Guide – SD Memory Cards for Home Video

By | 25th April 2014

Shows a Sandisk SDHC Card

In this article we’ll talk about the different kinds of SD cards available and the types of video files that camcorders and other cameras including mobile phones might record onto them. We’ll try to avoid getting bogged down with too much technical information. If we miss anything out or there’s an unanswered question then please let us know in the comments section below.

Video cameras used to record onto tape. There were several different flavours of tape but in general they stuck to a certain set of rules. If you could read the label there was a good chance you could work out exactly what type of tape is was, the duration and what equipment was required to play it or copy it.

Modern, tapeless cameras also have some rules and standards. The trouble is that these rules are often overlooked, bent, broken or just plain ignored. There’s no way you can work out what’s on a camcorder memory card just by reading the label. This also applies to video recorders with built-in storage such as a hard disk drive.

What is an SD card?

SD (Secure Digital) memory is designed for storing data such as photos and video in portable devices. It’s the most common type of memory card for domestic camcorders.

Note: SD in this context does not mean standard definition. You can record HD (high definition) or SD (standard definition) video onto them. Some 4K Ultra HD video cameras will record onto the latest types of very fast SD cards.

What type of SD card is most likely to work in a camcorder?

Most new video cameras will work with the latest & fastest memory cards but you probably only need a modest spec card. If you bought your camera a few years ago it will not have been tested with cards released later on.

Shows SDXC logo on a camcorder

A typical HD camcorder from Sony, Panasonic, Canon etc will be fine with an SDHC Class 6 memory card. The manufacturers may say that Class 4 cards are good enough but in our experience the price difference to step up to Class 6 is minimal and they are a bit faster. Class 10 cards can probably be used without issue but some older cameras can have trouble with newer standard cards.

SD Cards – Pick a flavour

There have been many different types of memory card over the years but SD cards have become firmly established as┬áthe main standard. They come in three physical sizes with fullSD and microSD cards being the most popular. There are also miniSD cards but these are rarely found in cameras. You’ll find SD cards in camcorders, still cameras, mobiles and tablets. Full size (normal) SD cards are 24mm x 32mm (approx. one inch x an inch and a bit). MicroSD cards are tiny at 11mm x 15mm (about the size of your index fingernail).

As well as three physical sizes there are also three ‘standards’ – SD, SDHC and SDXC. Think of these are first, second and third generation versions respectively. Each one offering more speed and/or more storage capacity than the previous generation.

Within each type of card there are also ‘speed classes’. As you might expect the more expensive cards tend to be faster – the vast majority of home video cameras work perfectly well with the cheaper cards. The manufacturer of a your camera will specify the usually state the minimum specification required.

The larger the capacity of the card the more stuff you can fit onto it. A 4GB card only lasts about 20 minutes in a full HD video camera (good quality recording mode). 8GB, 16GB and 32Gb hold between 40 and 160 minutes at the higher quality record settings. You can record for longer but the trade off is lower quality images and sound.

Newer devices usually have some compatibility with older cards (with restrictions) but older devices can’t normally see newer generation cards. For example if your camera or manual doesn’t state SDXC cards are compatible then you can be certain that they won’t work. This also applies to card readers – lots of older SD card readers including those built into laptops, PCs and printers just won’t see an SDXC card.

If you’re getting confused then don’t worry. It’s perfectly reasonable. The manufacturers employ marketing people to further complicate the descriptions – e.g. Ultra, Ultimate or Premium which all sound great but don’t relate to the official standards in any way. You may also see packaging saying 133x or 20Mb/s etc. This does have technical merit but the figures quoted are only meaningful if recording to the cards in high end digital still cameras or specialist/professional video cameras. To be clear – a faster memory card will read and write data more quickly but a typical domestic camcorder is unlikely to benefit from it in normal use.

What type of file does my video camera record?

There are a few different flavours of HD (high def) video recorded by camcorders. Some video cameras will record more than one type of file depending on the settings chosen by the user.

A main brand HD video camera sold in the UK will usually record either ACVHD or MP4.

AVCHD (and AVCHD Lite) are a standard type of video file. As such they comply to very specific file formats and are easy to work with in terms of editing and transferring to DVD or Blu-ray.

MP4 is a container format rather than a specific video file standard. The files are usually a version of MPEG4 but the file extensions and folder structure will differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.

SD (standard def) camcorders are thin on the ground but tend to record MPEG2 files.

Why do they make super fast (expensive) SD cards?

Video cameras record at consistent but relatively low data rates compared to still cameras. An HD video camera records up to 50 frames per second. Each HD frame is around 2 megapixels. The frames are highly compressed to take up less room on the memory card.

A slow memory card can inhibit the operational speed of a still camera, a faster card can improve it. Still cameras, especially semi-pro and professional models shoot single frames at 12, 16, 20 or more megapixels with or without compression. In burst mode the camera can take multiple frames per second. Burst mode generates lots more data than HD video.

Can video from a memory card be copied to a DVD?

It is possible to copy your videos from the SD card (or camcorder internal memory) to a DVD or better still a Blu-ray disc. To do this you’ll need to use a computer with disc authoring software. Some video editing programs can also output to disc.

Some camcorders include software from the manufacturer which may be required to copy or edit the footage properly. Experience tells us that the bundled software is usually restricted to basic functionality. Don’t be surprised if you have to buy an upgrade to actually burn a disc.

You also need to be aware that the file structure of the card is important. That means all of the files and folders may be required to successfully edit the files or transfer them to disc.

Typical problems that can arise by using the incorrect software or missing certain files are loss of audio sync, repeated frames and/or unusual ‘jumps’ in longer sections of the footage.

Note: The video files from AVCHD based camcorders are very similar to those found on a Blu-ray disc. It is possible (with some caveats) to copy the files directly to a Blu-ray disc using a computer. Certain models of Blu-ray recorder made by Panasonic or JVC will also do this with the option of making copies to DVD as well.

If you’d rather not attempt the job yourself then we offer a video file to disc transfer service. We can copy footage from any memory card, camcorders with internal memory, mobiles phones and USB devices such as memory sticks or portable hard drives. See our video transfer page for more details.

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