TV Timecard and Sound Report Writer apps

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Creating a Thunderbolt Compact Flash Card Reader

I currently work on a reality show called Catfish: The TV Show on MTV. It is my second season on the show and, needless to say, we all learned a lot the first go-around. It is a truly unique production with a very specific set of challenges...mostly in the camera department. The nature of the show demands the use of a variety of cameras, and with that, a variety of recording mediums. On any given day, we can have up to a dozen different "cameras" using different media types like XDCAM, Compact Flash, SDHC, MicroSD, and even directly to hard drives. One of the biggest challenges of the first season was managing all of these mediums and taking the time to ensure proper organization and data backup. The main thing that was holding our crew back was transfer times from these cards to our location backup master drives and shuttle drives that are sent back to post-production daily. I also wanted to shave a few minutes off of my daily dump as well. As we all know, technology is always advancing it it couldn't have come at a better time for our show. The advent of Thunderbolt technology gives us remarkable transfer speeds to and from external card readers and hard drives. LaCie makes some excellent Thunderbolt-enabled hard drives that we use on location. The internal SDHC/SDXC card reader found on current MacBook Pro laptops provides sufficient transfer speeds, as does a USB 3.0 reader. Unfortunately, we reached a choke point with Compact Flash. There are plenty of USB 3.0 and FW800 readers out there, but we wanted to take advantage of the capabilities of Thunderbolt. After some research we found there was really only true solution on the market for Thunderbolt CF readers and that is the Echo ExpressCard/34 Thunderbolt Adapter by Sonnet, but it has been discontinued. Even still, it technically isn't even a Thunderbolt card reader per se. It is a Thunderbolt to SATA deck and they produce several widgets to adapt to the SATA port, one of which is a Compact Flash port. Lame. I'm sure there is a reason why the supply has yet to catch up with demand for a Thunderbolt CF reader, but I don't know it and I'm too impatient to find out...so we created our own. And you can, too, for UNDER $150! 

Thunderbolt Compact Flash card reader in all its glory 
I found essentially the same parts out there on the intraweb, and after a few tests from different manufacturers finally came up with a Thunderbolt Compact Flash reader that's worth a damn. All can be purchased on Amazon.com right now for a total of $143.14 (as of 4.15.13). The items listed below are the exact items that I purchased. There are several variations out there, so to achieve the results listed at the bottom of this page, I recommend you just jump for these. I had so-so results from other units that I bought and tested; particularly the SATA to CF reader.


Small gap between the CF reader and GoFlex
The weak point is the SATA to CF adapter. There are several SATA to CF readers to choose from, but I chose this one because A) it actually recognized the CF card, unlike some others, B) it is the fastest out of the ones we tested, and C) it is the least exposed to the elements. I think most of these are supposed to be mounted internally somewhere, but this works well enough for our purpose. There is a small gap on the bottom once everything is fully installed, but there is enough give in the connector to where it hasn't noticeably affected the physical integrity of the unit. This can also easily be fixed by adding a permanent support underneath it. See the chart below for transfer speed tests.


The Koozie Case
I also found that a folding neoprene koozie is the perfect traveling case for the GoFlex and CF adapter. Besides, you can never have enough koozies when you're on the road.

Here are some other CF adapters that I tried and others I found. Some were successful, but slower, and some just plain failed. I wouldn't recommend any of these items unless you're in the market for a longer Thunderbolt cable.
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