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Which Firewire 800 digital camera card reader?

Last updated 2010-01-15 - Send Feedback
Related: laptop, Lexar, SanDisk, video

High frame rates and/or more megapixels mean that a fast flash card can make a camera feel much snappier than that 2-year-old CF card you might be using.

So if you’re lusting after a fast Compact flash card, you’ll want a fast card reader too, and since they are inexpensive, it’s silly to buy a fast Compact Flash card and use a USB reader— you’ll want a Firewire 800 reader (assuming your computer supports it). When USB 3.0 becomes common, then it will likely be the best choice..

I’ve been using the SanDisk Extreme Firewire 800 reader for several years, and it has worked flawlessly for me on my Mac Pros and on my MacBook Pro when I travel. I particularly like its compact rectangular design; I carry it with my laptop and a 6" Firewire 800 cable and a 2.5" external backup drive.

Firewire 800 card readers (not to scale)

In December 2009, I tested the SanDisk Extreme Firewire 800 reader against the Lexar Professional UDMA Firewire 800 card reader, and they both tested almost exactly the same, so speed is not a consideration between these two units, at least not with the SanDisk cards I used for testing.

The Lexar offers two Firewire ports, which is a big deal if you want to run more than one reader at a time, but have only one Firewire 800 port on your laptop or iMac. The Lexar is also significantly bulkier, which I dislike for travel, and I’m dubious about its slot and eject mechanism; I suspect it will fail with repeated use, and for that reason I prefer the smart simplicity of the SanDisk unit.

Remember that the Firewire bus is shared, so with fast cards, dual readers will max out the bus anyway. For that matter, many laptops hard drives won’t even keep up by around 80MB/sec, so dual fast readers with fast cards isn’t going to gain you much except the ability to slot in two cards and go do something else while downloading.

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Results (speed)

Using the SanDisk Extreme Pro cards (“90MB/sec”), I observed 54MB/second sustained writes and reads using both Firewire 800 readers — a far cry from the claimed 90MB/sec, but Firewire 800 itself rarely exceeds 80MB/sec in the Real World, so I’m happy with 54MB/sec.

With an 8GB SanDisk Extreme IV card I observed 32.5MB/sec writes and 39.2MB/sec reads in both readers.

SanDisk Extreme III 16GB cards turned in a sluggish 10.7MB/sec writes and 13.6MB/sec reads (both readers). If you’ve been out hiking all day, that’s just too annoyingly slow when you want a quick review of images and some shut-eye.

Remember that in-camera speed could vary widely with the camera and specific card, so you might want to check out Rob Galbraith’s excellent database of cards and card readers, keeping in mind that you are likely to see speed variance from card to card, just as with hard drives.

You can view my picks for cards and readers here .

My choice

The SanDisk Extreme Firewire 800 reader costs less and is smaller, is the same speed as the Lexar unit, and appears to be more robust.

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