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SanDisk ImageMate readers jump to the head of USB 2.0 class  
Thursday, July 21, 2005 | by Rob Galbraith

SanDisk's Extreme III line of CompactFlash and Secure Digital (SD) cards are built to the latest specifications for each card format, which means to take advantage of their throughput potential when copying pictures to a computer, a card reader must also support the latest specifications.

When SanDisk unveiled Extreme III in the fall of 2004, they announced two new card readers designed to do just that. Revised versions of the company's USB 2.0 ImageMate CompactFlash and ImageMate 5-in-1 (which accepts SD cards) would be built to support the faster data transfer capabilities woven into the CF v3.0 and SD v1.1 specifications, respectively.

We've had prototype units of these readers for months, and though both showed enough prototype flakiness that we didn't attempt to integrate them into our daily workflow, we did sufficient testing with each to see that these readers were likely to not only provide the fastest transfer rates with Extreme III cards, but that both would be among the fastest USB 2.0 readers going, regardless of the brand or model of card inserted.

These readers got stuck in the SanDisk development pipeline for a bit longer than expected, but now appear to be widely available. We were able to purchase both the ImageMate CompactFlash reader and ImageMate 5-in-1 reader locally this month, as well as the ImageMate 12-in-1, which SanDisk has also quietly revised to take advantage of Extreme III speed.

sandisk_imagemate_trio.jpg
SanDisk ImageMate CompactFlash, 5-in-1 and 12-in-1 readers (Photos courtesy SanDisk)

Once Lexar releases its Pro CompactFlash card readers (they were also announced in the fall of 2004 but have yet to ship), we plan to publish a more-detailed look at the performance of a range of popular camera media readers. For the purposes of this article, however, we compared the transfer rates of a handful of better-performing CompactFlash and SD cards in the new SanDisk readers to the USB 2.0 and FireWire readers that we'd previously identified as among the fastest available.

Our benchmark readers are the Lexar FireWire CompactFlash (model RW019), Addonics Pocket UDD (USB 2.0) and Delkin eFilm Reader-29 (USB 2.0). The diminutive Lexar reader has long been a solid choice for any photographer whose computer sports a 6-pin FireWire port; the Addonics reader (actually a PC Card reader that accepts CompactFlash via an adapter) has been the fastest CF-capable USB 2.0 reader we'd been able to locate, and is nearly as quick as Lexar's RW019 overall; the Delkin reader has been the quickest external card reader for SD around here, but it - along with all other external SD readers we've tested before this - isn't as fast as we'd like, especially given the speed potential of certain SD models.

The tables below show how the new SanDisk readers stack up against our reference readers with some of the faster CompactFlash and SD cards we have on hand.

Card-to-Computer Throughput (CompactFlash)

For all CompactFlash tests, about 400MB of D2X JPEGs and uncompressed NEFs were transfered from the card to a Power Mac G5/dual-2.0GHz computer running OS X 10.4.2. The test was performed twice and the results averaged. The fastest transfer for each card is marked in bold.

