The Ultimate Memory Card Buying Guide and Best Cards for Cameras

Introduction

People unfamiliar with storage technologies often get confused by all the technical jargon such as format, speed and application performance class. Memory cards come in different shapes and sizes and offer varying levels of performance.

Many buyers make a buying decision based on storage capacity alone. But that’s not the only factor to consider when buying a memory card for your cameras. There are some other things too that buyers should also consider. This post aims to make things a little easier for buyers and includes our best picks for memory cards.

Things to Consider When Buying a Memory Card

Avoid Buying Dirt-cheap Memory Cards

The market is flooded with cheap memory cards (mostly from China) with prices too good to be true. The problem with these inexpensive no-brand cards is that they don’t usually provide the advertised storage space and become corrupted pretty easily. You would not want hours of videos and hundreds of pictures to vanish in an instant.

A too-good-to-be-true deal on a branded memory card from a shady seller is an indication of a fake memory card.  Always buy from reputable stores, stick with known brands and avoid saving a few bucks at the cost of precious data (and don’t forget to read customer reviews).

Storage Capacity

The storage capacity is often the deciding factor when buying a memory card for cameras and largely depends on you own requirements. It’s recommended to go for some extra storage space than what you think you might need. However, also keep the following things in mind as capacity alone should not be the deciding factor. In any case, make sure to check device specifications to make sure that it supports the storage capacity of the card you plan on buying.

Compatibility

Checking compatibility is very important when buying a memory card for any device, whether a camera of smartphone. Although microSD cards are compatible with most mobile devices such as smartphones, cameras and tablets, they come in different varieties (a microSD card and a card with adopter for larger slots is the same thing).

Refer to the user manual of your camera/other device and note the type of microSD card it supports. What makes things confusing is that despite similar names, the four formats of SD cards might not be compatible with all hardware (SDXC supported devices are backward compatible with SDHC and microSD cards). Here are the four different types of SD cards and key differences between them:

microSD:  works in almost any slot labeled as microSD, maximum capacity only 2GB

microSDHC: Up to 32 GB, works in devices that support SDHC/SDXC formats

microSDXC: 32GB-2TB capacity, only works on hardware that supports SDXC format

microSDUC: Up to 128 TB capacity, recently launched, not available for the masses yet

These specifications are for reference purposes only as many manufacturers don’t support the maximum possible capacity. It’s recommended to check the hardware specifications and support before buying a high capacity memory card such as 512GB.

Another compatibility factor is the file format. For example, the default file system most microSD cards use is exFAT, which is fully supported by Windows and recent MacOS versions, but older Mac versions might not be compatible with it.

Speed

Data read/write speed might not matter much when all you want is a memory card to store some photos. But you need a high-speed memory card for things like recording 4K videos and transferring large files to a PC/Mac. Both SDHC and SDXC formats support UHS (Ultra High Speed) interface, which comes in three versions i.e. UHS-1 (max speed 104MBps), UHS-II (max speed 312 MBps) and UHS-III (max speed 624 MBps).

However, your hardware should also support the UHS versions in order to achieve the maximum speeds. The good news is that UHS cards are backwards compatible and although they’ll work in compatible mode, the bus speed will reduce significantly. The default bus speed of all card types is 12.5BMps, while high-speed cards can achieve up to 624MBps (full duplex).

This link provides more details about supported bus speeds of all cards, but keep in mind that these are the bus speeds and not maximum real-world speeds. The actual speed depends on many factors, including the type of files being copied, the hardware and even the cables being used.

Identifying memory card speed isn’t so straight forward as there are many ways manufacturers use to define card speed. Some memory card manufacturers even use all those labels (which can make things more complex). Here are the most common indicators manufacturers use to define speed:

Speed Class (2, 4, 6 and 10)

Speed Class is a very important factor to consider, especially if you plan on using the memory card for recording videos (you need a certain constant speed when recording to avoid dropped frames). Speed Class shows the memory card write speed (minimum) in megabytes per second.

