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How to Buy an SD Card: Speed Classes, Sizes, and Capacities Explained

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Secure Digital (SD) cards are used in digital cameras, music players, smartphones, tablets, and even laptops. But not all SD cards are created equal—you’ll find different speed classes, physical sizes, and capacities to consider.

Some devices, like cameras, may require an SD card for their primary storage area. Other devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and even computers, may offer the ability to use an SD card to increase storage or make it mobile. However, different devices require different types of SD cards. Here are the differences you’ll need to keep in mind when picking out the right SD card for your device.

RELATED: Five Ways to Free Up Space on Your Android Device

Speed Classes

Not all SD cards offer the same speeds. This matters for some tasks more than others. For example, if you’re a professional photographer taking photos in rapid succession on a DSLR camera and saving them in a high-resolution RAW format, you’ll want the fastest SD card you can get. This’ll allow your camera to save images as quickly as possible.

A fast SD card is also important if you want to record high-resolution video and save it directly to the SD card. If you’re just taking a few photos on a typical consumer camera or using an SD card to store some media files on your smartphone, the speed isn’t as important.

Manufacturers use “speed classes” to measure an SD card’s speed. The SD Association that defines the SD card standard doesn’t actually define the exact speeds associated with these classes, but they do provide guidelines.

Lots of Storage for Cheap

SanDisk 128GB SD Card

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get an SD card with tons of storage. This $23 card gets you 128GB of space and fast read/write speeds.

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There are four different speed classes: 10 (10MB/sec read/write speed), 6 (6MB/sec), 4 (4MB/sec), and 2 (2MB/sec). Class 10 is the fastest, suitable for “full HD video recording” and “HD still consecutive recording.” Class 2 is the slowest, suitable for standard definition video recording. Classes 4 and 6 are both deemed suitable for high-definition video recording.

There are also two Ultra High Speed (UHS) speed classes, 1 (10MB/sec read/write speed) and 3 (30MB/sec). These markers are mainly intended for devices designed for professional use, but you’ll find them on most of today’s SD cards.

And lastly, there are Video Speed classes. These classes include V90 (which supports up to 8K video recording), V60 (4K recording), V30 (HD/Full HD video), and V10 and V6 (standard video).

Here are the associated SD class speed logos:

SD Card speed symbols
SD Association

You’ll probably be okay with a class 4 or 6 SD card for typical use in a digital camera, smartphone, or tablet. Class 10 cards are ideal if you’re shooting high-resolution videos or RAW photos. Class 2 cards are a bit on the slow side these days, so you may want to avoid them for all but the cheapest digital cameras. Even a cheap smartphone can record HD video, after all.

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An SD card’s speed class is identified on the SD card itself—just look for the logo. You’ll also see the speed class on the online store listing or on the card’s packaging when purchasing it. For example, in the below photo, the SD card has markers for speed class 10, UHS speed class 3, and video speed class 30.

Jacob.OFC/Shutterstock.com

If you see no speed class symbol, you have a class 0 SD card. These cards were designed and produced before the speed class rating system was introduced. They may be slower than even a class 2 card.

RELATED: What is Camera Raw, and Why Would a Professional Prefer it to JPG?

Physical Size (SD, MiniSD, and microSD)

SD cards also come in different sizes. You’ll find standard SD cards, miniSD cards, and microSD cards.

Standard SD cards are the largest, although they’re still pretty small. They measure 32x24x2.1mm and weigh just two grams. Most consumer digital cameras for sale today still use standard SD cards. They have the familiar “cut corner”  design.

miniSD cards are smaller than standard SD cards, measuring 21.5x20x1.4mm and weighing about 0.8 grams. This is the least common size today. miniSD cards were designed to be especially small for mobile phones, but now that we have an even smaller size—microSD—miniSD cards aren’t too common.

microSD cards are the smallest size of SD card, measuring 15x11x1mm and weighing just 0.25 grams. These cards are used in most cell phones, smartphones, and drones that support SD cards. They’re also used in many other devices, such as tablets.

Choosing a size is really just about what fits into the device you have. SD cards will only fit into matching slots. You can’t plug a microSD card into a standard SD card slot. However, you can purchase adapters that allow you to plug a smaller SD card into a larger SD card’s form and fit it into the appropriate slot. Below, you can see an adapter that lets you use a microSD card in a standard SD card slot.

SD card next to a microSD card and adaptor
Vitalii Stock/Shutterstock.com

RELATED: How to Quickly and Cheaply Upgrade a Laptop or Tablet’s Storage

Capacity (Storage Size)

Like USB flash drives, hard drives, solid-state drives, and other storage media, SD cards can have different amounts of storage.

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But the differences between SD card capacities don’t stop there. SD Standard Capacity (SDSC) cards range in size from 1MB to 2GB (and sometimes even 4GB—although that’s not standard). The SD High Capacity (SDHC) standard was created later, and allows cards 2GB to 32GB in size. An even more recent standard, SD Extended Capacity (SDXC) that allows cards 32GB to 2TB in size.

To use an SDHC or SDXC card, you’ll need to make sure your device supports those standards. At this point, the vast majority of devices should support SDHC. In fact, the SD cards you have are probably SDHC cards. SDXC is newer and less common.

SDHC memory card in-hand
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When buying an SD card, you’ll need to buy the right speed class, size, and capacity for your needs. Be sure to check what your device supports and consider what speed and capacity you’ll actually need.

RELATED: What Is a Solid State Drive (SSD), and Do I Need One?

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