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Lexar announces 300X CompactFlash, new high-speed readers  
Tuesday, February 20, 2007 | by Rob Galbraith
Lexar is back in the speed race: its new Professional 300X CompactFlash line, unveiled today in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB capacities, jump to the head of the pack in card-to-computer transfer speed, setting a blistering pace that eclipses even the zippy SanDisk Extreme IV in our early testing. Lexar has also announced two new card readers, the Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader and Professional Dual-Slot USB 2.0 Reader, both of which are to be part of Lexar's new high-speed equation.
 
lexar_300x_8gb.jpg lexar_300x_fwreader.jpg lexar_300x_usbreader.jpg
Lexar's speed trio: (Left to right) Lexar Professional 300X CompactFlash, Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader, Lexar Professional Dual-Slot USB 2.0 Reader (Photos courtesy Lexar)

Like SanDisk's top-performing line, Lexar's new 300X CompactFlash cards are all about reducing the time it takes to copy photos to the computer for editing. And like SanDisk, Lexar has achieved this through a CompactFlash controller that utilizes a data timing mode called Ultra Direct Memory Access, or UDMA. But whereas Extreme IV cards level off at UDMA Mode 4 (often referred to in the world of hard drives as ATA/66), Lexar's 300X cards are built to support up to UDMA Mode 5 (also known as ATA/100).

Lexar promises a minimum sustained write speed of 42.9MB/second for their 300X line, vs the 38.1MB/second specification for SanDisk's Extreme IV. Our own real-world numbers are pretty darn close: we've managed about 42.8MB/second with a preproduction Lexar Professional 300X 8GB CompactFlash card, vs about 38.4MB/second with a SanDisk Extreme IV of the same capacity. SanDisk's high-performance line is really, really fast; based on our early testing, Lexar's 300X is even faster. And that's quite a feat for Lexar, given SanDisk's speed supremacy in recent years.
 
Note: Lexar's official 300X CompactFlash read/write specification is a minimum sustained write speed of 45MB/second (300X) on a benchmarking device from Testmetrix. The 45MB/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 our calculations, however, because this is the number used by all devices - including digital cameras, computer operating systems and photo storage units - in doing their calculations. It is, in our view, the correct way to do the calculation as a result. Lexar's 45MB/second using the storage industry's conversion rate, then, is actually 42.9MB/second using everybody else's, which is why we refer to 42.9MB/second as being the performance level specified by the company for their new 300X CompactFlash. For the same reason, SanDisk's 40MB/second specification for Extreme IV is, when re-calculated, actually 38.1MB/second.
 
If you don't care which company gets bragging rights as the fastest in card-to-computer transfers, but you do care whether your workflow bogs down while transfering gigabytes of pictures, Lexar's 300X announcement means you'll soon have a choice of SanDisk or Lexar when maximum card offload speed is a must. To give another example, we tested the simultaneous copying of photos from two SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB and two Lexar 300X 8GB CompactFlash cards to a fast hard drive setup in a desktop Mac. The two SanDisk cards managed a blazing 74.6MB/second in combined throughput, while the two Lexar cards delivered a breathtaking 81.9MB/second. These aren't synthetic numbers generated with benchmarking software, but results achieved using the Finder to transfer RAW and JPEG files. Crunching the Lexar 300X combined throughput number, for example, reveals a transfer rate approaching 5GB per minute. As Paris Hilton would say, that's hot.
 
Of course, in-camera write speed is also important. But if you're a Canon or Nikon shooter, there's not much of a story to tell here, since neither company is shipping a digital SLR capable of UDMA transfers to the card. Which means that a Lexar 300X card will switch to the slower PIO data timing method to receive pictures from any model of camera these two companies (and most or all other digital SLR makers) manufacture today. This means a Lexar 300X card won't be delivering any digital SLR speed breakthroughs, at least not until a digital SLR emerges that takes advantage of the potential offered by its UDMA 5-savvy controller. The situation is a bit brighter for medium format shooters: Hasselblad, for example, has already released firmware for several of its models that adds support for at least UDMA Mode 4.
 
Because we've only had preproduction 300X units from Lexar for a very short time, we've only done the briefest of in-camera testing. But our intention is to add all capacities of Lexar's new line to the CF/SD Performance Database on this site as soon as practically possible.
 
New FireWire 800, USB 2.0 readers
 
We've got more performance data just ahead, plus more detail about what gear was used to generate the numbers we've presented so far. Understanding the role of your computer and its various ports, hard drive(s), operating system and card reader is critical in predicting whether you'll get all the speedy goodness of Lexar's 300X line, and we hope that the various configurations we've tested will help shed some light on that.
 
Perhaps the most critical factor of all is the card reader; it has to support the data timing mode that makes the card go the fastest, and it need to connect to the computer via a data pipe that's wide enough to handle the card's rapid gush of zeros and ones. Lexar is introducing two new card readers alongside their Professional 300X CompactFlash: the Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader and Professional Dual-Slot USB 2.0 Reader.
  • The Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader is a FireWire 800/400 single-slot CompactFlash card reader. It's nearly identical in appearance to the company's current Pro FireWire reader; the new model, however, sports two 9-pin (FireWire 800) ports in place of the older model's 6-pin (FireWire 400) ones. Like the older model, the new reader features a stackable design.

