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SanDisk poised to unveil Extreme IV CompactFlash and Extreme Readers  
Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | by Rob Galbraith

Later today, SanDisk will unveil a new CompactFlash series capable of card-to-computer transfer rates that are well over twice as fast as the quickest cards currently available. Dubbed Extreme IV and slated for release in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB capacities, the new line also puts SanDisk back at or near the top of the leaderboard in digital SLR write speed. But the solid in-camera performance of Extreme IV is really the sidebar; the main story is how SanDisk's new flagship memory card line can dramatically reduce the time it takes to copy photos to the computer for editing.

sandisk_extreme_IV_01.jpg
Three Amigos: The SanDisk Extreme IV CompactFlash lineup (Photos courtesy SanDisk)

At a press conference this afternoon in New York, the company will also take the wraps off two new card readers: the FireWire 800/400 Extreme FireWire Reader, which accepts CompactFlash, and the Extreme USB 2.0 Reader, which accepts CompactFlash, Secure Digital (SD) and several other formats.

Did we mention how fast the Extreme IV cards are at card-to-computer transfers? Here's a taste: the best CompactFlash cards on the market now are capable of real-world throughput between about 15MB-17MB/second in the best shipping readers we've tried. By comparison, the SanDisk Extreme IV 2GB, when inserted in an Extreme FireWire Reader, tops out at a whopping 38.6MB/second, with the Extreme IV 4GB weighing in at 38.4MB/second.

These aren't synthetic benchmarks, but the actual speediness of Extreme IV when moving JPEG and RAW picture files to a Power Mac G5 here. As you'll read later in this article, the right combination of hardware is needed to achieve transfer rates like this. Armed with the appropriate gear, however, it's possible to meet or exceed the 38.1MB/sec read speed specified by SanDisk for this product. This may mark the first time in technology history that real world performance, at 38.6MB/second, so closely matches manufacturer-specified performance.

Note: SanDisk's official Extreme IV CompactFlash read/write specification is a minimum sustained write speed of 40MB/second (266X) on a device from Testmetrix. The 40MB/second figure assumes 1,000,000 bytes in a megabyte, which is the conversion all storage product manufacturers use in rating the capacity and speed of what they make. We've standardized on 1,048,576 bytes in a megabyte for all calculations, however, because this is the number used by devices such as cameras and computer operating systems in doing their calculations. SanDisk's 40MB/second using the storage industry's conversion rate, then, is actually closer to 38.1MB/second using everybody else's, which is why we refer to 38.1MB/second as being the performance level specified by the company for Extreme IV.

Oh, and did we mention how fast the Extreme IV cards are at card-to-computer transfers? In a bid to saturate the striped RAID 0 array in our Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz, as well as give the computer's FireWire infrastructure a workout, we tested the throughput from two Extreme IV cards - a 2GB and 4GB - each in an Extreme FireWire Reader, copying pictures from both cards to the Mac at the same time. The transfer rate for each dropped slightly, to 37.3MB/second and 37.1MB/second, respectively, for a combined simultaneous throughput of 74.4MB/second. Crunching this further reveals it would take 1:20 to transfer the entire contents of these cards using this twin-reader setup. That's 1 minute and 20 seconds to offload about 5.7GB worth of freshly-shot picture files. Wow.

Please accept our apologies if this article is reading a whole lot like ad copy. We just can't contain our enthusiasm for SanDisk's new Extreme IV. That's because, in our own workflow, there are two bottlenecks in the initial workflow steps that have been efficiency-killers: RAW file conversion speed and card-to-computer transfer times. RAW conversion speed is a concern because, well, we shoot mostly RAW, even in some deadline situations, and the emergence of the Intel Core Duo processor has gone a long way towards alleviating the conversion speed problem (in the field especially). The card-to-computer transfer time problem is also because we shoot mostly RAW files, which gobble up gigabyte after gigabyte of card space in no time flat. Given the blazing card-to-computer speed of the Extreme IV 2GB and 4GB CompactFlash cards (we don't have an 8GB card for testing yet), the time it takes to transfer a big assignment's worth of photos is about to be cut significantly.