2 means at least 2MBps and so on, but you still don’t know what’s the maximum speed. A Class 4 card can still technically be faster than a Class 6 card (as you don’t know the maximum speed). Class 10 cards are the best bet if you want fast write speeds, which usually hover around 25MBps.

Some manufacturers mention Rated Speed, which shows the maximum speed in megabytes per second. This helps you choose the fastest memory cards without getting involved with too much technical details. However, the Rated Speed usually represents the speed in best cast scenarios or ideal lab conditions, not real-world performance.

Relative Speed (2X, 16X….2000X)

Relative speed is essentially just a benchmark against the CD transfer speed, which was 150 KBps back in the old days. The relative speed (possible in ideal conditions) number shows how much faster a memory card is compared to the CD transfer speed. For example, 200X on a card means 200x150KBps = 15MBps.

Video Speed Class (V6/V10/V30/V60/V90)

The Video Speed Class is a relatively new class that represents the speed for various video formats. V90/60 is suitable for 8K videos, V60/30 for 4K video and so on. The minimum VSC write speed is V6 6MBps, V10 10MBps, V30 30MBps, V60 60MBps and V90 90MBps.

UHS Speed Class (1 or 3 inside a ‘U’)

The UHS speed class shows the minimum write speed of UHS supported memory cards. U1 means a minimum write speed of 10MBps, while U3 means at least 30MBps write speed.

Application Performance Class (A1 or A2)

APC is representing the minimum level of performance when running/storing apps on an Android powered device. A1 means 1500 IOPS (Input Output Operations per Second) and 500 IOPS random write speed. A2 equals 4000IOPS and 2000 IOPS random write speed. Both A1/A2 promise a minimum 10MBps sustained sequential write. For cameras, APC is not that important as other speed indicators mentioned above as it just indicates application performance on Android devices.

Content Protection (CPRM)

CPRM (Content Protection for Recordable Media) supported memory cards provide protection against illegal copying. You might want to consider this feature if you are dealing with sensitive media, but not all manufacturers clearly mention CPRM on their memory cards (only mandated in Japan).

Write/Erase Cycles

Memory cards don’t have an infinite operating life. The write/erase cycles represent the number of times a memory card can be overwritten before it starts to wear out (and finally fails). Most branded cards support up to 10,000 cycles so there is not much to worry about in this regard.

CompactFlash

Introduced by SanDisk in 1994, CompactFlash was the standard for digital cameras when SD cards were in their early stages. The format gained popularity as it offered the capacity and performance photographers needed to store files in RAW format. Although XQD cards have now replaced CF cards, many manufacturers continue to offer CF card slots as the technology is still considered good enough.

With a maximum read speed of 167MBps, UDMA 7 CF cards are fast enough for most digital cameras (UDMA rating represents the max read speed bus). Another advantage of UDMA 7 CF cards is the compatibility factor as most CF supported cameras and card readers are compatible with it. Compared to UDMA 7, UHS-II cards offer twice the read speed (312MBps), but are not compatible with all DSLRs.

Choosing the Right Memory Card

High speed memory cards such as UHS-II U3 come at a price premium. That’s why it’s important to choose the right card according to your own needs instead of wasting money on performance you don’t actually need. UHS U3 cards are work well for 4K video shooting, while Class 10 or even Class 6 cards work pretty well for 1080p videos. Similarly, you might want to consider buying several memory cards instead of one so you don’t loose all the data in case something happens to one card.

Top 10 Memory Cards for Cameras

Product
Visual
Where to Buy
SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB
Lexar Professional 32GB
SanDisk Extreme PRO CompactFlash 32GB
SanDisk Extreme Pro 128GB
Sony Professional G Series XQD 64GB
SanDisk Ultra 32GB
Samsung EVO Plus 128GB
Hoodman STEEL 128GB
PNY Elite Performance 32GB
Lexar Professional 16GB 2 Pack


We have carefully selected some of the best memory cards for camera keeping requirements of different users in mind. The memory cards have been selected based on the value they offer, not just the price or specifications.

1. SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB (One of the best all-around memory cards)

Key features and specifications

  • Capacity: 64GB
  • Type: SDXC
  • Up to 95 MBps read and up to 90MBps write speed
  • Speed Class 10
  • UHS Speed Class 3
  • Video Speed Class V30
  • Old generation, but good enough for Full HD and 4K video recording
  • Temperature, shock, X-ray and water proof
  • Limited lifetime warranty

2. Lexar Professional 32GB (High-performance card for professionals)

Key features and specifications

  • Capacity: 32 GB (also available in 64/128GB, SDXC)
  • Type: SDHC
  • Up to 300 MBps read speed
  • Relative speed: 2000X
  • UHS-II/U3
  • Speed Class 10
  • UHS-II, UHS Speed Class 3
  • Backwards compatible with UHS-I readers
  • Comes with UHS-II reader

3. SanDisk Extreme PRO CompactFlash 32GB (an all-around CF card)

Key features and specifications

  • Capacity: 32GB (available in up to 256GB)
  • Type: CompactFLash (CF)
  • UDMA 7, up to 160MBps transfer and 150MBps write speed
  • VPG-65 guarantees smooth 4K video recording
  • Limited lifetime warranty

4. SanDisk Extreme Pro 128GB (One of the fastest CF cards)

Key features and specifications

  • CFast 2.0
  • Up to 515 MBps data transfer and 440MBps write speed
  • Capacity: 128 GB
  • Smooth 4K recording

5. Sony Professional G Series XQD 64GB (one of the best professional cards)

Key features and specifications

  • Type: XQD
  • Capacity: 64GB
  • Up to 440 MBps read and 400 MBps write speed
  • Supports burst shooting
  • Recessed pins for protection against electrostatic shock, dust and other damages

6. SanDisk Ultra 32GB (A good option in a tight budget)

Key features and specifications

  • Capacity: 32GB
  • Type: SDHC
  • Speed Class 10
  • Suitable for 1080p recording an for use in instant cameras
  • Up to 80MBps transfer speed

7. Samsung EVO Plus 128GB (A good option if you need a higher capacity and midrange performance)

Key features and specifications

  • Capacity: 128GB
  • Type: SDXC
  • UHS Speed Class 3
  • Speed Class 10
  • Up to 100MBps read and 90MBps write speed
  • Supports 4K video recording

8. Hoodman STEEL 128GB (Advertised as world’s only Steel Plated SDHC card)

Key features and specifications

  • Suitable for harsh environments and adventures
  • Steel plated, ruggedized
  • Reinforced internal structure
  • Waterproof
  • Capacity: 128GB
  • SDXC
  • Speed Class 10
  • UHS-I Speed Class 3
  • Up to 45MBps read/write speed

9. PNY Elite Performance 32GB (Great value for the money)

Key features and specifications

  • Capacity: 32GB
  • Type: SDHC
  • Speed Class 10
  • Up to 95MBps transfer speed
  • Magnet proof
  • Waterproof
  • Shockproof (can withstand 1500G)
  • UHS-I Speed Class 1

10. Lexar Professional 16GB 2 Pack (Decent performance at an affordable price)

Key features and specifications

  • Capacity: 16GB x 2
  • Relative speed 633X
  • Type: SDHC
  • UHS-1 Speed Class 1
  • Speed Class 10
  • Up to 95MBos read transfer speed
  • Supports 1080p and 4K videos

Conclusion

Photographers need performance and should not skimp on materials. The memory card they use should match their shooting instincts. We recommend photographers to choose a memory card that offers better performance that what they currently need. This future proofs their investment and allows them to keep pace with new technologies and formats such as 8K.

Professionals prefer CF cards for their durability, but most people prefer SD cards due to their versatility and more reasonable price. It all comes down to your own requirements and budget. But the important thing remains choosing a memory card made by a reputable brand and not skimping on quality just to save a few bucks.