After spending 42 hours on research and testing over the past two years, we found that the 64 GB Samsung Pro Plus is the best SD card for most people because it is fast enough to shoot 4K video, has some of the fastest transfer and in-camera speeds we tested, and is reasonably priced. It’s the best card you can buy without spending at least 20 percent more, and it comes with a 10-year limited warranty.
Most cameras and camcorders require an SD card in order to store photos and video. SD cards can also be used for expanded storage in devices like laptops, some portable scanners and ebook readers (though not any of our picks for either device), the (old) Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL, and the Wii U. Check your device to make sure you need an SD card (not a microSD card) and that your device doesn’t already come with one that works well enough.
If you already have an SD card that does everything you need, you probably shouldn’t upgrade. Our pick isn’t leaps and bounds better than anything that’s been available for the past few years. But if you need another SD card, or you’re having issues with the speed of your card—say, you burst-shoot photos in raw format or want to shoot 4K video and your card can’t keep up—you should get our pick.
The most important features of an SD card are speed, reliability, price, and warranty. 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 in the camera. Once the buffer is full, the images have to be written to the SD card before you can shoot any more photos. The faster the host device can write data to the card—the card’s write speed—the faster this buffer clears and the sooner you can start shooting again. So write speed is the most important spec for SD cards.
Read speed is important when copying data from the card to a computer via SD card slot or USB 3.0 reader, and when reviewing photos on the camera. Read speed is not as important for cameras as write speed, but because read speed is often faster, manufacturers like to brag about it on the label. Read speed is more useful for SD cards used for additional storage, since you’ll mostly be accessing media that you’ve already put on the card. Almost every SD card we tested in early 2016 had an average read speed of around 92 MB/s, with little variation between cards.
Keeping these criteria in mind, we researched SD cards from SanDisk, Lexar, Samsung, Toshiba, Transcend, PNY, and others. Unfortunately, the sources we’ve relied on in the past to help us choose which models we test—like professional sports photographer Chuck Steenburgh and Tom’s Hardware—no longer review lots of SD cards. So we tested more cards this time: 10 in all.
We tested the 64 GB versions of the SanDisk Extreme, SanDisk Extreme Plus, SanDisk Extreme Pro, Samsung Pro Plus, Lexar 633x, Lexar 1000x, Transcend W60MB/s, Transcend W85MB/s, PNY Elite Performance, and Toshiba Exceria UHS-I.
We tested each SD card’s real-life burst-shooting performance on two entry-level DSLRs (the Canon Rebel EOS T4i and the Nikon D3300), a mirrorless camera (the Olympus OM‑D E-M10), and a compact camera (the Sony RX100 MKIII). We tested with a variety of cameras because an SD card’s performance can vary from camera to camera based on memory controllers, image processors, and a slew of other factors—the fastest card in any one camera won’t necessarily be the fastest in every camera. For each card, we averaged these test results to get an overall measure of performance.
Using a USB 3.0 card reader in a 2015 gaming laptop’s USB 3.0 port, we ran CrystalDiskMark, a benchmarking program designed to test sequential and random read and write speeds on solid-state storage. (We tested SD cards via USB 3.0 to prevent bottlenecks, since USB 2.0 tops out around 33 MB/s and the cards we tested are faster than that.) Between each test, we cleared the cards and reformatted them using the recommended utility from the SD Association to stabilize performance.
The 64 GB Samsung Pro Plus is fast enough to shoot 1080p and 4K video, has some of the fastest transfer and in-camera speeds we tested, and is reasonably priced. It’s made by a reliable manufacturer and comes with a 10-year limited warranty. The Pro Plus wasn’t the fastest card we tested—that would be our runner-up, the SanDisk Extreme Pro—but at its usual price of around $40, it’s the best card you can buy without spending at least 20 percent more.
In our real-life burst-shooting tests, in file transfers, and in benchmark tests, the Samsung Pro Plus was among the fastest of the 10 SD cards we tested. The Samsung Pro Plus is a Class 10, U3 card, which means that the card is fast enough to record both 1080p and 4K video. Samsung advertises the card at 95 MB/s read and 90 MB/s write, but we found the card’s speeds to be a little slower in our tests. CrystalDiskMark clocked the card at 91.5 MB/s read and 84.9 MB/s write.
