Founded by Lexar alumni, ProGrade Digital is building a better memory card  2/15/2018 1:15:59 PM   Daven Mathies

After Micron divested the Lexar brand last year to refocus on the enterprise market, the fate of the popular memory card company was up in the air. The brand was eventually saved thanks to a buyout from China-based Longsys, but for members of Lexar’s previous U.S.-based leadership team, it was time to freshen up their LinkedIn profiles — or, in the case of general manager Wes Brewer, start an entirely new memory card company.

That company is ProGrade Digital, and just as the name suggests, it will focus exclusively on the high-end photography and videography markets. Digital Trends spoke with Brewer, who will serve as CEO of the new company, and VP of Marketing Mark Lewis (also previously of Lexar) about how ProGrade Digital plans to build a better memory card.

With flash memory controlled by just a small handful of manufacturers, trying to start a new company in the industry seems daunting. Fortunately, Brewer and team can draw on over 60 years of combined experience in the industry, leveraging personal connections with suppliers to acquire the highest quality components.

“Past relationships are what we’re building this company on,” Brewer said.

While being a small fish in a big pond may seem like a challenge, this is exactly what will give ProGrade Digital an advantage in serving enthusiast and professional photographers and filmmakers. From the perspective of a flash memory manufacturer, the high-end photo and video market is simply too small; focusing on it just doesn’t make financial sense. This is why Micron dropped Lexar; the revenue potential from selling memory to data centers and smartphone manufacturers was simply so much greater. ProGrade Digital, however, is sized appropriately for its target market, and will produce a narrow set of products tailored to specific customers.

Failure free

Beyond just producing the cards, ProGrade Digital is doing a couple of things differently from other manufacturers. First, it fully tests every card it sells, performing a complete read/write cycle to every memory cell, a process that can take upwards of 45 minutes for the larger capacity cards. This is a big contrast to the much more limited testing traditionally done by other memory card companies, including the already impressive testing performed by Lexar.

“We’re striving for zero failures in the field,” Brewer said.

Every memory card also bears a 20-digit serial number that holds information like the manufacturing date, controller type, firmware version, and memory type. This will help address any compatibility problems, as rare as they are, that may arise with future cameras. If a customer has an issue with a card, they can give ProGrade Digital the serial number and a tech can quickly check that same run of cards to confirm the error and issue a replacement card immediately.

These are things that most consumers would never have reason to think about (choosing the right memory card is hard enough), but professionals who have gotten stuck in the field with an incompatible or malfunctioning memory card should appreciate the higher level of dedication to testing and troubleshooting.

Professional grade

The company is starting with a limited number of products, launching a single line of UHS-II SD cards and a range of high-speed CFast 2.0 cards. The SD cards won’t quite be top of the line in terms of speed, but Brewer said the goal was to hit the most competitive price to performance ratio. Read speed is rated at 200 megabytes per second and write speed at 80MB per second. The cards are U3 compliant, making them suitable for 4K video. Prices are $55, $95, and $190 for 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB capacities.

The CFast 2.0 cards will be offered in 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB capacities at $230, $350, and $700, respectively (if that sounds high, note that Lexar launched the world’s first 512GB CFast card last year at a price of $1,700). Read speeds are up to 550MB per second, and the cards also meet the VPG130 specification championed by Canon, meaning they offer sustained write speeds of 130MB per second or better for bandwidth-intensive video capture.

ProGrade Digital is also launching a compact, dual card reader that accepts both CFast 2.0 and SD cards. The $80 reader uses a USB Type C connector and boasts a maximum transfer rate of 10 gigabits per second over a USB 3.1 Gen 2 bus, enough to offload media simultaneously from both cards at their full read speeds. Designed for field use, it can be attached magnetically to a laptop using the included adhesive metal plate. This makes for a more elegant, if still low tech, solution for users who have been using tape or velcro to attach card readers to their computers.

ProGrade Digital is starting small and will initially limit itself to just the North American market, but the company plans to expand worldwide in time. While we can’t yet speak to the quality of its products, it is at least reassuring to see a company rise to the challenge of addressing the needs of the pro photo and video market, at a time when the memory industry seems to be moving in another direction.

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