Professional and amateur photographers alike have long been faced with the fact that the speed of flash memory cards has outpaced the commonly available means of copying the data contained on those cards to their computers. Until only recently, Secure Digital (SD) or CompactFlash (CF) card readers were primarily based on USB 2.0 or FireWire interfaces.
Now, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt-based options have reached consumers at reasonable prices, and today we’ll take a look at one: the $17.99 Anker Uspeed USB 3.0 Multi-in–1 Card Reader.
Box Contents & Technical Specifications
The Anker Uspeed card reader comes packaged in a small cardboard box with just the card reader, a simple instruction manual, and a registration card. The USB cord is permanently attached to the card reader, so no additional cables are included or necessary.
The card reader itself is made of black plastic with a medium gloss and is a relatively compact 2.25 inches squared and 0.44 inches tall. The attached cord is 6 inches long, measured from the end of the USB connector to the base of the card reader.
The reader has four slots on each side of its square shape, covering nearly all common memory card formats: SD Card (SDXC, SDHC, SD), CompactFlash (standard CF and UDMA), Sony Memory Stick (MS, M2), and MicroSD (T-F, Micro SDXC, Micro SDHC, Micro SD).
The device requires no drivers and is plug-and-play on both OS X (we tested 10.7.5 Lion and 10.8.3 Mountain Lion) and Windows (we tested Windows 7 and 8).
Setup & Usage
As mentioned above, there are no drivers required so simply attach the device to a USB port, insert a memory card, and your card’s contents will shortly become visible in Finder or Windows Explorer. A single green activity light on top of the device flashes to indicate read and write activity.
Notably, and unlike many similar multi-function card readers, you can use more than one slot at a time. This comes in handy for photographers with different cameras that use multiple memory formats (SD Card and CompactFlash, for example). All inserted cards will mount and be accessible by the computer or image editing application, but transferring data from more than one card at a time will significantly slow the transfer speed.
Inserting and removing cards is easy, although the cards will stick out a bit, possibly causing an issue if the card is bumped or shifted while sitting on your desk. The CompactFlash port is also dangerously shallow. As many CompactFlash users know, the pins used by the format are notoriously prone to bending. Manufacturers have tried to mitigate this problem by building in a longer entry path for the card, ensuring that that it is perfectly lined up by the time the card contacts the pins.
On the Anker card reader, however, the ports are so shallow that it is very easy to insert the CF card at an improper angle and bend the pins. We managed to avoid doing this during our two days of testing, but we were very careful when inserting or removing CF cards, and we recommend that owners of this product follow our lead.
From a design perspective, the inclusion of a built-in USB cable can be both a positive and a negative. Photographers who do a lot of editing in the field will appreciate the portable nature of the device and the lack of a need to carry an extra cable. Home users, however, may feel constrained by the 6-inch cable length, which limits placement options in static setups. Desktop users in particular will have to choose between letting the reader dangle off an available front USB port or buying a USB 3.0 extension cable.
The cable length issue aside, the Anker card reader’s plastic construction seems as durable as one can expect for under $20, although the glossy design will attract fingerprints.
To see how the reader performs we tested both CompactFlash and SD cards. For the SD card test, we used a 32GB SanDisk Extreme Class 10 card and compared its performance in the Anker USB 3.0 card reader to the built-in SD card reader on a 2012 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (rMBP). Our CompactFlash tests used a 64GB Transcend UDMA7 card. Because the rMBP did not have a built-in CF reader to compare our results against, we used the Thunderbolt-based Sonnet Echo ExpressCard Pro combined with a Sonnet Pro Dual CompactFlash ExpressCard/34 Adapter.
First, we looked at raw sequential read and write speed, although with a card reader like the Anker, most users will be primarily interested in read speeds as images are read from the card and written to the computer.
Measuring the performance of the SD Card first, the Anker beat the internal card reader by about 6 megabytes per second in terms of writes, but just about tied in terms of the more important reads. Before you dismiss the Anker, however, take a look at photo import times:
Here, the Anker beat the built-in card reader by about 40 seconds while importing 250 RAW images into Aperture. A real-world test like a photo import involves several additional factors, such as quickly starting and stopping the transfer with each new file, that reveal more than a standard sequential test. Therefore, even if you have a built-in card reader on your Mac or PC, you may still save quite a bit of time during image imports by using a device like the Anker USB 3.0 card reader.
Next, we’ll compare the CF card via both the Anker reader and the Sonnet Thunderbolt adapter. As Thunderbolt has less overhead and greater bandwidth than USB 3.0, we expect the Thunderbolt solution to prevail in this scenario.
As we expected, Thunderbolt edges out USB 3.0 and the Anker reader in terms of sequential performance, but again, only slightly in terms of reads. If we switch to a photo import test, the result is a victory for Thunderbolt and Sonnet by about 21 seconds for the same set of 250 RAW files we tested with the SD cards.
This result is definitely faster, and the time savings will add up over time, but the Sonnet Thunderbolt solution (adapter and ExpressCard CF reader) costs over $200 combined, compared to less than $20 for the Anker card reader. If you have USB 3.0 on your Mac or PC, the Anker card reader seems preferable compared to the expensive Thunderbolt solution for all but the most serious photographers, for whom every second counts.
The Anker Uspeed USB 3.0 card reader seems to be a great value. Issues such as the delicacy of the CF pins, the plastic body, and the short USB cord can be overlooked given its relatively good performance and low price. While long-term use is necessary to determine its durability, we encountered no issues in our several days of testing, which involved repeatedly inserting and removing memory cards.
Overall, the Anker reader is a good value for fast photo importing, and can handle just about any common memory card format. Its low price also means that it can find a place in the setups of professional photographers and hobbyists alike. It’s available now from Amazon and carries an 18-month warranty.
Uspeed USB 3.0 Multi-in–1 Card Reader
Model Number: AK–68UPCRDIO-B4U
Price: $29.99 list / $17.99 street
Requirements: USB 3.0 port for full speed transfers (USB 2.0 compatible)