Write speed is the most important factor for SD cards, and the Pro Plus had the second fastest, behind the pricier SanDisk Extreme Pro. As a result, the Samsung Pro Plus is one of the speediest when transferring photos and video from the SD card to a computer. That means less time waiting around for files to transfer, and more time to spend organizing and editing. All 10 of the cards we tested had read speeds between 90 MB/s and 93 MB/s—they were basically indistinguishable from each other in real-world use.
We also tested each card’s real-world burst-shooting speed using four cameras. For this test, we recorded the sound of the shutter closing as we shot a burst of raw images. The resulting waveforms give us a visual representation of each card’s speed. The large group of spikes at the beginning of each waveform represents a burst of shots, which fill the camera’s buffer and must be written to the SD card before you can shoot more photos. Each spike after that is a single shot, and between those spikes the camera is writing files to the SD card. (Click here for a more detailed explanation of how SD cards affect burst speed.)
Once we averaged the results of this test across the four cameras, the Samsung Pro Plus had the second-fastest average practical write speeds, behind the SanDisk Extreme Pro. The SanDisk Extreme Plus ranked third, followed by our budget pick, the Transcend W60MB/s, and then the Transcend W85MB/s. The SanDisk Extreme was the slowest in every camera we tested.
At the time of publication, the 64 GB Samsung Pro Plus is less expensive per gigabyte than the 32 GB model. We polled about 600 readers on Twitter and through a survey, and most told us that they want a 64 GB card. But if you need a smaller card, the 32 GB is also a good option. (By our calculations, the 64 GB card will fit about 1,921 24-megapixel raw photos from a midrange DSLR, and a 32 GB card will fit about 960.)
SD cards are more durable than hard drives, because they lack moving parts, and they can survive being bumped around and dropped. Like many SD cards, the Samsung Pro Plus is rated to survive up to 72 hours in saltwater, can withstand temperatures ranging from -13ºF to 185ºF, and is immune to airport X-rays. It’s also covered by a 10-year limited warranty, which covers the SD card if it stops working for any reason as long as it wasn’t used improperly, damaged, or modified.
The only real downside to the 64 GB Samsung Pro Plus is that its usual price is around $40, which, based on the results of our survey, is more than some people want to spend on an SD card. But it has the best performance for the price, and if you don’t need a 64 GB card you can step down to the cheaper, but less-cost-effective 32 GB version instead. If you need 64 GB of storage but care less about speed, take a look at our budget pick.
In the CrystalDiskMark test, the Extreme Pro had one of the fastest read speeds at 92.9 MB/s, and it bested all the other cards with a write speed of 88.7 MB/s. The SanDisk Extreme Pro was also the fastest in our practical camera tests. It comes with a lifetime limited warranty.
The only reason the Extreme Pro isn’t our pick is price. At the time of writing, it cost about 20 percent more than the Samsung Pro Plus for a minor speed advantage. But if the SanDisk Extreme Pro goes on sale or you can’t find the Samsung Pro Plus anywhere, the SanDisk is a better buy.
The Transcend W60MB/s had read speeds of 91.9 MB/s and write speeds of 68 MB/s in the CrystalDiskMark test. Its write speeds are about 20 MB/s slower than those of our top pick and runner-up, but faster than four of the other nine cards we tested. That’s pretty good performance from the second-cheapest card of the lot.
Despite the slower benchmark speeds, the Transcend W60MB/s performed well in our burst-shooting test, even outdoing some cards with faster CrystalDiskMark write speeds. The Transcend W60MB/s was slower than the SanDisk Extreme Pro, the Samsung Pro Plus, and the SanDisk Extreme Plus, but faster than everything else—even the Transcend W85MB/s card, which we expected to be faster, given their names and corresponding speed ratings.
Compared with our pick, the Samsung Pro Plus, and our runner-up, the SanDisk Extreme Pro, the Transcend W60MB/s is slower when writing photos to the card and when burst shooting, and it may take a little longer to offload files. Transcend’s card comes with a limited lifetime warranty, but the SD Card Association estimates SD card lifespans at 10 years anyway, so this isn’t a significant advantage over the Samsung Pro Plus’s 10-year warranty.
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 megabytes per second.
Our midrange DSLR pick, the Nikon D7200, has a burst shooting image bitrate of about 200 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-format shooting speed.
