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The Best SD Card Today

By Kimber Streams, The Wirecutter

After 15 hours of research and another 15 hours of testing, we determined that the 32GB SanDisk Extreme Plus is the best SD card for most people because it’s reasonably priced and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Oh, and it ended up being the fastest of all the ones we tested after our burst shooting tests, file transfers, and benchmark tests.

After 15 hours of research and another 15 hours of testing, we determined that the 32GB SanDisk Extreme Plus is the best SD card for most people because it’s reasonably priced and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Oh, and it ended up being the fastest of all the ones we tested after our burst shooting tests, file transfers, and benchmark tests.

The SanDisk Extreme Plus is fast enough to handle 1080p video recording and significantly improves burst shooting and photo transferring over our previous recommendation, the SanDisk Extreme 45 MB/s. Those shooting 4K video and professionals who know they need it should use UHS-3-rated cards recommended by their camera’s manufacturer, but the SanDisk Extreme Plus is fast enough for everyone else.

How we picked

…the most important spec for SD cards is write speed.

The most important features of an SD card are speed, price, reliability, and warranty. Full-size SD cards are most commonly used in cameras for storing image and video files as you shoot them. Because most cameras can take photos faster than they can write them to storage, images are first saved to a small-but-speedy buffer. Once the buffer is full, the images have to be written to the SD card before you can shoot more photos. Many DSLRs have continuous shooting modes—a.k.a. burst shooting—that fill the buffer much faster than the camera can clear it. The faster the card, the faster this buffer clears and you can start shooting again. Therefore, the most important spec for SD cards is write speed.

Read speed is useful for reviewing photos on the camera and emptying the card onto a computer with a USB 3.0 reader. It’s not as important as write speed but is often faster, so manufacturers like to brag about the read speed on the label.

Our finalists, all the SD cards we tested.

Because an SD card holds the only copy of a photo between the time you take it and when you copy it to a computer for editing, it’s important to get a card from a reliable manufacturer with a strong warranty in case anything goes wrong. Many SD cards come with a lifetime warranty.

Keeping these criteria in mind, we researched standout SD cards from manufacturers like SanDisk, Lexar, Samsung, Transcend, and others, paying special attention to new models that have been released since our last update in mid-2013. Professional sports photographer Chuck Steenburgh has tested the practical burst shooting performance of nearly 30 SD cards and continues to share his results as he tests new cards.

This article by Steenburgh was a huge help during our researching phase, allowing us to eliminate the worst-performing cards right off the bat. We also explored tests and editorial reviews from Tom’s Hardware and StorageReview to narrow our list down to three contenders. Then we ordered the SanDisk Extreme Plus, Lexar Professional 600x, and PNY Elite Performance and tested them ourselves.

How we tested

We tested each SD card’s real-life burst shooting performance on a Canon Rebel EOS T4i. An SD card’s performance will vary from camera to camera based on memory controllers, image processors, and a slew of other factors, so the fastest card in one camera won’t necessarily be the fastest in every camera. Still, our real-life test results with the Canon reinforced our benchmark findings.

We also ran CrystalDiskMark, a benchmarking program designed to test sequential and random read/write times on solid-state storage. You can read more about the program at the CrystalDiskMark website.

Using a USB 3.0 card reader in a USB 3.0 port, we then timed a series of file transfers—a 7.07GB folder of photos, a 19.7GB music collection, and a 1.68GB HD video—from start to finish, running each transfer three times and taking the average to rule out performance hiccups. Between each test, we cleared the cards and reformatted them using the recommended utility from the SD Association to stabilize performance. It’s important to test SD cards via USB 3.0 to prevent bottlenecks, since USB 2.0 tops out around 33 MB/s and the cards we’re testing are faster than that.

Our Pick

The Extreme Plus is as fast as you can get without spending too much and it’s made by a reliable manufacturer that provides a lifetime warranty.

The 32GB SanDisk Extreme Plus is the best SD card for most people because it’s as fast as you can get without spending a lot more money—which we’ll address in the “What about 4K video?” section—plus it’s made by a reliable manufacturer and comes with a lifetime warranty.

