OWC recently announced its new Atlas CFexpress 4.0 Memory Cards that offer 2x faster speeds than CFexpress 2.0 memory cards and backward and forward compatibility.
While CFexpress Type B 4.0 cards are going to offer significant performance increases, I was most interested in OWC’s free firmware upgrade path for turning its Ultra 1TB CFexpress Type B 2.0 cards into CFexpress Type 4.0 cards. I will go into this in detail further down in the review, but first, let’s have a look at the new card range.
The new Atlas Pro 256GB, Atlas Pro 512GB, Atlas Ultra 1TB, and Atlas Ultra 2TB cards utilize PCIe Gen 4 technology to enable 3650MB/s read and 3000MB/s write speeds. While these write speeds are far beyond what any currently available camera requires recording 4K, 6K, and 8K+ high frame rate video, I would imagine we will see new cameras coming to market that will have higher resolutions, higher fps, more color depth, and higher recording bitrates in the future. In saying that, I don’t anticipate any cameras supporting this new spec to be released in 2023 or even early 2024.
The main benefit of these PCIe Gen 4 new speeds is when it comes to offloading material, although you would need a very fast card reader and drive to take advantage of it. The increased speed will also help higher resolution cameras clear the camera buffer much faster for continuous burst shooting.
OWC is proud to announce that our new Atlas CFexpress 4.0 Type B cards have arrived! Certain OWC CFexpress type B card firmware (with 1850MB/s read on the label), can be updated with our FREE software to get the new 4.0 performance! *Only applies to specific card models. pic.twitter.com/4PTm9R4Kiy— Other World Computing (@PoweredbyOWC) October 12, 2023
All the previous generations of OWC’s CFexpress cards supported CFA 2.0 spec with PCIe Gen3 interconnect. These new cards support the next generation CFA 4.0 spec that was announced on August 28th 2023, which doubles the speed of the card from 1GB/s per PCIe lane to 2GB/s.
Real World speed tests
I did a few tests to see what the sustained read/write speeds of the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB CFexpress card were.
To test the read/write speeds I was using a yet-to-be-announced CFexpress Type B 4.0 card reader connected to a Mac Studio. This will give me a lot better performance than if I were using a Thunderbolt 3 CFexpress Type B reader such as the OWC Atlas FXR which has a maximum read speed of up to 1600 MB/s. It is also going to be miles faster than if I were using a USB-C CFexpress Type B card reader that tops out at 1000 MB/s.
Above you can see the results for the 2TB OWC Atlas Ultra 4.0 card with the stress set to 5GB.
Above you can see the results for the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB card with the stress set to 1GB. As you can see, the results were very similar regardless of what stress level I set for the test.
As a comparison, let’s have a look at those same results for the OWC Atlas Ultra 1TB CFexpress Type B 2.0 card with the stress set to 1GB. As you can see, the card wasn’t as fast as the CFexpress Type B 4.0 card, but it was still more than capable of capturing any resolution or frame rate from any currently available camera that uses CFexpress Type B media.
As another comparison, above you can see the read/write speeds for the Exascend Archon 1TB CFexpress Type B 2.0 card.
I also tested the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB CFexpress Type B 4.0 card using the AJA System Test Lite software under a 256MB load to see what the read and write speeds were. The write speeds were reasonably consistent.
Above you can see the minimum and maximum write speeds the card reached. What was of slight concern was that the lowest minimum write speed recorded was 595 MB/s, however, the average speed was very fast at 1735 MB/s. For a camera like the RED V-RAPTOR, the maximum data rates when recording can reach up to 800MB/s so you need a card that is capable of sustaining those speeds, which the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB can easily do.
Above you can see the same test for the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB card showing how many frames per second it could handle when shooting DCI 4K in ProRes 422HQ. The card was able to sustain 412fps of DCI 4K in ProRes 422 HQ.
As a comparison, let’s have a look at a very good CFexpress Type B 2.0 card, the Exascend Archon 1TB, to see how it performs in the exact same test.