Brand and Model
(Card Identifier)1
Lexar FireWire CompactFlash (RW019)
Addonics Pocket UDD2
SanDisk ImageMate CompactFlash (ESP Ready)3
SanDisk ImageMate 12-in-1 (ESP Ready)3
Delkin Devices PRO 2GB
(Label: CFLS1VM1-02G)
9.737MB/sec 8.710MB/sec 8.367MB/sec 8.272MB/sec
Lexar 1GB 80X Write Acceleration *third edition*4
(Edge stamp: 39121GBDB25052D97)
10.848MB/sec 7.699MB/sec 8.123MB/sec 8.005MB/sec
Lexar 4GB 80X Write Acceleration *third edition*, formatted FAT32 with 32K cluster size4,5
(Edge stamp: 39134GBCI25052D97)
10.441MB/sec
7.641MB/sec
8.042MB/sec
7.946MB/sec
Pretec 80X 2GB
(P/N: CF02G 0516610)
11.132MB/sec 10.086MB/sec 9.330MB/sec 9.201MB/sec
Ritek/Ridata 80X/PRO. II 2GB
(Edge stamp: U41005293222)
11.431MB/sec
10.149MB/sec
9.201MB/sec
9.097MB/sec
SanDisk Extreme 2GB 12.106MB/sec 10.653MB/sec 10.118MB/sec 9.991MB/sec
SanDisk Extreme III 2GB
(Edge stamp: BE04091F USA)
13.846MB/sec 10.996MB/sec 15.152MB/sec 14.994MB/sec
SanDisk Ultra II 2GB6 11.613MB/sec 10.050MB/sec 9.982MB/sec 9.913MB/sec
(1) To help determine whether the card you own is substantially similar to the one tested, the card's description includes an identifier - series number, internal name or other unique value - where possible and applicable.
(2) This reader will connect to either a FireWire or USB 2.0 port, depending on the proprietary cable used. All testing was done using the USB 2.0 cable.
(3) SanDisk has produced ImageMate CompactFlash and 12-in-1 readers for some time; the ones we tested, though they have the same outward appearance as previous versions of these readers, contain different circuitry inside. The main way to tell whether the ImageMate reader is the newer, much-faster design is to look for an ESP logo on the front of the packaging.
(4) Lexar began shipping their 80X line of cards in late June 2004. There have been three distinct versions of 80X since then. The cards marked *third edition* in the table are production models representative of the 80X lineup that began shipping in early summer 2005, and include an important fix for an imcompatibility problem with certain Canon cameras. The last four digits of the card's edge stamp differentiate the various editions; as of this writing, an edge stamp ending in 2D97 means a third edition card (a blue mylar tab seals the retail packaging of third edition 80X cards as well). If the last four digits are A4B6 or 9171, it's a second edition card. In separate testing, we've determined that, based on the second and third edition cards we have in-house, third edition cards are only very slightly faster than second edition ones. First edition cards, ones whose edge stamp ends in 9FFA, 9D66 or F6A4, are significantly slower in some tests, and especially card-to-computer transfers.
(5) The D2X's built-in formatter will reformat cards over 2GB as FAT32 with a 32K cluster size.
(6) SanDisk converted its Ultra II line to multi level cell (MLC) memory from binary-type (sometimes referred to as single level cell, or SLC) memory starting in the fall of 2004. This is an original, binary-type Ultra II card.

Card-to-Computer Throughput (Secure Digital)

For this round of testing, we also included the Panasonic CardBus PRO HIGH SPEED Adapter, a CF-to-PC Card adapter for CardBus-capable Windows laptops.

For all SD tests, about 410MB of EOS-1Ds Mark II JPEGs and RAW CR2's were transfered from the card to a Power Mac G5/dual-2.0GHz computer running OS X 10.4.2. The test was performed twice and the results averaged. The fastest transfer for each card is marked in bold.

Brand and Model
(Card Identifier)1
Delkin eFilm Reader-29
Panasonic CardBus PRO HIGH SPEED Adapter2
SanDisk ImageMate 5-in-1 (ESP Ready)3
SanDisk ImageMate 12-in-1 (ESP Ready)3
ATP 2GB 7.649MB/sec 8.114MB/sec 8.185MB/sec 8.004MB/sec
Lexar Platinum 40X 1GB
(1405201A0410185)
7.170MB/sec 8.370MB/sec 8.116MB/sec 7.971MB/sec
Panasonic PRO HIGH SPEED 1GB
(BK5DA148969)
7.876MB/sec
11.827MB/sec
14.312MB/sec
14.276MB/sec
Pretec 133X 1GB
(SDS01GB00521)
8.132MB/sec error5 14.968MB/sec 14.505MB/sec
SanDisk Ultra II 2GB
(BE0506XL)
8.088MB/sec
8.468MB/sec
8.807MB/sec
8.697MB/sec
SanDisk Extreme III 1GB
(BB0411XM)
8.224MB/sec 13.637MB/sec 15.368MB/sec 14.912MB/sec
Transcend 80X 1GB 7.539MB/sec 9.167MB/sec 9.212MB/sec 9.119MB/sec
(1) To help determine whether the card you own is substantially similar to the one tested, the card's description includes an identifier - series number, internal name or other unique value - where possible and applicable.
(2) This CF-to-PC Card adapter, Panasonic model BN-SDDAP3, works only in CardBus-capable Windows laptops and was purchased in Japan (it may not be available in North America as yet); we tested it in a Toshiba A70 P4/3.33GHz running Windows XP SP2.
(3) SanDisk has produced ImageMate 5-in-1 and 12-in-1 readers for some time; the ones we tested, though they have the same outward appearance as previous versions of these readers, contain different circuitry inside. The main way to tell whether the ImageMate reader is the newer, much-faster design is to look for an ESP logo on the front of the packaging.
(4) The speed of transfer for this card in this adapter was inconsistent, varying from transfer to transfer by as much as 20%. The figure in the table represents the fastest of 28 attempts, and is also representative of the rate of transfer achieved in 16 of those 28 transfer sessions. Nevertheless, there was something funny going on between this card and adapter that didn't occur with any other tested SD card.
(5) With this card inserted into this adapter, a drive letter for the card adapter combo wouldn't appear in My Computer.

