Offloading images and videoclips without the wait: the Lexar Professional Workflow HR1

With the proliferation of video frame sizes beyond 1920×1080 pixels, memory card readers have become a major bottleneck in the production process. The Lexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution is a high-speed reader system that lets you transfer images from up to four memory cards simultaneously. The solution consists of a four-bay reader hub and independently sold reader modules that can be used both as a module and a stand-alone reader.

I was allowed to test the Lexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution with the currently available USB 3.0 modules, i.e. the USB 3.0 hub, a CompactFlash reader and a SD reader module. Except for these components, Lexar has a XQD reader in the pipeline, as well as a Thunderbolt hub, a CFast 2.0 reader and additional storage drive modules. The hub I tested costs around €60.00 with the readers each around €22.00. The reader modules that are yet to be released cost a bit more. Of the Thunderbolt hub we don’t know a price yet.

Lexar Box shot

The Lexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution (LPWRS hereafter) hub is a sleek black unit, with four USB 3.0 bays. The unit has a piano-black back with interfaces for the power adapter and USB 3.0 port and a piano-black front bezel with dust-protection plates you can remove using two fingers. The reader modules come with their own USB 3.0 cable and a silicon rubber protection hood. The design of the readers matches that of the hub. The hub has a blue LED that’s always on when there’s enough power provided, while the readers have a blue LED that is only turned on when you’re offloading a card. Readers can be used independently from the hub and they’re actually quite small — handy for use outside the studio.

I received two reader modules and matching memory cards (Lexar’s fastest to date: a CompactFlash 1066x card and a SDXC 633x card). The hub can handle all possible card combinations. You can start with one card and add more as you go along, or you can mix different card types, or you can load four identical card readers — it all works fine. Another nice trick the LPWRS is capable of is simultaneous offload. With the right software you can offload all cards at once.

Backside Lexar hub

Theoretically, the LPWRS system has two major benefits: speed and flexibility. The flexibility is the easy part: instead of having to plug in card readers and have yet other cables all tangled up on your desk, you can plug in the card reader in the hub — a clean desk guaranteed. That doesn’t sit in the way of you taking only the reader with you on the road and offloading images on your USB 2.0 / USB 3.0 capable laptop.

Operational flexibility with the Lexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution

Flexibility also comes from different usage scenarios that are possible: offload your CompactFlash card from your dSLR while simultaneously offloading your GoPro HERO3+ MicroSD card (using a simple MicroSD-to-SD pin adapter). The only bottleneck now becomes the software.

I tried different scenarios with different software. With Photo Mechanic 5.x I was able to offload the two different cards simultaneously. I tested with BulletProof as well, but that one does serial offloads only. While you can initiate multiple offloads at once in BulletProof, it won’t start the next offload until the former has finished. CatDV’s Worker Node, however, does handle simultaneous offloads and it does so very well.

Lexar hub with reader

I didn’t bother trying other software. The benefit of using a system like the Lexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution was instantly clear: no more coffee or tea drinking while waiting for a card to finally finish spitting all its images or video clips on your working disk drive. Even if your software doesn’t directly support simultaneous offloads, there’s always the Finder…

Performance tests

Speed is the most obvious benefit of a USB 3.0 system. But the question I wanted to get an answer to was: can it sustain USB 3.0 speeds when offloading two card readers at once? I ran a couple of tests to see if it could. But first I tested offloading a SD card via the iMac’s built-in SD-card reader. As listed under System Information, this is a USB 2.0 interface on my mid-2011 model. Tests with USB 3.0 were conducted using an Elgato Thunderbolt dock’s USB 3.0 ports.

It took the iMac 3 seconds to mount the card and 4 minutes to offload. I then copied the content on that card to the CompactFlash card and to the latest SanDisk CompactFlash card I tested — a 32GB Extreme Pro 90MB/sec version. I was really curious to see how fast the Lexar solution would offload the CF cards. I had tested the Lexar 1066x CF card with my Sony Alpha 700 and I had the impression it was a bit faster than the SanDisk Extreme Pro, but only marginally so.

Lexar hub with reader mounted

My tests on the Mac revealed that Lexar’s CF card offloaded 8.55GB worth of video clips in 1 minute and 18 seconds. That’s a throughput speed of 110MB/sec. The SanDisk card did only marginally worse with 1 minute 23 seconds (103MB/sec — which is actually more than the card’s claimed 90MB/sec).

Compared to the iMac’s internal slot, offloading the Lexar 633x SD card was four times faster (!) at 1 minute and 7 seconds. But what about offloading two cards at once? Would the USB 3.0 hub be able to balance loads across the two slots, or would I end up with one card offloaded long before the other? And how much speed penalty would there be?

A bit to my surprise, the Lexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution hub performed quite well. I offloaded the two Lexar cards and started my stopwatch when I started the offload operation of the second card — that’s worth a couple of seconds — then stopped timing when the last card finished offloading. In other words, I used the worst case scenario and ended up with 2 minutes 42 seconds to offload the full 17.10 GB worth of video clips.

Both cards offloaded simultaneously as witnessed by the Finder’s progress bar (I performed this test using the Finder) with the SD card coming slightly behind the CF card. The throughput was 105MB/sec, but if I were to correct for my worse-case timing scenario, I think I’d end up with exactly the same figures as for one card.

USB 3’s theoretical maximum speed is 625 MB/sec, but a number of factors will hold back devices from achieving that maximum. In my test setup the Elgato dock will have been a bottleneck, as well as the iMac itself. With a newer iMac model you’ll probably get higher throughput and an even better use of the provided bandwidth. Nevertheless, I think my tests reveal that Lexar has every right to use a term like “Professional”.

Also, it makes sense for Lexar to offer flash-based storage drives. The drives should provide read transfer speeds of up to 450MB/sec and write speeds up to 245MB/sec. They will be offered in high-capacity 256GB and 512GB options, according to Lexar’s website.

Conclusion

If you occasionally shoot photos or video clips, the Hub is probably going to be overkill. The reader modules by themselves, however, are appealing offerings as well. They’re equally fast, have a very small footprint and a lovely, modern design. The silicon hood is a nice touch.

The hub comes into its own when you start using a couple of cameras simultaneously. Like when you’re shooting action with two or three GoPro HERO cameras. Or when you’re a fashion or product photographer using several different cameras during one shoot. The hub makes it easier, cleaner and faster to offload everything in one operation.

The fact that you can mix card types is a real boon, as is the fact that you don’t have to fill up the hub with reader modules for all four possible reader positions.

The Lexar SD 633x card was a revelation speed-wise. It’s just as fast as Lexar’s 600x MicroSD card I tested when reviewing the GoPro HERO3+. The Lexar CF 1066x card has a video-ready icon printed on the front and it sure is fast enough to cater for most high-quality compressed video codec shooting. However, it falls short for ProRes 422 HQ — you’ll need a CFast card for that.

Bottom-line: serious photographers / video producers will love the Lexar Professional Workflow Reader Solution. They’ll need it if they make money off their activity.

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