As developers of the highly regarded PhotoRescue picture and photo data recovery program, we frequently receive questions about the reliability of Compact Flash cards. "Is there a better compact flash brand?", "Are some compact flash more reliable than others?". Such questions understandably top the list of the digital photographers who have experienced loss of data or compact flash failures.

Are all CF cards created equal? Well, not really. We decided to take two relatively well known 256 MB CF cards apart. Both brands are in the top ten in terms of sales volume, both brands can easily be found in the US or in Europe. Both cards were made roughly at the same time and both rely on the same set of K9F1208U0M Samsung 512 Mbits memory chips (2048 Mbits = 256 Megabytes) The card on the left drives those chips through a Lexar controller (eventhough it is not a Lexar branded card) while the card on the right uses a Samsung controller. So far so good.

However, a quick glance at the cards immediately reveals significant differences: the design of the left card is slightly more crowded than the design of the right one and, more importantly, its build quality is markedly inferior. One only has to look at the general appearance of the boards and of the solder joints to realize that these compact flash cards definitely weren't born equal. A microscopic examination of the solder joints is even more telling.

The "BAD" CF Card The "GOOD" CF Card
click on the images for the full size pictures

So, yes, we can definitely say that marked build quality differences do exist between Compact Flash cards, even when they rely on equivalent components and when they are sold under well known brands. Is there a direct connection between the build quality of a compact flash card and its reliability? Definitely! While we don't have large scale extensive statistics specific to each and every version of each and every compact flash ever produced, we have seen enough failed cards to convince ourselves of the link, common sense dictates it and so does the experience with other electronic devices.

The bad news is that you, the consumer, can't tell. The build quality of a compact flash card can only be ascertained by opening it, and that operation is not reversible, at least if you want to continue using the card in your digital camera. Further, there is virtually no guarantee that a specific manufacturer will deliver the same build quality over time. Compact flash cards are often sold in non-descript batches that are simply branded by the vendor. This is why we won't give you the names of the brands involved above: there is no guarantee that different batches or different generation of cards would not reverse the comparison.

Ah, and before you ask, yes, the card on the left was actually broken when it reached us and the card on the right is still perfectly functional.

Disclosure: DataRescue is the developer of PhotoRescue the best compact flash data recovery solution on the market, available for both Mac OS X and Windows.