The SanDisk Extreme Plus is a Class 10 card, which means that it guarantees write speeds of at least 10 MB/s, though both its read and write speeds are actually much higher than that. It also carries a UHS-1 rating, which means it’s fast enough to record 1080p video. SanDisk rates the card at 80 MB/s read and 60 MB/s write, but we found that the card’s read speed was even higher in our tests.

In our real-life burst shooting tests, file transfers, and benchmark tests, the SanDisk Extreme Plus was the fastest of our finalists. CrystalDiskMark clocked the card at 92.4 MB/s read and 60.7 MB/s write. The 32GB PNY Elite Performance read at 92.1 MB/s and wrote at 62.7 MB/s, slightly faster than the SanDisk. The Lexar Professional was the slowest in this benchmark, measuring 91.7 MB/s read and 48.5 MB/s write.

We also tested each card’s practical burst shooting performance using a Canon Rebel EOS T4i. For this test, we recorded the sound of the shutter as we shot a burst of 15 RAW images. The resulting waveforms give us a visual representation of each card’s speed. The large collection of spikes at the beginning of each waveform represents a burst of six shots, which fill the camera’s buffer and must be written to the SD card before more photos can be shot. Each spike after that is a single shot, and between those spikes the camera is writing files to the SD card. The SanDisk Extreme Plus had the fastest practical write speeds out of the three cards we tested. With that card, the camera could take about two photos per second after its buffer was full, compared to the Lexar Professional 600x’s three shots every two seconds and the PNY Elite Performance’s less than one shot per second.

The SanDisk Extreme Plus also bested the Lexar Professional 600x and PNY Elite Performance in our real-world file transfer tests. Thanks to its high read speed, the SanDisk Extreme Plus is the quickest to transfer photos from the SD card to a computer via a USB 3.0 SD card reader. That means more time spent organizing and editing, less time waiting around for files to transfer.

The 32GB SanDisk Extreme Plus is significantly less expensive per gigabyte than the 16GB model and on par with the 64GB version. The 16GB version is currently $1.75 per gigabyte, while the 32GB and 64GB versions are $1.25. Most people don’t need a 64GB SD card if they’re mostly taking photos, but if you do, feel free to step up to the larger capacity since it’s the same price per gigabyte (at press time).

…SD cards are more durable than other storage solutions, such as hard drives, and can survive being bumped around and dropped.

In general, SD cards are more durable than other storage solutions, such as hard drives, and can survive being bumped around and dropped. Like many SD cards, the SanDisk Extreme Plus is rated to survive up to 72 hours in one meter of salt or fresh water, withstand temperatures ranging from -13ºF to 185ºF for up to 28 hours, take up to 500 Gs of shock, and be immune to airport X-rays. It also comes with a lifetime limited warranty, which covers the SD card if it stops working for any reason as long as it wasn’t used improperly or modified.

Who else likes it?

Sports photographer Chuck Steenburgh has tested the burst shooting performance of about 30 different SD cards. In his tests, the 16GB SanDisk Extreme Plus (formerly known as the SanDisk Extreme 80 MB/s) tied the Lexar Professional 600x and PNY Elite Performance. It was only bested by the SanDisk Extreme Pro 95 MB/s, which isn’t much faster but is a full $10 more expensive.

He summarized his results and recommendation: “This card’s read speeds are just a tad slower than its 95 MB/s cousin. Just be sure you’re really getting the 80 MB/s version and not the older 60 MB/s or 45 MB/s cards.”

This is easier now that SanDisk rebranded the Extreme 80 MB/s to the Extreme Plus name and changed its label from black to gold in January 2014 (though there are still some black label cards floating around, which are totally legitimate—just make sure they specify 80 MB/s on the label).

The SanDisk Extreme Plus also consistently topped the charts in Tom’s Hardware’s 2014 roundup of SD cards and has a 4.7 star average on Amazon, with a total of 227 five-star reviews out of 270 total reviews.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The only real downside to the SanDisk Extreme Plus is that (at the time of writing) it’s $40, considerably more expensive than the $28 PNY Elite Performance. However, it significantly outperforms the PNY card and will likely work with a wider variety of camera models. Some Digital Photography Review users say that PNY cards have performance issues and aren’t recommended for some Nikon cameras. That, combined with the inconsistent performance we found in our tests of the PNY card, means it’s worthwhile to spend extra for a reliable, fast card.