    The reader will ship with two 9-pin to 9-pin cables: the first is a metre long and is intended to connect one port of the reader to the computer, while the second is 18cm long and is intended to daisy-chain two readers together (this cable could also be used to link the reader to a laptop computer on location). Lexar will sell separately a short 9-pin to 6-pin cable as well.

    The new reader utilizes an OXFW912 FireWire 800/400 controller from Oxford Semiconductor, and has support for UDMA (up to Mode 6) and PIO (up to 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 Professional Dual-Slot USB 2.0 Reader has one slot for CompactFlash and a second for Secure Digital (SD). It's compatible with both SD and the newer SDHC; its CompactFlash controller supports UDMA (up to Mode 4) and PIO (up to Mode 6). This reader sports a pop-up design to reveal the two card slots, and has an entirely different appearance than the company's current Pro USB 2.0 Reader.

We'll say more about these readers after the performance data section.

Performance by the numbers
 
Below is a table showing transfer rates for various combinations of computer, operating system, Lexar 300X 8GB and SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB CompactFlash. There are three different readers tested: the Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader and SanDisk Extreme FireWire Reader both support UMDA up to Mode 6, and are the only FireWire readers we know of that provide UDMA support. The CompuApps OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF supports UDMA up to Mode 4, and is the only USB reader we've encountered that incorporates UDMA support in its controller. This will change when Lexar ships its Professional Dual-Slot USB 2.0 Reader, but that's still several months away and one has not yet been made available to us for testing.
 
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 from cards other than Lexar 300X and SanDisk Extreme IV has been about 20MB/second, and plenty top out at under 17MB/second.
 
Test Card-to-computer transfer speed
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
42.828MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
38.377MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
SanDisk Extreme FireWire
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
42.840MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
SanDisk Extreme FireWire
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
38.427MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
CompuApps OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF
Reader connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
20.081MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
CompuApps OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF
Reader connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
20.154MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 250GB drive
32.024MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 250GB drive
30.019MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
CompuApps OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF
Reader connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 250GB drive
23.525MB/sec
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
CompuApps OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF
Reader connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 250GB drive
24.026MB/sec
Computer: Apple Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Readers:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader 1 connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Reader 2 connected to: OWC Mercury FireWire 800 PCI card
Cards: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
81.889MB/sec
(combined throughput)
Computer: Apple Mac Pro 3.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Readers:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader 1 connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Reader 2 connected to: reader 1
Cards: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
76.807MB/sec
(combined throughput)
Computer: Apple Power Mac G5/Dual 2.0GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 400 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 500GB RAID 0 array
39.236MB/sec
Computer: Custom PC, P4/3.4GHz, Intel D945GTP main board (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: OWC Mercury FireWire 800 PCI card
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 160GB RAID 0 array
30.467MB/sec
Computer: Custom PC, P4/3.4GHz, Intel D945GTP main board (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: OWC Mercury FireWire 800 PCI card
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 160GB RAID 0 array
28.148MB/sec
Computer: Custom PC, P4/3.4GHz, Intel D945GTP main board (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
CompuApps OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF
Reader connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 160GB RAID 0 array
23.440MB/sec
Computer: Custom PC, P4/3.4GHz, Intel D945GTP main board (Windows Vista Business)
Reader:
CompuApps OmniFlash USB 2.0 UDMA 40 UnoCF
Reader connected to: built-in USB 2.0 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 160GB RAID 0 array
23.748MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch, Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: internal 120GB drive
38.200MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch, Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: internal 120GB drive
35.101MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch, Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: Lexar Professional 300X 8GB
Destination: server with 640MB RAID 0 array, connected via Gigabit Ethernet network
40.215MB/sec
Computer: Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch, Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz (Mac OS X 10.4.8)
Reader:
Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800
Reader connected to: built-in FireWire 800 port
Card: SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB
Destination: server with 640MB RAID 0 array, connected via Gigabit Ethernet network
37.722MB/sec
 
Observations
  • Testing the Lexar 300X CompactFlash gives the same giddy, warm-all-over feeling we got when we first tested SanDisk's Extreme IV card last summer. Lexar's new cards are just that fast at serving up pictures to a computer. Note that we've only tested a couple of 8GB 300X cards, and not 4GB and 2GB as of this writing, so we're working on the assumption that they'll be as fast as the highest-capacity model in the new line.

  • Extracting the best performance from either Lexar 300X or SanDisk Extreme IV CompactFlash means using either the Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader or SanDisk Extreme FireWire Reader. It's no coincidence that these two readers turn in results that are effectively the same, since both have an OXFW912 controller at their core.