Performance by the Numbers

By the way, did we mention how fast the Extreme IV cards are at card-to-computer transfers? How much of a performance bump you'll see from Extreme IV will depend on your card reader and whether it supports the speediest data timing mode embedded in Extreme IV's Sandisk-designed controller. Your computer plays a role too. But the key to unlocking Extreme IV read speed lies first in a data timing mode called UDMA Mode 4, also known as Ultra DMA Mode 4 and more commonly known in the world of hard drives as Ultra ATA/66.

SanDisk is the first CompactFlash maker to engineer a controller that supports UDMA Mode 4. They're also the first company we know of to announce UDMA 4 support in a nearly-shipping card reader, the Extreme FireWire Reader to be precise. Put an Extreme IV card inside this reader, stir in the right computer system and the result is the stratospheric performance we've been citing so far.

A lesser hard drive will slow things down; if the destination is a laptop drive from a couple of years ago, Extreme IV throughput to that drive will slow down a lot. And while the implementation of FireWire in modern Apple hardware, and FireWire support in Mac OS X 10.4.7, enables the speedy goodness of the Extreme FireWire Reader to shine through, the same can't be said of non-Apple hardware running Windows in our experience.

Below is a table showing transfer rates for the combination of Extreme IV CompactFlash and Extreme FireWire Reader with several mostly-Mac computer configurations. We timed the transfer of about 450MB of Canon EOS-1D Mark II N JPEG and CR2 files. As you're looking at these results, keep in mind that the best real-world CompactFlash speed we've seen prior to Extreme IV has been just shy of 17MB/second.

Extreme IV CompactFlash and Extreme FireWire Reader test Card-to-computer transfer speed
Computer: Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
38.611MB/sec
Computer: Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 4GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
38.441MB/sec
Computer: Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in front FireWire 400 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
38.120MB/sec
Computer: Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in front FireWire 400 port
Card: Extreme IV 4GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
37.914MB/sec
Computer: Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)1
Reader 1 connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Reader 2 connected to: OWC Mercury FireWire 800 PCI card2
Cards: Extreme IV 2GB and 4GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
74.4MB/sec
(combined throughput)
Computer: Power Mac Quad G5 (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 500MB hard drive
38.342MB/sec
Computer: 17 inch MacBook Pro 2.16GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 120GB hard drive
34.054MB/sec
Computer: 17 inch MacBook Pro 2.16GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 400 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 120GB hard drive
34.050MB/sec
Computer: 17 inch MacBook Pro 2.16GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 400 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: external 500GB RAID 0 array connected to built-in FireWire 800 port
24.684MB/sec
Computer: 17 inch MacBook Pro 2.16GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: server, connected via Gigabit Ethernet network
37.695MB/sec
Computer: 17 inch MacBook Pro 2.16GHz (Windows XP SP2)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 120GB hard drive (FAT32 partition)
19.432MB/sec
Computer: 17 inch MacBook Pro 2.16GHz (Windows XP SP2)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: server, connected via Gigabit Ethernet network
29.472MB/sec
Computer: 20 inch iMac early-2006 (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 400 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 250GB hard drive
35.032MB/sec
Computer: 15 inch Powerbook G4/1.67GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.7)
Reader connected to:
built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 100GB hard drive
23.663MB/sec
Computer: Custom PC, P4/3.4GHz, Intel D945GTP main board (Windows XP SP2)
Reader connected to:
OWC Mercury FireWire 800 PCI card
Card: Extreme IV 2GB
Destination: internal 160GB RAID 0 array
28.118MB/sec
(1) When we connected two Extreme FireWire Readers to the built-in FireWire ports of this Mac, the computer would disable the FireWire bus the moment the second card began to mount. The same thing happened with a newer Quad G5. To complete the two reader test, we opted to instead connect one reader to the built-in FireWire 800 port and the other to an OWC Mercury FireWire 800 PCI card. Then, the test proceeded without a hitch, and the setup has worked fine since then. We've passed on details of the problem to SanDisk.
(2) The FireWire 800 ports of this add-in card enable transfer rates that are identical to the built-in FireWire 800 port of this Mac.