Most current SD cards aren’t fast enough to keep up with those cameras, so the faster the card you get, the better, especially if you tend to use burst mode a lot. Paying more for our pick over a cheaper, slower card will also benefit you later if you get a new camera—which will probably have a higher image bitrate—in the next year or two.
The SD Association recognizes two sets of standardized speed classes for SD and microSD cards based on their minimum guaranteed speeds. Speed classes 2, 4, 6, and 10 denote the minimum write speeds in megabytes per second: A Class 2 card has guaranteed minimum write speeds of 2 MB/s, while a Class 10 card has a minimum of 10 MB/s.
However, many cards have speeds far faster than 10 MB/s, so there’s a limit to how useful those minimum speed ratings can be. Two Ultra High Speed classes further differentiate performance on newer cards: U1 cards are recommended for 1080p video recording and have write speeds of at least 10 MB/s; U3 is required for 4K video and designates a minimum sequential-write speed of 30 MB/s. Since these cards also meet the requirement for a class 10 rating, they usually carry that designation too. U1 cards are inexpensive enough that there’s no reason to get a slower, lower-class card unless your device specifically requires one. You can read more about how to recognize different card speeds at the SD Association website.
In addition to the different speed classes, there are standards that dictate how different generations of SD cards work. One such standard is the bus mode. All the point-and-shoot cameras we recommend support at least UHS-I bus cards. You can use a faster UHS-II card with a UHS-I camera, and a UHS-1 card with a UHS-II camera, but you won’t get the speed of UHS-II unless both camera and card support it, because UHS-II requires an additional row of physical pins to achieve its extra speed.
Another standard indicates the capacity of SD and microSD cards. Most devices support the SDXC standard—introduced in 2009—that’s used for all SD cards above 32 GB, but not all do. Be sure to check if your device supports SDXC before buying a high-capacity card.
In March 2016, the SD Association announced a new standard for memory cards that will support 360-degree, 3D, and 8K video. The new version 5.0 SD cards will feature minimum sequential write speeds of 60 MB/s and 90 MB/s, designated by the V60 and V90 video-speed-class labels, respectively. The cards will write to memory blocks as large as 512 MB, which contributes to the speed boost. Exactly when the new cards and compatible devices will hit the market is unclear, but we’ll test some for an upgrade pick when they’re commonly available.
When buying an SD card from Amazon or any other retailer with several packaging options, be sure to buy from a reputable seller and select the original packaging (for example, avoid “frustration-free” packaging on Amazon). There’s a sizeable market for fake or knockoff cards, which are much slower than the real thing and aren’t covered by a warranty. The best way to avoid gray-market copies is to buy SD cards in the original packaging from a trusted retailer.
However, some Amazon customers have reported receiving fake cards directly from Amazon. If you suspect your card is a fake, look for strange packaging or use CrystalDiskMark to test its speeds, then contact Amazon customer support for an exchange, if necessary.
SD cards are more durable than other forms of storage—our pick’s safe operating temperature range is -13°F (-25°C) to 185°F (85°C)—but to ensure yours last their full lifespan, you should store them in a clean, dry, temperate location and handle them with care to avoid bending or breaking them. You should store your cards in their included rigid-plastic casings or, if you use multiple SD cards for a camera, a dedicated case (like this Pelican model) that will protect them from pressure and the elements.
We looked at only Class 10, UHS-I, U1, and U3 cards, because U1 and U3 ratings indicate cards that are fast enough to shoot 1080p and 4K video, respectively. We didn’t seek out UHS-II cards, because they’re too expensive for most people’s needs, and only high-end cameras can take full advantage of them right now. We also eliminated any cards with quoted read speeds below 80 MB/s and write speeds below 60 MB/s, because faster cards aren’t prohibitively expensive.
The 64 GB SanDisk Extreme Plus costs about twice as much as our picks at the time of writing, had slower write speeds, and ranked lower in our burst shooting tests.
The 64 GB SanDisk Extreme was consistently the slowest of the six cards we tested in four different cameras.
The 64 GB Lexar 633x had speeds on a par with those of our budget pick, the 64 GB Transcend W60MB/s, but costs $5 to $10 more.
The 64 GB PNY Elite Performance had the worst sequential write speeds of the 10 cards we tested.
(Photos by Kimber Streams)
Originally published: February 18, 2016