What about 4K video?

The UHS-3 speed class is recommended by the SD Association for 4K video shooting and was introduced in November 2013. So far manufacturers like SanDisk, Kingston, and Transcend have announced 4K-capable UHS-3 cards.

The UHS-3 rating denotes a minimum write speed of 30 MB/s, which means that our main recommendation, the SanDisk Extreme Plus, could theoretically handle 4K video recording on a camera like the Panasonic Lumix GH4. The Lumix has a 4K video bitrate of 25 MB/s, and the SanDisk Extreme Plus clocked much higher write speeds of 60 MB/s. However, just because it has the theoretical speed doesn’t necessarily mean it can reliably record 4K video. You’re better off shelling out for your camera manufacturer’s recommended UHS-3 card—in the case of the Panasonix Lumix GH4, a UHS-I bus UHS-3 speed class card.

We’ll update this guide with more information and test results when more 4K video SD cards are available, but for now we advise following the recommendation in your camera’s user manual. One of these cards is only worth it if you absolutely need it; the Extreme Plus is fast enough for the vast majority of people.

The Competition

We eliminated any cards that were rated less than Class 10 or UHS-1, weren’t readily available to buy, or that performed poorly on Steenburgh’s tests, like the 32GB Samsung Pro, 32GB Sony 40MB/s, 32GB Kingston Ultimate, and 32GB Patriot EP Procards that are popular on Amazon.

The 32GB Lexar Professional 600x is roughly the same price per GB as our recommendation, the SanDisk Extreme Plus. It has solid Amazon reviews—4.8 stars with 92 reviews—and also comes with a lifetime limited warranty. However, the Lexar Professional 600x had the slowest write speeds out of the three cards we tested in the CrystalDiskMark benchmark test and was significantly slower on our burst photo testing.

…it was slow in our benchmark test, our file transfer test, and most importantly, our practical burst shooting test.

The 32GB PNY Elite Performance looked promising because, at $28, it’s by far the least expensive per gigabyte of the SD cards we considered. It performed well in Steenburgh’s tests and has decent Amazon reviews with 4.3 stars and 93 reviews. However, it was slow in our benchmark test, our file transfer test, and most importantly, our practical burst shooting test.

Our previous recommendation, the SanDisk Extreme 45 MB/s, has a quoted read speed of 45 MB/s and Tom’s Hardware benchmarked its write speed at 20 MB/s. Our new recommendation costs just $10 more for twice the read speed and three times the write speed, which make a significant difference in burst shooting, reviewing images, and emptying the card.

Our previous step-up recommendation was the SanDisk Extreme Pro 95 MB/s. Our new recommendation nearly matches it in performance, so it’s not worth the extra $10 for such a minute performance gain.

The 32GB Delkin Elite 633x tied for second alongside the SanDisk Extreme Plus, the Lexar Professional 600x, and the PNY Elite Performance in Steenburgh’s tests, but it’s about $65 on Amazon. That’s $25 more than our pick for roughly the same speeds.

Like the PNY, the 32GB Transcend 600x is less expensive than our pick. However, the card claims 85 MB/s read and 45 MB/s write speeds, and Steenburgh found that it had worse performance the SanDisk, Lexar, and PNY cards we tested.

The 32GB Samsung Plus is also popular on Amazon, but performed poorly in Tom’s Hardware’s 2014 SD card benchmarks. It’s slower than the Samsung Pro, which also performed poorly on Steenburgh’s burst shooting test.

A note on SD card speed classes

Write speed affects burst image shooting and the video resolution at which you can record, while the read speed determines how quickly you can review files on your camera and transfer them to your computer. As a result, we only looked at Class 10, UHS-1 cards. It’s a large category—and current card speeds stretch way above the Class 10/UHS-1 write minimum of 10 MB/s—but is the bare minimum for shooting 1080p video, and any additional speed makes for snappier burst shooting.

…many cards have speeds far beyond 10 MB/s, so there’s a limit to how useful those speed ratings are.

