If you buy a new high-end camera, you'll probably have to stock up on new memory cards. And card readers. CFexpress Type A is one of the options, but will it take off, or remain an expensive outlier?

It's sometimes hard to recognize when life's been treating you well until things take a turn for the worse. Like it or not, we're not returning to the halcyon days you may have taken for granted at the time.

I'm talking, of course, about memory card formats. But you knew that, right?

For much of the last ten years, the SD card has held sway over most cameras' card slots. Its dominance has never been absolute, Compact Flash held on in the higher end until the short-lived CFast and XQD formats usurped them, but the chances are that the camera you had ten or fifteen years ago took SD cards and the one you use now does, too. The days of xD, Memory Stick and multiple flavors of Smart Media seemed to be in the past.

An interesting side-effect of this hegemony is that many of us have forgotten what it's like to have to buy new memory cards (and readers) every time we buy a camera. As if picking a brand (or, more sensibly, a lens system) wasn't hard enough, the next time you upgrade you may also have to commit to a new media format, with no guarantee that the format will last beyond that next camera body.

A comparatively short life: neither XQD and CFast (the latter mostly used in pro video cameras) have shown much longevity compared to the venerable SD and CF formats.

New cameras, new formats

But change does appear to be here, with both Canon and Nikon settling on the same high-end media format (CFexpress Type B) for the first time in eight years. Meanwhile, in its latest camera, Sony has opted for the similar-sounding but physically incompatible CFexpress Type A.

There are advantages to this: CFexpress is based on a much faster interface than current SD cards, and the cards themselves are more physically durable. But, as is usual with electronics, 'faster' plus 'new' does not equal 'cheap.'

Oddly unnecessary

What's interesting (and I may be using that word entirely inappropriately), is that the move to CFexpress isn't strictly necessary.

CFexpress is based around the use of PCIe 3.0 NVMe technology, an interface used for computer SSDs. But the Secure Digital Association has set out a version of SD based on the same technology. It's even mapped out a PCIe 4.0 version which could theoretically hit 4 GB/s (the maximum currently promised by CFexpress).

However, SD Express is two generations ahead of the UHS-II cards and slots that are only now becoming common on cameras, and would only be backward compatible at UHS-I speeds. It'll be interesting to see whether brands such as Fujifilm, Leica and Olympus will skip UHS-III entirely to adopt SD Express, or whether they too will jump aboard one of the CFexpress trains.

A little legacy support

All of the manufacturers using these cards seem keen to accommodate existing card owners: Canon by providing an SD card slot alongside CFexpress B, Nikon and Panasonic by continuing to support XQD as well as CFexpress B and Sony by designing slots that can accept either SD or CFexpress A cards. But in all instances, you need to adopt the newer format to squeeze the most out of the new cameras (in many instances, it's video modes that require the faster card types, perhaps the one concrete example of video features adding to photographers' costs).

No more making do

On the plus side, the move toward new card formats reduces the temptation to try to make-do with those older, slower cards you'd already bought. No more winging it to see if your particular U3 card can reliably maintain the sustained 90MB/s read/write of an actual V90 card, just because it says '300MB/s' on the front. No more hiccoughing continuous bursts because you grabbed a 10-year old Class 1 'Extreme' card as you left the house.

So yes, there's every chance you're going to have to dig a bit deeper next time you buy a fancy new camera. New cards, new card readers, perhaps at rather inflated prices if you jump in too soon. But think about it, how much have you spent during the lifetime of your camera on SD cards you've lost, that have become corrupted or have broken just enough that they won't eject properly anymore?

What's holding you back?

Look at it this way: it's a great way of being certain your camera is able to work to its full potential, and aren't a lot of us buying more camera than we need, to ensure it's never the factor holding us back? And with the three biggest camera makers settling on variants of CFexpress, there's only a slight risk that you're investing heavily in the next xD or Memory Stick.