Above you can see the minimum and maximum write speeds the card reached. Now, this is why all cards are not created equal and you can pay a lot more for some rather than others. Look at the minimum and maximum write speeds for the Exascend. The minimum recorded figure was still a whopping 1268 MB/s.
Above you can see that same test under a 16GB load for the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB card. The minimum and maximum write speeds were a bit all over the place as you can see above. In saying that, cameras aren’t writing file sizes of 16GB to cards, and a 256MB/ 512MB/ 1GB stress test is going to be a much better indication for most people’s needs. The faster the card can write, the less it needs to cache.
How are the speeds when the card gets full?
I wanted to do a speed test with the OWC 2TB Atlas Ultra CFexpress Type B 4.0 card again when it was almost completely full.
Above you can see that when the card was almost completely full the sustained write speed still remained incredibly high at 1747 MB/s. The card was able to sustain its write speeds, regardless of how much space on the card had been filled.
What you clearly need to remember, and I am going to reiterate this over and over, is that the CFexpress Type-B card readers can be the stumbling block when it comes to speed. There are currently only a very small number of Thunderbolt 3 CFexpress card readers available. The majority of readers are only USB3. In saying that, we will be seeing a lot faster CFexpress Type B 4.0 card readers coming to market.
- OWC OWC Atlas FXR Thunderbolt CFexpress Type B Card Reader $99.95 USD
- Atech Flash Technology Blackjet TX-1CXQ CFexpress Type B / XQD Thunderbolt 3 Card Reader $95 USD
- Sonnet SF3 Series CFexpress/XQD Pro Card Reader $299.99 USD
Above are some of the card readers that use Thunderbolt 3.
The only CFexpress Type B 4.0 card reader that I am personally aware of that you can currently purchase is the ProGrade Digital CFexpress Type B USB 4.0 Single-Slot Card Reader which costs $99.99 USD.
Industry’s First Backward & Forward Compatibility
The new Atlas CFexpress 4.0 memory cards can utilize OWC’s Innergize software so that you can upgrade the firmware on previous PCIe Gen3 Atlas Ultra 1TB and 2TB cards to CFexpress 4.0 firmware. This gives users the opportunity to increase their existing card’s performance and prolong its usefulness with field firmware upgrades. This OWC exclusive upgrade almost doubles the current read/write speeds, from 1850MB/s and 1700MB/s read/write speeds to 3650MB/s and 3000MB/s.
In addition, Atlas CFexpress CFA 4.0 memory cards are also backward compatible with CFA 2.0 PCIe Gen 3 hosts, so that even when you update them they will still work with all cameras and devices that accept CFexpress Type B 2.0.
It is great to see OWC doing this, and being able to upgrade old cards to a newer specification certainly increases their life span and protects your investment. The only slight caveat is that you do need to use a compatible OWC reader/dock to perform this firmware upgrade.
You can see which ones are compatible above.
OWC’s Innergize software is designed specifically for OWC Atlas memory cards and readers. Innergize first checks the health of an Atlas card to ensure it is reliable to use, and then cleans and restores performance so there will be zero dropped frames when shooting video or continuous burst photos. Atlas owners can then upgrade their firmware in the field to take advantage of the latest card improvements and ensure OWC cards and readers will perform optimally with their cameras.
So, let’s see how this works. I am going to take an OWC Atlas Ultra CFexprees Type B 2.0 card and upgrade it to the 4.0 specification using the Innergize software.
First I will install the OWC Innergize software
Once I have installed the software and opened it up, as long as I have a compatible OWC card reader/dock connected with an OWC card I will get the above screen.
Once I click on the card, I will get the above screen that will tell me all of the information about my card, including what firmware it is running.
To upgrade the firmware of the OWC Atlas Ultra 1TB card to turn it into a CFexpress Type B 4.0 card I will highlight and click on Firmware Upgrade.
