SanDisk’s 1TB microSD cards are ridiculous and every photographer should get one

Tips & Techniques

When I first heard the announcement that SanDisk was showing off a 1TB SD card at Photokina 2016, I thought “Impressive, but why?” Ok, at first I thought “That’s insane!!!”, who’s going to use a card that big? Then I was impressed. When they announced a 1TB Extreme microSD card at the beginning of this year, though, my thought changed to “Cool, want one!”. The difference, for me, is the form factor.

Since then, SanDisk has also released a faster Extreme Pro 1TB microSD card. And now I have one. Here, I’m going to tell you how I’m using it, what I think of it and why I think every photographer needs one.

Why 1TB microSD cards are awesome

Like SanDisk’s full-size Extreme Pro SD cards, the Extreme Pro microSD card offers write speeds of up to 90MB/sec and read speeds of up to 170MB/sec. You do need to use one of SanDisk’s readers to get those speeds, though, as it’s a proprietary protocol which isn’t part of the regular SD spec. With other devices and 3rd party card readers, it caps out around the standard 95MB/sec or so. And it’s limited to that speed even with some of SanDisk’s own current model readers, too, as it turns out.

SanDisk’s own Extreme Pro Type-C UHS-II SD card reader does not support 170MB/sec speeds with their cards

Unlike regular SD cards, though, microSD cards have the advantage of being able to stay with you everywhere you go, accessible and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Of course, I’m talking about using it as storage inside your smartphone. And no, I don’t just mean having somewhere to save your lifetime’s worth of selfies.

If, as photographers, we start to think of our phones as tools, rather than just a way to communicate with people and play games while we’re sitting on the toilet, we start to see that they actually have some functional utility on shoots, too. In this case, as the portable backup device that you will always have with you.

Speed tests

I did speed tests on the 1TB SanDisk Extreme Pro microSD using the Type-C SanDisk Extreme Pro UHS-II SD card reader plugged into my ASUS ZenBook Pro using the AJA System Test software. It’s a handy application as it allows you to test different storage devices based on the type of footage you’re shooting. Very handy for filmmakers when they need to test media to record to.

But it also shows the raw transfer rate, too, which is what we’re concerned with here. I also picked up a regular-sized 128GB 170MB/sec SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card as well, for a side-by-side comparison. It turns out, though, that not all SanDisk card readers support their high-speed protocol. This reader caps out at around 95MB/sec even with SanDisk’s own Extreme Pro 170MB/sec SD and microSD cards.

So, while this speed test isn’t really pushing the read speed limits, we do get to see the write speed and consistency.

First, I tested the 1TB SanDisk Extreme Pro microSD. I ran the test five times to check for consistency and get a good average, and here are the results.

1TBB SanDisk Extreme Pro microSDWriteRead
Test 184MB/sec93MB/sec
Test 283MB/sec92MB/sec
Test 383MB/sec92MB/sec
Test 483MB/sec92MB/sec
Test 583MB/sec92MB/sec

As you can see, both the reads and writes were very consistent, with write speeds of 83-84MB/sec, and read speeds of 92-93MB/sec. I did some tests with other card readers form ProGrade, Lexar and Hoodman, and they were all pretty consistent with these speeds.

With the standard-sized 128GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card, the results were also consistent and comparable to those of the microSD card. Again, this card reader would not fully utilise the read speed capabilities of this card.

128GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SDWriteRead
Test 183MB/sec93MB/sec
Test 283MB/sec93MB/sec
Test 381MB/sec92MB/sec
Test 482MB/sec92MB/sec
Test 581MB/sec92MB/sec

Although I didn’t see the 170MB/sec read speeds this card is popular for, that’s not going to be a problem for the intended use of the card, because the device we’re going to put it inside can’t make use of the full 170MB/sec speeds anyway.

What do you do with a card this big?

As I alluded to earlier, a card like this demands to go inside a smartphone, even if the speed can’t be fully utilised. The A2 app class rating means it’s actually designed precisely for devices like smartphones (and small computers like the Raspberry Pi or ASUS Tinker Board). The A2 rating allows for a lot of fast read and write operations per second. This offers advantages if you use your microSD card for app or data storage, where your phone will need to read and write lots of small files constantly.

But for us, it’s the capacity we’re interested in rather than anything else. It allows us to turn our phone into a portable backup device that’s always in our pocket… Or purse. Plenty of photographers are women and they have phones, too, even if not all of their clothes have pockets.

The phone that goes with me on every shoot is an ASUS ZenFone 5. It features a dual sim-tray, allowing for either a pair of sim cards or a single sim card and a microSD card, and it supports cards up to a theoretical maximum of 2TB. I say theoretically because nobody actually makes a 2TB card yet. 1TB is as big as they go for now.

The ZenFone 5 also has a Type-C USB socket on the bottom, like most Android smartphones and tablets these days. This means that you can plug your card reader or an external SSD straight into it and read the files off it. You can browse through what you’ve shot and transfer them to the phone’s internal storage, too, including whatever microSD card happens to be inside it.

But why your phone?

