Stocked with gadgets dating back to 1996, Lexar's testing lab is almost a museum

Located in an unremarkable office building in Milpitas, California, Lexar’s headquarters is easy to miss. Perhaps this is fitting: Surrounded by Apple, Google, Facebook, and Uber, flash memory isn’t exactly the sexiest thing in Silicon Valley, despite how many devices depend on it. Step inside the building, however, and things get more interesting.

Lexar, which is now owned by Idaho-based Micron Technology, recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary, and Digital Trends was invited to its headquarters for the event (we were guests of Lexar, but all opinion are our own). Perhaps best known for its memory cards, Lexar’s continued commitment to professional photographers was immediately made clear in a print gallery displaying work from its twelve Elite partner photographers.

The facility looks a bit like a high-tech pawn shop, and contains over 1,100 devices.

The gallery starts in the lobby, but continues throughout multiple halls. It is a pleasing contrast to the Micron-installed corporate marketing wall art. It hosts work from Joe McNally, Dixie Dixon, Greg Gorman, Scott Kelby, and many other recognizable names. Our gallery guide was another Lexar Elite photographer, Jeff Cable, who had just returned from covering the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The work on display is world-class, and we spent a good amount of time going through it. It was reassuring to see that a tech company that makes products for photographers actually cares about photography, especially the high-end of the market, which makes up a relatively small percentage of total sales.

But the Elite gallery wasn’t the only gem on the tour. Next up was the Lexar Quality Lab, where the company tests all of its memory cards and USB drives on-site. The facility looks a bit like a high-tech pawn shop, and contains over 1,100 devices, including GoPros, DSLRs, ARRI cinema cameras, phones, and laptop and desktop computers. There are digital cameras dating all the way back to 1996 (the year Lexar was founded) which served as instant conversation starters to those in our tour group.

It was like a mini tech museum, and as much as the Elite gallery inspired the artist in all of us, the Quality Lab definitely brought out our inner geek.

For a product that doesn’t pose a health risk if it fails, the amount of testing Lexar does is mind-boggling. In the corner, a Nikon DSLR was hooked up to a device that accurately tests the speed of various memory cards. For its Professional line, Lexar actually tests every card to ensure it meets the stated speed specifications before it’s packaged and sold.

Equally impressive is the process of testing for GoPro certification, some of which is done off-site due to the specialized equipment required. Lexar, which is a member of GoPro’s Developer Program, recently announced that both its High-Performance (633x) and Professional (1800x) lines of MicroSD cards now bear the “Works with GoPro” label.

If Lexar’s cards outperform those of third-party competitors, it’s mostly thanks to the firmware.

This may seem like a no-brainer for anyone with a basic understanding of the speed requirements of a GoPro, but the customized testing procedure to receive this verification requires up to five days of evaluation before a card is cleared. Beyond speed, it’s important that the cards are reliable in a variety of conditions under different types of strain.

All of this testing may seem a bit extreme, but there is a good reason for it. As Wes Brewer, Lexar’s vice president and general manager, explained, a single product type may be produced using up to three different techniques simultaneously, in order to maximize manufacturing capabilities. One 64GB 1800x SD card is therefore not necessarily the same as another 64GB 1800x SD card, but it has to meet the exact same specifications.

While Lexar’s early days were spent developing technologies that made portable flash storage possible (for which it received over 80 patents), things work a little differently now.

“The value today is in taking off-the-shelf controllers and developing firmware to maximize performance with our memory,” said Brewer. Next to Samsung, Micron is the second-largest producer of memory, and Lexar buys its controllers from Micron just like any other company can. If Lexar’s cards outperform those of third-party competitors, it’s mostly thanks to the firmware.

This is something the company takes very seriously. For its latest USB 3 MicroSD card reader, for example, Lexar worked closely with the contractor who manufacturers the hardware to develop custom overclocking firmware, which grants the reader access to faster cycle times, but only in cards with compatible firmware. Any other card, or any other reader, would still work, but at a slower speed.

But for faster results in the future, it may be up to a new format. Universal Flash Storage (UFS) will likely start to replace SD, but Lexar did not confirm whether it would adopt the new standard or not.

Throughout our time with Lexar, there were constant reminders of how far technology has come.

However, Micron is one of the companies supporting development of the format, and given Lexar’s recent focus on mobile storage solutions, it would make sense.

So far, UFS has only been used as embedded storage in Samsung mobile devices, but in July, Samsung announced the first UFS memory cards. Physically, they look similar to MicroSD cards, but offer significantly faster read speeds of up to 530 megabytes per second — and there’s room to grow.

We didn’t spy any devices that take UFS cards in the Lexar Quality Lab — not surprising considering none currently exist — but perhaps one day we will. The average consumer may not have a need for that kind of speed in a removable card, but the advantages for photo and video pros are pretty great.

As exciting as it is to look to the future, it’s looking back that really lets us appreciate where we’re going. Throughout our time with Lexar, there were constant reminders of how far technology has come, from digital cameras going on two decades old, to samples of old products like Kodak-branded “Digital Film” CF cards, the sizes of which were measured in megabytes and only required two digits. According to this 1999 PC Magazine article, a Lexar 80MB 8x CF card cost — wait for it — $350! For a bit less than that today, you can get a 128GB 2000x SD card.

So maybe flash storage isn’t sexy, and even a hot new format like UFS probably won’t change that. But after learning more about how it’s made, tested, and how far the technology has come, it is actually pretty interesting. And perhaps one day, we will wonder how anyone ever spent nearly $350 on just 128GB of slow, 2000x storage.

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