I will then get a warning advising me to back up any data before doing the upgrade.
When I click Upgrade firmware of Atlas Ultra it will start the firmware update.
This only takes around 30 seconds to do and once it has finished I will get a notification that it has been completed.
The card will now show the new firmware as being installed.
Ok, now that has been done, let’s do a speed test with the card.
The upgraded OWC Atlas Ultra 1TB CFexpress Type B card has suddenly been transformed and it was able to reach sustained write speeds of 2637 MB/s. This surprised me because the write speeds I obtained with the firmware-upgraded card were considerably higher than those of the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB CFexpress Type B 4.0 card.
The upgraded card was able to handle a staggering 627fps of 4K DCI when recording ProRes 422HQ.
What was even more incredible, is that the minimum write speed the card recorded was 1491 MB/s.
As a comparison, above is the same speed test for the card before it was upgraded to CFexpress Type B 4.0.
All this performance increase costs the end consumer ZERO. You have to tip your hat to OWC. They could have just as easily made consumers buy new cards if they wanted to upgrade to CFexpress Type B 4.0, but instead, they are giving people who bought their Ultra cards a free upgrade path. This is extremely rare in this day and age where companies want to charge you for everything and older products can become obsolete very quickly. Yes, most CFexpress Type B 2.0 cards can easily handle whatever is currently thrown at them, but with the new CFexpress Type B 4.0 standard we are bound to see cameras being released in the future that will be capable of capturing higher resolutions, bit depths and frames per second.
Real World Use
I tested out the OWC Atlas Ultra 2TB card in a Nikon Z9, recording N-RAW (High) 8.3K 60p.
The Z9’s 8K 60p N-RAW requires sustained data rates of up to 750 MB/s, and this fills up the buffer in no time, requiring performant high-capacity CFexpress storage.
Now, I had a Hot Card warning come up on the screen after about 10 minutes of recording, but the camera continued to record until the card was full. There weren’t any issues with the footage, despite the heat warning.
Yes, I could have used a good CFexpress Type B 2.0 card and I would have gotten the same result, however, at least in my opinion, it is always better to use media that isn’t operating near its limits.
Pricing, Availability, & Upgrades
The OWC Atlas Pro CFexpress 256GB and 512GB memory cards are now available to purchase for $169.99 USD (256GB) and $199.99 USD (512GB).
The Atlas Ultra CFexpress 1TB and 2TB memory are also now available for $579.99 USD (1TB) and $999.99 USD (2TB).
You can download OWC Innergize software to upgrade Atlas CFexpress 1TB and 2TB memory cards, with 1850MB/s on the card label, to the new CFexpress 4.0 specification. Innergize for Mac and Windows is available now.
How does this price compare to the competition?
Well, currently, at least to my knowledge, the only other CFexpress Type B 4.0 spec cards you can actually purchase are made by ProGrade.
The ProGrade Digital 1.3TB CFexpress 4.0 Type B Cobalt Memory Card retails for $1,459.99 USD, which despite having 300GB more capacity, is a lot more expensive than the OWC Atlas Ultra 1TB CFexpress Type B 4.0 card.
CFExpress Type B 4.0 certainly offers increased performance, but there currently aren’t any cameras on the market that can really utilize its full capabilities. Current CFexpress Type B 2.0 cards (especially the good ones) are more than capable for any camera that uses CFexpress Type B media. In the future that is sure to change, and the additional performance that CFexpress Type B 4.0 offers will be needed for some cameras.
If you are looking for new CFexpress Type B cards then the Atlas Pro and Ultra CFexpress Type B 4.0 cards make a lot of sense, as they don’t cost any more than their CFexpress 2.0 counterparts.
If you own existing OWB Atlas Ultra CFexpress Type B 2.0 cards, then the ability to upgrade them for free to 4.0 cards is a big deal. OWC has set the bar high with the ability to upgrade their Atlas Ultra 2.0 cards for free and it will be interesting to see if any other companies will do this.