  • From a performance perspective, the Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader is awesome. Because it contains the same controller as SanDisk's Extreme FireWire Reader, either reader can be used with SanDisk Extreme IV or Lexar 300X to achieve super-quick throughput. There are several differentiating features - good features and things to potentially avoid - that set apart each company's reader, however.

    For instance, multiple units of Lexar's Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader can be stacked together, and its twin FireWire ports enable them to be daisy-chained together (a Lexar press release claims that four can be linked this way to one FireWire port on the computer, but it's likely that most computers won't deliver enough power to drive more than two readers off a single FireWire bus). By comparison, the SanDisk Extreme FireWire Reader has a single 9-pin FireWire port and isn't designed to be clipped to others of its kind.

    These words would suggest that the Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader is the better choice all-round, but this isn't the case. The insert/eject mechanism of the Lexar reader is noticeably stiff and cheap feeling, just like its predecessor; it's hard to discern when the card is fully inserted, owing to the amount of thumb pressure required to slide the card in. Lexar should have fixed such a basic design flaw in the new model, but hasn't. Plus, the twin ports, the stackability and a housing meant to take the card fully inside the reader contribute to the unit being noticeably bigger than most other single-slot readers. The size isn't really a factor for desktop users, and it would be unfair to describe the Lexar model as large. But if you're thinking of traveling with several units in a laptop kit, Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Readers are going to use up more cargo space.

    Our recommendation is this: if you don't need the twin FireWire ports or the stackability of the Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader, outfit yourself with the SanDisk Extreme FireWire Reader instead. Though it has fewer features, it's smaller, better-designed and works a-ok in our Lexar 300X testing thus far.

  • And speaking of the twin ports of the Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader, we didn't include test results with these units daisy-chained to a single FireWire port because linking two of them up in this way meant one card wouldn't mount on the desktop. This was true of two different Macs, and with one Mac - a Mac Pro 3.0GHz - we were rewarded with a kernel panic too. This is probably a development glitch, and as such we're not overly worried about the problem being there when the reader ships. But the glitch did prevent the testing of a key multiple-reader configuration here. (Update, February 20, 2007: We traced the problem to a bad FireWire cable. With a good cable in place, we were able to daisy-chain two readers and test them; the result has been added to the table above.)

  • Vista hasn't done much to bridge the performance gap between Windows and Mac OS X FireWire reader throughput, though Vista itself seems to think otherwise. Whether tested on a "real" Windows machine like our custom-built PC or a Mac Pro running Vista Business via Boot Camp, the best card-to-computer transfer speeds from the Lexar 300X 8GB and SanDisk Extreme IV 8GB are roughly 8-10MB/second slower in our testing (timed from the start of the transfer to when the copy dialog disappears).

    We're not sure how Vista is doing the math, but the speed reported in the more information section of the copy dialog is always quite a bit quicker. At the end of the transfer the copy dialog pauses briefly on the screen, and it may be that the final step of the copy cycle isn't part of Vista's calculation. Whatever the reason, you'll want to be aware that the numbers in the table above don't equate with those reported by Vista itself. Even more puzzling is the fact we're seeing slower throughput over USB with Vista than with Windows XP SP2, even with potential performance-robbing features such as file indexing, networking, Gadgets, Aero Glass and other visually whizzy features disabled.

    On the flip side, even the slower USB reader results of Vista are still ahead of Mac OS X 10.4.8, which tops out at just over 20MB/second on every recent model laptop or desktop Mac we've tested.

  • Both platforms need a USB solution that can keep up to FireWire. While USB 2.0's 60MB/second theoretical maximum makes it a slower protocol than the 100MB/second of FireWire 800, USB 2.0 should still have enough real-world bandwidth to enable card-to-computer transfers from at least a single Lexar 300X or SanDisk Extreme IV card that are much faster than is possible today. Until that happens, FireWire - 800, or even 400 - is mandatory to keep the data moving.
Conclusion
 
In the last few years, Lexar had all but ceded the performance high ground to SanDisk. Couple that with long product delays and a small handful of card firmware glitches, and from our perspective the Lexar brand lost the cachet it had in the company's early days, even though their cards seemed to remain popular among working photographers. The new 300X cards and readers signal that Lexar is looking to earn back its old rep as a technology leader in the pro photo market segment. If the company can ship the cards and readers on schedule and without hiccups, that will be an important first step.
 
The Lexar Professional 300X CompactFlash cards, in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB capacities, are slated for release in April 2007, and will be bundled with licenses for Corel Paint Shop Pro X, Lexar Image Rescue 3 and Lexar Backup n Sync. Lexar hasn't yet announced pricing for the 300X line.
 
The Lexar Professional UDMA FireWire 800 Reader will also ship in April 2007, at a manufacturer's suggested list price (MSRP) of US$79.99 in the U.S. The Lexar Professional Dual-Slot USB 2.0 Reader is scheduled for release in June 2007 at an MSRP of US$49.99. The current Pro-series readers are being phased out of Lexar's lineup to make way for the new models.
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