As you can see above, superb transfer speed is possible even without the fanciest or newest Mac. And, for single reader transfers, the Extreme FireWire Reader is nearly as speedy when connected to the built-in FireWire 400 port as it is when connected to the built-in FireWire 800 port of the same Mac. At the same time, there are four things that dragged down performance to under 30MB/second in some tests: older Powerbook hard drive speed, use of both of the MacBook Pro's FireWire ports simultaneously, non-Apple hardware and possibly Windows XP itself. Still, even the 28.1MB/second achieved with our Windows XP desktop test PC is more than 11MB/second faster than we've seen from any shipping CompactFlash reader to date.

UDMA 4, PIO Mode 6 and the Extreme Readers

So far, we've given short shrift to the other half of SanDisk's reader announcements. That's because the Extreme USB 2.0 Reader doesn't support UDMA. Instead, when this reader and an Extreme IV CompactFlash card get together, they'll converse using the speediest data timing mode they do have in common: PIO Mode 6. This is the same mode that almost all other high-performance CompactFlash cards and USB 2.0 readers support, and which enables 15-17MB/second throughput.

In fact, the overall performance of the Extreme USB 2.0 Reader is about the same as SanDisk's ImageMate line (the ImageMate CF, 5-in-1 and 12-in-1 models are not replaced by the new reader). Support for both CompactFlash and SD, and a rubbery non-slip pad on the reader's base that keeps it in place on a tabletop, means that the Extreme USB 2.0 Reader should be the best USB 2.0 reader for the working photographer in SanDisk's lineup. But its lack of UDMA support means that, at the time of the Extreme IV's introduction, SanDisk doesn't have a USB 2.0 reader that comes anywhere close to taking full advantage of Extreme IV speed. For Windows users lacking a viable powered FireWire option, this will present a problem.

The solution to this may first come not from SanDisk, but from a reader built around a new controller from OnSpec. More on that in a moment. First, here's a bit more detail about the Extreme readers.

  • The Extreme FireWire Reader is a FireWire 800/400 single-slot CompactFlash card reader. At the back of the reader is a single 9-pin (FireWire 800) port; the reader will ship with both 9-pin to 9-pin and 9-pin to 6-pin (FireWire 400) cables. This reader utilizes an OXFW912 FireWire 800/400 controller from Oxford Semiconductor, and has support for UDMA (up to and perhaps even beyond UDMA Mode 4) and PIO (up to PIO Mode 4; this reader lacks support for PIO Modes 5 and 6). Even though its PIO support levels off at Mode 4, this reader is still capable of performance in the 14MB/second range with premium non-UDMA CompactFlash cards in our testing.

  • The Extreme USB 2.0 Reader has two slots and accepts CompactFlash and SD (including SDHC). It has a single USB mini-B port at the rear and will ship with an A to mini-B USB cable. Under the hood is a controller from Genesys Logic; their controllers are used widely in USB 2.0 readers from various companies. As noted, this reader does support PIO up to Mode 6, but does not support UDMA.

Both readers share the same contoured case design (the Extreme USB 2.0 Reader is a bit smaller overall) and grippy pad on the bottom. The Extreme FireWire Reader is clad in silver, while the Extreme USB 2.0 Reader's enclosure is all black.

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Extreme Duo: The SanDisk Extreme FireWire Reader and Extreme USB 2.0 Reader (left); the business ends of the FireWire 800-to-FireWire 800 and FireWire 800-to-FireWire 400 cables that are included with the Extreme FireWire Reader. Click to enlarge. (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The Extreme FireWire Reader is bar-none the best choice for Extreme IV cards, that's easy. The Extreme USB 2.0 Reader should be a good choice for use with most better-performing CompactFlash cards that aren't Extreme IV, plus we quite like its form factor and ability to read CompactFlash and SD. Ultimately, however, there are plenty of USB 2.0 readers on the market capable of the same overall performance as the Extreme USB 2.0 Reader.

