Buying Media for Digital Cameras – A Class-y Act?

As I move up from $100-$200 pocket point-and-shoot cameras to bigger, better ones (more about this in another post), I’m up against the question: what are the right (minimum, good, best) SD (‘Secure Digital”) media cards. Somewhat like (analog) film of yore, SD cards come in various speeds (here, read and write, rather than light-sensitivity), capacities, and vendor/brand names.

Capacity is relatively easy. SD cards, like USB flash drives, keep getting higher in maximum size. At the last CES (back in January 2013) Kingston, for example,  was showing its then-coming 1TB USB flash drive, currently MSRP around $2,300 and available for about $1,300.  SD cards aren’t that capacious yet — but 64GB and 128GB are available. And realistically, for photos, 8 or 16GB is likely to be more than enough for a few busy days, and a pair of 32GB cards should be more than enough even for a show like CES. (Unless possibly you’re also shooting video.)

Note: SD card nomenclature is defined by the SD Card Association. E.g., according to the Wikipedia entry for Secure Digital (SD), the SDHC (High Capacity) refers to SD cards up through 32GB, SDXC (eXtended Capacity) format will support up to 2TB — although currently, “only” up to 128GB SDXC cards are available.

Brandname, harder call. I’ve been happy with 32GB “house brand” SD cards from Micro Center, typically slightly under $20 each. One camera store I stop at recommends either SanDisk or Delkin. SanDisk SD cards are typically the most expensive, all other details being equal. Less likely to fail? Dunno. The price delta is enough to think about — but since SD cards are re-usable, paying more like a buck a gigabyte than 40-to-50 cents isn’t a big deal.

Speed, that’s the question — how fast a card can be written to (in particular, by your camera), and how fast it can be read/downloaded. SD cards are categorized by speed. Most are labelled “Class n” — Class 1, Class 4, Class 10. The bigger the number, the faster.

There’s also UHS (Ultra High Speed), referring to the speed of the bus introduced in version 3.0 of the SD spec. UHS so far comes in Class 1 and Class 3 speed ratings. If your device (e.g., digital camera) doesn’t have UHS, it’s not clear (yet) (to me) whether UHS SD cards will work better — or worse — than plain old Class 10 SD cards.

And I’ve seen some SD cards marked Ultra, Extreme, and Extreme Pro.

My head hurts.