The number and variety of memory cards available today can be bewildering, especially to someone who just wants to take family snapshots with a point-and-shoot camera. Here's some buying advice.
Some memory cards can cost as little as $7 or as much as several hundred dollars. Take one look at Adorama's Memory Card department and you'll see what I mean. So: Why the disparity in price? Do you really need to shell out big bucks on memory cards if all you use is a point-and-shoot camera? How do you decide from among the myriad cards available which one to get?
Looking for a low-cost camera? Read The Best Budget-Priced Compact Digital Cameras Right Now!
The best starting point is to consider what kind of photography (or videography) you do, and how often you do it. Here are a few typical examples, and recommended cards for each:
• You just take snapshots on special occasions: Family get-togethers, holidays, and other events. Get the least expensive card available. A 2GB Class 2 card is fine.
• You're a soccer mom: You're always photographing your kids, who are constantly on the move. Get a couple of cards with at least 4GB each, Class 6 transfer speed.
• You love photography, and take pictures nearly every day as a visual diary and creative outlet. Get a couple of 8GB, Class 4 or 6 cards.
• You shot lots of HD video. Get at the highest-capacity, fastest cards you can afford. Consider buying a bunchof 16-32GB cards, and make sure they're Class 10.
An In-Depth Look at Memory Cards
What do the different GB capacities and Class ratings mean? Let's take a closer look at the different kinds of memory cards and the range of features and options that are available.
Format: Most currently-available compact cameras accept the Secure Digital Format—SD and SDHC cards. Some also accept SDXC cards. That eliminates all other formats! The different types reflect different capacities:
Although SD, SDHC and SDXC cards all look the same, they may not work with all cameras. If you have a brand new compact camera, SDHC is a safe choice although it will likely also work with SD cards; pro-level cameras are more likely to be compatible with SDXC cards. However, you own an older camera that accepts SD cards, it might not be able to handle SDHC or SDXC cards. Check your manual or online resources if you need to buy a card for an older camera to see which version of SD will work.
What about other formats? Some older cameras may use the Sony Memory Stick, only found on Sony cameras, or Compact Flash cards. A CF card is much bigger than an SD card and will not fit in an SD card-friendly camera. Many pro- and enthusiast-level DSLRs use CF cards, but starter DSLRs as well as some mid-range models are designed to accept SD cards. Check your camera's manual to find out which format memory card it accepts.
Got a smart phone? Most likely it accepts microSD cards, which are part of the SD card family. When you're ready to transfer your images to a computer, you would put the microSD card into a full-sized SD card adapter (many microSD cards are sold with an adapter) and slip that into your SD card reader and transfer images onto your laptop or desktop computer.
Capacity: Cards come in different capacities, measured in Gigabytes (GB) 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and 32 GB cards are the most common. How many pictures does that come out to? It varies, depending on your camera's resolution, file format, and even the amount of detail on each image. But in general, a 4GB card will hold several hundred photos, and a 16GB card can hold well over a thousand 12-16MB shots.
If you're a casual shooter and only bring your camera out for family gatherings, holidays and other special occasions, a 2GB card will probably last you a long time before it fills up. If you take pictures every day, you may want to have a handful of 4- or 8GB cards. Shoot lots of HD video? Consider 16GB and up.
File Transfer Speed: Cards are rated for transfer speed, which is how long it takes for a image file to “write” to the card once a picture is taken, and how long it takes to download images from your file to a computer. A card's transfer speed is the other major feature that determines its price. File transfer speeds are measured in Megabytes per Second (MB/s or Mbps). If a card is rated at 10 MB/s, for instance, it would take 1 second for a 10MB file to transfer....but from where to where? This is where it gets tricky.
There are actually two file transfer speeds: Read and Write. The read speed indicates how fast a file will transfer from the camera's buffer (a temporary holding place for an image file right after the photo has been taken) to the card. The longer it takes to transfer an image, the longer it takes for the camera to be ready for you to take the next shot. When shooting video, a slow card could introduce pauses into the video.
The Write speed tells you how quickly images will move from your card to a computer under ideal conditions. If you shoot a lot of high-resolution still images and/or HD videos, you will need cards with a fast transfer rate. When shooting with SD, SDHC or SDXC cards, speed is indicated by class:
- Class 2: 2MB/s
- Class 4: 4MB/s
- Class 6: 6MB/s
- Class 10: 10MB/s
Just to confuse matters, some card makers don't follow the “Class” rating system and simply put the file transfer rate right on the card. Kingston Technology, for example, says its 8GB SDHC UltimateXX UHS-1 card has 60 MB/s read and 35MB/s write transfer rates, far faster than a Class 10.
For a typical compact camera, a Class 4 card should be enough. One of the reasons is that most smaller cameras have limited buffer capacity, and so you won't see much different in speed. If you think you might take advantage of your camera's HD video recording abilities (if it has them) then you should get at least a Class 6 card. Class 10 cards are primarily for DSLR users and others who shoot very high-resolution stills and lots of HD video.
Transfer speed is the other key variable in determining how much a memory card will cost; the faster the card's transfer speed, the more it will cost.
So, now you know the key features and card formats.
How do I get the pictures from the card onto my computer?
The final piece of the puzzle is a card reader. Many digital cameras have USB connection cables that will allow you to transfer images directly from the camera to the computer, which is fine if you are an occasional picture-taker. If you take a lot of pictures and videos and fill up your cards fast, you want the fastest card reader you can get so you can download faster. Consider the Lexar Professional USB 3.0 Dual Slot Memory Card Reader, which can download files at up to 500 MB/s. You can download the contents of a full 8GB card in under a minute. It also works on USB 2.0 connections and while downloads are slower, they are still faster than other card readers and definitely faster than direct-from-camera USB connections.
What else do I need?
If you are going to have multiple cards, the biggest challenge is not losing them. After all, they're small. A Memory Wallet will keep them safe in one place. Consider the Adorama Slinger Digital Memory Wallet, which holds four cards. If you carry more than four cards, consider the Adorama Digital Media Storage Aluminum Case, which holds 8 SD cards. Also consider using different colored Sharpies or other permanent magic markers to color code your card so can keep your images organized.
The bottom line
Most point-and-shooters would be well served with a couple of 2- or 4GB capacity cards with either Class 4 or Class 6 transfer speed ratings. These cards are inexpensive and if you grew up in the days when you had to pay for film and processing, you'll be happy to know that the cost of a single 4GB can range anywhere from under $10 for a slower transfer-rate card to nearly $40 for a Class 10 model. In most cases, a 4GB card will cost less than the price of film and processing for a single roll, but will hold hundreds of your photos!
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Still have a question about which memory card is best for you? Leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll do my best to get you an answer!