The SD Association recognizes standardized speed classes for SD cards based on their minimum guaranteed speeds. Speed Classes 2, 4, 6, and 10 denote the minimum write speeds in MB/s: a Class 2 card has minimum write speeds of 2 MB/s, while a Class 10 card has a guaranteed minimum of 10 MB/s. Of course, many cards have speeds far beyond 10 MB/s, so there’s a limit to how useful those speed ratings are. There are two Ultra High Speed classes above Class 10: UHS-1 cards are recommended for 1080p video recording and also indicate read/write speeds of at least 10 MB/s, and the recently introduced UHS-3 standard is ideal for 4K video recording and designates minimum performance of 30 MB/s. You can read more about how to recognize different card speeds at the SD Association website. Many UHS-1 cards also carry Class 10 ratings.

Nearly all new cameras support UHS cards, but even if your camera doesn’t have UHS bus support, you can still use a UHS card and—provided it’s also Class 10—you should still see reasonable speeds. If you want a larger card than the 32GB model we recommend, be sure to check that your device supports SDXC (extended capacity) cards. The standard was introduced in 2009, so most devices support it, but confirm before you buy.

How fast does a card need to be to keep up with continuous shooting in RAW? We did some back-of-napkin math to find out, multiplying The Wirecutter’s camera recommendations’ burst frames per second by their average RAW image size to figure out a ballpark image bitrate in MB/s. Our midrange DSLR recommendation, the Nikon D7100, has a burst shooting image bitrate of 171 MB/s, which slows after six shots until the camera’s processor clears the images to the SD card. Even our point-and-shoot recommendation, the Sony RX100 mk I, has a continuous shooting image bitrate of about 115 MB/s. A camera’s processor can be a potential bottleneck in clearing its burst shooting buffer, but for cameras without that bottleneck, a faster SD card will definitely improve RAW shooting speed.

Most current SD cards aren’t fast enough to keep up with those bitrates, so the faster the card you get, the better, especially if you tend to use burst mode a lot. Paying a little extra for our recommendation over a cheaper, slower alternative has the added benefit of futureproofing should you decide to purchase a new camera—which will likely have an even higher image bitrate than your current gear—in the next year or two.

If you get a card that’s slower than Class 10, you won’t be able to shoot 1080p video, which most cameras are equipped to do nowadays. Even if your current camera can’t shoot 1080p, your next one will—and 4K may even be the new standard by then—and you’ll have to buy a new SD card. As with most storage, the price of SD cards falls as newer, faster cards come out, and getting a Class 10 UHS-1 card makes the most financial and practical sense at current prices.

Your gear should be reliable and protected by a strong warranty. The SD Card Association says most SD cards have a lifespan of about ten years with “normal usage.”

Frustration-free packaging and counterfeit cards

When buying an SD card from Amazon or any other retailer that provides packaging choices, be sure to select the original (not frustration-free) packaging and buy from a reputable seller. There’s a pretty large market for fake and knockoff cards that have drastically worse performance and aren’t covered by a warranty. The best way to guard against greymarket copies and ensure you get the product you paid for is to purchase SD cards in the original manufacturer’s packaging directly from a reputable seller.

Care and maintenance

You should also format your SD card in your camera (rather than your computer) to minimize the chances of corruption.

SD cards are generally more durable than other forms of storage, but to ensure they last their full lifespan, you should store them in a clean, dry, temperate location and handle them carefully to avoid bending or snapping the cards. You should store your cards in the rigid plastic casings included with purchase or select another dedicated case—like this Pelican memory card case, for example—that will protect the SD cards from pressure and elements.

You should also format your SD card in your camera (rather than your computer) to minimize the chances of corruption. Always wait until the camera is done writing to the card before switching it off, use a USB 3.0 card reader—like the inexpensiveTranscend RDF5K—to transfer images, and dismount the SD card before removing it from your computer. Following these steps will minimize the chances of corrupting the card and losing files.

Wrapping it up

The 32GB SanDisk Extreme Plus is the best SD card for most people because it’s the fastest one we tested, reliable, reasonably priced, and compatible with most cameras. It can handle 1080p video recording, will provide better burst shooting performance than other similarly specced SD cards, and comes with a lifetime warranty should it fail.