A USB 2.0 White Knight

It's a safe bet that SanDisk will at some point release a USB 2.0 reader with UDMA support for its new flagship line of Extreme IV CompactFlash cards. It's the only move that makes sense for a company that's so singularly focused on beating the pants off all other card makers in the speed department. Until such time as a UDMA-capable USB 2.0 reader appears under the SanDisk banner, look for one or more upcoming readers, based on the xSil 251 chipset from controller design firm OnSpec, to ride in and save the day. That's because it's the only reader controller we know of currently that supports both UDMA up to Mode 4 and PIO up to Mode 6.

OnSpec's Bryan Chin indicates there are several readers being designed around the xSil 251 that should emerge on store shelves at some point. One of the first such readers is expected to come from Compuapps. Called the OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF Reader/Writer, the company is now accepting pre-orders but the reader is not yet available. In the meantime, we opted to test the xSil 251 in a bare-board CompactFlash reader reference design supplied to us by OnSpec. The conclusion? Not only is it the quickest PIO Mode 6 USB 2.0 "reader" we've tested to date, its UDMA support translates into 26.2MB/second transfers from an Extreme IV 2GB CompactFlash card to our test PC. While this is well short of an Extreme IV card's capabilities, it's also about 9MB/second quicker than any other USB 2.0 reader option we're aware of. Here's hoping that Compuapps' upcoming xSil 251-based reader hits the market soon.

Capturing Pictures First

Before you can move pictures off the card at breakneck speed, something has to put pictures on there in the first place. We've run Extreme IV 2GB and 4GB CompactFlash cards through seven Canon and Nikon digital SLR models so far, and in all cases the Extreme IV 2GB model emerged in first or second place, duking it out for supremacy with the Hoodman PPO 150X-133X 2GB CompactFlash card in Canon cameras in particular. Because even the newest models from the two leading digital SLR makers lack support for either PIO Mode 6 or UDMA (any mode), the Extreme IV in-camera write speed bump is best described as an incremental improvement over Extreme III.

The medium format story is a bit brighter. Several digital back models from Hasselblad and Leaf, including the H2D-39 and the Aptus 75, do support UDMA 4 in the newest firmware revisions and therefore should be able to wring out greater write speed from Extreme IV. While we secured an H2D-39 to benchmark for this article, we've put that plan on hold until we can get some guidance from Hasselblad on testing the camera with different CompactFlash cards, including Extreme IV. If we can come up with an effective way to do the test, we'll add the results to the CF/SD Performance Database.

Conclusion

Okay, one last time: Did we mention how fast the Extreme IV cards are at card-to-computer transfers? The Extreme IV 2GB, 4GB and 8GB CompactFlash cards, as well as the Extreme FireWire Reader, are scheduled to ship from SanDisk to the company's distributors and to pro photo retailers starting on July 21, 2006 in the Americas and Europe. The Extreme USB 2.0 Reader is slated for release in August 2006. The Extreme IV 2GB and Extreme IV 4GB cards will also be available in a bundle with the Extreme FireWire Reader. Extreme IV CompactFlash cards include a copy of RescuePRO photo recovery software. The Extreme III CompactFlash and Ultra II CompactFlash card lines will continue and are not being phased out with the introduction of Extreme IV.

The table below shows the manufacturer's suggested list prices (MSRP) for the U.S. and Europe. Note that the actually selling price will probably be somewhat lower than MSRP in some regions.

Product MSRP in the U.S. MSRP in Europe, ex VAT
Extreme IV 2GB US$159.99 128
Extreme IV 4GB US$319.99 255
Extreme IV 8GB US$639.99 509
Extreme IV 2GB + Extreme FireWire Reader bundle US$239.99 197
Extreme IV 4GB + Extreme FireWire Reader bundle US$399.99 323
Extreme FireWire Reader US$79.99 69
Extreme USB 2.0 Reader US$24.99 22
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