, and everyone else in the business, were all ears, but cautious.
Caution, however was thrown to the wind this week when ProGrade Digital demoed their 1TB 1400 MB/s read and 1000 MB/s write CFexpress at NAB. It looks, sounds, and feels, and smells like a fulcrum point.
If you remember it was only a few months ago we reported on ProGrade Digital’s emergence from the ashes of Lexar, and with that CV they immediately stood to be taken very seriously, and that’s before one has even read what they’ve promised for their own mission statement. What’s relevant here, however, is that ProGrade stands to be the high-end producers of memory cards for the discerning, so when they state they’re ignoring one format, it’s reason to pay attention.
Beyond the mechanics and optics, data storage is the unifying blood between all photographers in the modern era; we all shoot and those photos are no longer stored on celluloid but on chips. However, while memory cards can be thought of as being under a single taxonomic umbrella, they’re not, and at the moment it’s down to interface.
First and foremost let’s just address that the quest for speed of data transfer is like running in a race where the finish line keeps moving. We want cards to handle 4K today, but Moore’s Law suggests we’ll want 6K not in 5 years, but in 2. As a consequence of that, memory card makers know they can’t just be looking down the block, as much as they need to be looking around the corner.
Two years ago it was a conversation between going CFast or XQD, but really that conversation was over as it begun.
CFast’s boundaries of what it can do are at around 500-600MB/s, and that boundary is a wall you can’t get over, making a departure from the type an eventual certainty. XQD on the other hand has a trick up its sleeve: mutation, as a consequence of being PCle over SATA.
Where the CFAST is fatalistic, the XDQ can evolve to be faster, significantly faster than CFast.
CFexpress, however, is faster still.
CFexpress will run a PCle interface with up to 8 lanes that can handle 1GB/s each. That’s 8GB/s transfer speed. So what we’re seeing here with ProGrade Digital’s first offering, while utterly impressive, is perhaps all the more exciting because we know it’s the first step but not the last.
When speaking about XQD, it’s adoption hasn’t been very wide, and Sony is currently the only producer of XQD at the moment. Furthermore, we’ve seen ‘better’ tech come and go in various fields before simply because they weren’t broadly adopted, and this was a concern for photographers and manufacturers. Make no mistake, adoption rates and market share can make or break a ‘superior product’.
[REWIND: ProGrade Digital Drops 1TB 1000 MB/s Write Speed CFexpress 1.0 | Defining Hardware Through Memory]
When XQD debuted on the D4, many, including myself, thought it was an odd, if not foolish choice, but then Nikon put it on the D5, and even more importantly on the ‘Baby D5’, the D500, and you sort of got the feeling they were onto something because the D500 was bound to be a major seller.
All that said however, the feeling is now that CFexpress is the fate to be revealed.
So what does this mean for those who adopted XQD cameras? Well, actually, it may mean you are just fine and ahead of the curve. CFexpress has the same form factor as XDQ, and the nature of the format is backwards compatible, so theoretically they should both be able to be used interchangeably, though likely with a firmware tweak. This is good news though, because that form factor is more resilient and cheaper than the pin-less CFAST cards that are prohibitively expensive.
It would be remiss not to mention too, that this feels exciting, like we are on the precipice of being able to materialize things we thought of as far fetched. As I mentioned before, the ‘far-fetchedness’ of things like 8K seem less a nebulous oasis on the horizon than a tangible mile marker. In essence, the memory evolution could dictate the evolution of the camera hardware and all that estuaries from that.