Interpreting the Results

The release of SanDisk's trio of revised ImageMate readers means that it's now possible to obtain truly speedy, truly portable card readers that connect to a USB 2.0 port for both CompactFlash and SD formats.

Though the Addonics Pocket UDD remains a competitively quick CompactFlash reader, at the size of a small book we've only used it as a desktop reader and not tried to stuff two or three of them into a laptop kit. Taking that reader out of the equation, then every other USB 2.0 reader we've tested that's capable of accepting CompactFlash cards - including other models from Addonics, plus units from Atech, Belkin, Datafab, Dazzle/Microtech, Delkin, IOGEAR, Kingston, Lexar, PQI and (older) SanDisk - have been slower. Much slower in fact, topping out at a little over 6MB/second, regardless of how quick the CompactFlash card. USB 2.0 readers that support a multitude of card formats have traditionally been among the worst performers, with some barely managing 3MB/second. Put more bluntly, USB 2.0 card readers to date have mostly sucked.

While Lexar's FireWire CompactFlash reader (model RW019) is the quickest reader overall that we've ever tested, and it also remains the speediest choice for recent Lexar 80X cards, photographers with a CF wallet full of SanDisk Extreme III will almost certainly prefer SanDisk's ImageMate CompactFlash or ImageMate 12-in-1 readers (though the Lexar reader is no slouch with Extreme III either, even without explicit support for CF v3.0).

Both of these SanDisk readers, as well as the ImageMate 5-in-1, use the same key component inside, a GL819 controller from Genesys Logic. This controller is only one of two that we know of that supports the fastest data timing modes of the CF v3.0 specification, and we know of no other that supports the SD 1.1 spec (though we've sent out as-yet-unanswered queries to several other controller makers).

The bottom line for CompactFlash card owners? Those whose computers have both USB 2.0 and 6-pin FireWire ports, and want the fastest transfer rates possible in a card reader small enough to fit three or four easily into a road bag, now have viable FireWire and USB 2.0 options. You also need quick CompactFlash cards. And in that regard, SanDisk's Extreme III rule the roost.

Owners of SD cards that take advantage of v1.1 of the SD spec will see huge performance gains by using a card reader that is also SD v1.1-savvy. SanDisk's ImageMate 5-in-1 and 12-in-1 readers, and to a lesser extent Panasonic's CardBus PRO HIGH SPEED Adapter, demonstrate how much a difference this can make in throughput, with SanDisk's Extreme III cards providing really impressive real-world throughput (though cards from Pretec and Panasonic, which are also engineered for SD v1.1, only trail slightly in this mini-test).

