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What Is microSD Express, and Why Does It Matter?

Sample labeling for microSD Express cards.SD Association

SD cards—everybody’s got a few, but nobody thinks much about them. That’s a testament to how well they work. But performance always matters, and microSD Express promises to make microSD cards much faster.

What Happened to SD Express?

Announced in February 2019 as part of the SD 7.1 specification by the SD Association, microSD Express follows its larger sibling, SD Express, which landed with a muted thud in mid-2018. SD Express cards didn’t roll out that year despite the standard’s promise of four to five times the performance of current SD cards. Now, however, with microSD Express, it looks like we might finally get blazing fast expansion cards for our laptops, smartphones, and cameras.

It’s not clear why no one got excited about SD Express. Perhaps most companies were waiting for the microSD version to roll out before getting serious. That’s probably the case, as early microSD Express cards are popping up at trade conferences, as well as new card readers, and firmware controllers that cover both versions of SD Express.

There’s nothing available to buy yet, but that should change in the not-too-distant future.

What Is microSD Express? The PCIe and NVMe logos. SD Association

microSD Express is a smaller version of SD Express. They are new types of SD cards that support a maximum read speed of 985 megabytes per second (MB/s). Current microSD cards, by comparison, don’t even hit 200 MB/s. The Express versions of SD use the PCIe 3.1 interface and NVMe to achieve this. These are the same technologies used by speedy, M.2 “gumstick” solid state drives in PCs. The new Express cards only use one lane of PCIe, however, while M.2 NVMe drives typically use four.

The smaller microSD cards make them an easier fit (literally) for the current way we use SD cards in phones, tablets, and laptops. The only exception is digital cameras, which favor full-size SD and compact flash cards.

What’s Changed?

In 2019, companies have started taking action. Standards associations can make all the new specifications they want, but if companies don’t turn them into real products, they’re just ideas.

For example, PCIe 4.0 was announced in 2017 but only became a reality with new products for PCs in 2019 (just in time for the PCIe 5.0 specification to be announced). SD Express has a similar issue with slow adoption from device makers and SD card manufacturers.

So, what hope does microSD Express have? For one thing, Western Digital (which owns SanDisk) was at Computex 2019 in Taiwan showing a SanDisk microSD Express card. The company didn’t announce a release date for the card, but the fact that it exists is promising.

Test results comparing microSD Express speeds to those of a current microSD card.microSD Express is dramatically faster than current microSD cards. Western Digital

WD showed the prototype card transferring a large video file of about 13 GB. During the file transfer test, WD said the microSD Express card was able to transfer the file in under 30 seconds. SanDisk compared that to the SanDisk Extreme UHS-I, which carried out the same job in just under 2-1/2 minutes. That performance speed is about five times better than that of current microSD UHS-I cards.

WD also worked with technology design company JMicron to create an early version of an external microSD card reader you can connect to a PC via USB. This reader uses the same SanDisk microSD Express card. With a benchmark tool, it hit an 820 MB/s read speed and a 475 MB/s write speed. In short, it performed close in the external reader to the microSD Express when it’s used with an internal card reader.

While these results sound promising, a company does everything possible to make its products look best in demonstrations. We want to see third-parties confirm WD’s speed claims with independent tests before we put too much stock in these results.

In addition to WD’s work, firmware maker Phison was also at Computex with its SD Express and microSD Express controller, the PS5017. A controller is an essential low-level component that helps computer parts communicate. Phison’s work is in the early stages, and there are a lot of improvements needed. It currently supports cards up to 512 GB, even though SD Express and microSD Express are meant to support up to a whopping 128 terabytes. That’s more about future-proofing than our current reality, but 1 TB SD cards are already out there, so it’s strange to see a controller topping out at around half that.

Even though this is early work from Phison and WD, it shows some movement from the industry to embrace the new SD card type.

More Changes Are Needed

While memory expansion cards are not something we spend a lot of time thinking about, the benefits of faster storage make a big difference. If microSD Express lives up to its promises, it would mean better performance from our devices.

For laptops with a compatible card reader, the new speeds mean you could use microSD cards as secondary drives since their responsiveness and capacities would be so high. Many people already use microSD cards for this, but performance hits are noticeable with large file types. The new microSD Express should improve that to a point where expansion cards operate as fast (or faster) than 2.5-inch SATA III SSDs.

Mobile phones likely will lag behind in implementing microSD Express. They’ll need new hardware to read the cards, as will laptops, but phones have a more difficult time dealing with potential heat issues than PCs and external devices. In general, the faster you make a particular technology, the more heat it creates—even with non-moving parts. Blazing fast PCIe 4.0 M.2 SSDs, for example, rock massive heat shields to keep cool.

In this Computex video from WD, the external microSD Express reader is propped in front of a PC cooling fan. This suggests heat issues are a concern right now. And you can’t put a cooling fan in a smartphone—not most of them, anyway.

Hopefully, all of this will be figured out in the coming months, and we’ll see microSD Express cards drastically speed up devices that support them.

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