Your phone is always with you. There’s nothing extra to pack. Your phone is in your pocket whether you’re doing a shoot or not. You don’t have to remember to charge and pack a laptop, or another separate backup device in order to make use of it. It’s just there with you. Always. The only extra thing you need to pack in your camera bag is a card reader. And most people I know have a spare card reader in their bag anyway, even if they have another one for their computer at home.

And, it’s also always with you. I’ve lost track of the number of stories I’ve read online (and they seem to be increasing lately) where somebody left their car parked somewhere while they stopped for a bite to eat on the way home from a shoot only to find their car had been broken into and all their stuff was stolen. Just this week, it happened to a photographer in Manchester, England. Or they simply lost a card between leaving a session and copying the cards over a day or two later.

Insurance can replace the gear, but it can’t get yours or your client’s photos back that you shot that day. With a copy of everything on your phone, at least you haven’t lost the irreplaceable stuff.

Having the entire session on your phone also means you can start working on those social media images right away or even do preliminary edits in Lightroom on your phone to sync up to your desktop later.

Ok, I’m convinced, so how do I do this?

Not every phone supports microSD cards (sorry, iPhone users). Not even all Android phones do. But I’m going to assume here that you have an Android device with a microSD card slot. I mean, if you do photography as a business, you’re going to probably have two phones anyway. One for personal and one for work. So, why not make one of them an Android device with a microSD card slot?

The process is really simple. Just pop the card into the phone and initialise it as you would any other. Your card reader then just plugs into the Type-C socket on the bottom. You don’t even have to deal with OTG cables anymore, as you would have done in the past when phones still had micro USB sockets. Just plug it in the same as you would with your computer.

Somewhere on your device, there will be some kind of file manager. If not, there are plenty of 3rd party apps out there that will let you do this. But once you insert the card into your reader and plug it into your phone’s USB socket, bring up the file manager and you should be able to see it alongside your phone’s internal storage and the microSD card.

After that, browse to the folder on your SD card you want to back up, select the files you want to duplicate, and then tap “copy” (or whatever it says in your app).

You’ll probably be asked where you’d like to copy them to, by choosing a device in which you’d like to store them. Here, we just choose “MicroSD” (the 1TB card sitting inside the phone).

I have a file structure that I use for my internal microSD card when I’m backing up because sometimes I’m away for a few days and I’ll have several different shoots backed up to my phone simultaneously in separate folders for different projects. So, you’ll probably want to create a folder name with a little more imagination than this one.

But after creating or choosing your folder and hitting “OK”, you’re basically done. You just need to wait for it to transfer, and that’s all there is to it, really. It’s that simple.

I leave my card copying as I start to pack up my gear at the end of a shoot. By the time I’m done, it’s copied and the camera goes in the bag last. If I have multiple cameras, as long as I remember to check, they’ve all copied by the time I’m packed.

And then I don’t have to worry about it at all. If anything happens, I still have a copy of everything we shot that day on the microSD card. Worst case, if I get home and my cards are missing, corrupt, or whatever, I can just pull it from my phone and worry about replacing any missing items after.

Transferring from your phone to your computer typically doesn’t have the fastest transfer speed. So, I’d still copy from your cards to your computer as standard practice. But with the number of people I see posting on an almost daily basis that they’ve had a card go corrupt, or they’ve lost the card containing yesterday’s session before they’ve copied it, or they put the wrong card back in their camera and accidentally formatted it, it’s handy to have that backup, just in case.

I keep the backup on my phone until everything has been copied to my desktop at home and backed up to two other drives. Then I erase it from my phone, except for images or clips I might want to edit for social media, ready for the next time I need to go out and shoot.

Final thoughts

One of the biggest problems with microSD cards of this capacity is that so few devices officially support them right now. The Insta360 ONE X and GoPro Hero 8 Black, for example, have both only been manufacturer tested up to a maximum of 256GB microSD cards (Insta360 / GoPro), and even the DJI Mavic 2 Pro only supports up to 128GB cards.

But devices running fully blown operating systems like Android on smartphones and tablets, Linux on single board computers like the Raspberry Pi and ASUS Tinker Board, or Windows and macOS on your desktop or laptop can access the full capacity of the card and potentially the full speed of the card – if you use the right card reader.

But do you really need the speed of the SanDisk Extreme Pro microSD over the regular SanDisk Extreme microSD for the purpose described in this article? If you’re only going to be using it for backup inside your phone, especially given that phones will never attain those 170MB/sec read speeds anyway, then no, you more than likely don’t.

You can probably save a little money by going with the SanDisk Extreme microSD card instead. Both offer max 90MB/sec write speeds, and both cap out around 95MB/sec on the read speeds when not using specific SanDisk card readers.

Whichever card you go for, though, it can turn your Android phone into a very valuable backup tool to use on location and ensure that you have multiple copies of your work before you’ve even started heading back home.

I haven’t seen the 1TB SanDisk Extreme Pro microSD card available anywhere except the UK so far, but if you are in the UK, you can buy one here for £419. In the USA, I’ve only seen the 1TB SanDisk Extreme microSD card, which you can buy now for $249.99.

How do you back up your work on location?

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