In short, the release of the revised ImageMate readers is a good thing for pro photographers on deadline, as well as any photographer who values workflow efficiency. Lexar's Pro CompactFlash readers - and especially the CF v3.0-savvy USB 2.0 version - should also be quick when they ultimately ship (we have no word on precisely when that will be). We're currently investigating whether some of the very newest portable USB 2.0 readers from Datafab and Addonics are speed competitors also. Based on the large collection of readers we have tested, however, if you want fast, USB 2.0 and portability, SanDisk's ImageMate line of readers are it.

Other observations:

  • sandisk_imagemate_12in1.jpgFor those needing a reader that accepts both CompactFlash and Secure Digital, the ImageMate 12-in-1 is the logical choice, even though it appears to be fractionally slower overall than the other readers in the ImageMate lineup. For those using only one format or the other principally, either the CompactFlash or 5-in-1 (for SD) is probably the better choice. Each is lighter, smaller and less expensive than the 12-in-1, and it's slightly more finicky to insert a CompactFlash card into the 12-in-1 than the CompactFlash-only reader.

  • The ImageMate 12-in-1 allows for both a CompactFlash and SD card to be inserted simultaneously, and file transfers can be occurring simultaneously as well. It can be used in the included dock (as shown at right) or removed from the dock and connected to the computer with the bundled short USB cable.

  • The Lexar FireWire CompactFlash RW019 reader is one we've gushed about for some time. That's because it's fast, small and seems reliable (we have 6 in all and none has missed a beat). But CompactFlash cards that use newer Samsung components inside - including those from Delkin and Kingston - will sometimes fail to mount, and when that happens the card and reader get fry-an-egg hot. Ultimately, this reader is not a good match for Samsung-based cards, though when the card mounts the transfer speed is good and there are no data corruption problems. In addition, certain Lexar CompactFlash cards can get overly warm in this reader. Not like cards from Samsung; in this case, the cards are warm but not dangerously hot, and there doesn't seem to be any impairment of card or reader performance. Given these quirks, the Lexar Firewire reader, though an indispensable tool around here, won't be a slam-dunk purchase for some.

  • Apple has improved card-to-computer throughput by making changes in its operating system. Mac OS X 10.4.x is somewhat faster at transfering data from FAT-formatted media like camera CompactFlash and SD cards than 10.3.x, which is why some of the performance numbers in the tables above are higher than what we report in the CompactFlash Performance Database (which is still based on 10.3.x testing). The relative performance of cards and readers stays fairly constant cross-platform, however, which makes the test results in this article relevant regardless of whether you use Mac or Windows.

Buying the Right ImageMate

Buying one of the ImageMate readers we tested isn't as simple as firing up your web browser and making a purchase from your favourite online retailer. That's because SanDisk has only recently begun shipping ImageMate CompactFlash, 5-in-1 and 12-in-1 readers that use the speedy Genesys Logic GL819 controller. The previous ImageMate readers - which look the same as the new ones, and have the same part number as well - are much slower with all camera media, and especially with Extreme III CompactFlash and SD, or any SD that takes advantage of the SD v1.1 spec. And the previous ImageMate readers are still readily available; in fact, the old 12-in-1 is on shelves everywhere around town here in Calgary, Canada, so it's not safe to assume that a retailer will automatically have in-stock the latest version of ImageMate reader.

Fortunately, SanDisk has marked the packaging of the new-design ImageMates with a special logo, shown at right in the paragraph above. Marking the packaging as ESP Technology Ready is SanDisk's hint to the prospective purchaser that the reader inside will take advantage of the Enhanced Super Parallel (ESP) processing of their Extreme III line. Which really means that the reader has the GL819 controller inside and will be especially quick with media that is souped up to CF v3.0 and SD 1.1 specifications. To be certain you're purchasing a new ImageMate, then, you'll need to be able to look at the package itself, or ask the salesperson to do that if you conduct your search by phone or email.

The logo is on the front of the packaging, just below the reader itself, as shown in the picture below (it's further to the right on the 12-in-1's blister pack). There is also text on the back that makes reference to ESP technology. Note that in regions of the world outside North America, the positioning of the logo and text may be different.

sandisk_esp_readers.jpg

SanDisk ImageMate 5-in-1 and CompactFlash readers with ESP Technology logo (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

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