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Flash Drive Longevity

John from MA asks:
How long do flash drives last? Are they OK for backups?

Good question, John. Let’s start by distinguishing flash drives (also known as thumb drives or USB memory drives) from portable hard drives, which are both excellent for backing up your data.


A flash drive contains non-volatile memory (memory that doesn’t go away when disconnected from electricity) in varying capacities, from a miserly 256 megs up to 80 gigs or more. The advantages of a flash drive over a portable hard drive are that it is lighter and very, very durable. Frequently, when a flash drive “fails”, the data can still be retrieved from the device, although no new information can be written. Typical life expectancy for a flash drive can be up to ten years.


Portable hard drives, also non-volatile memory, on the other hand, have recently become available in capacities of up to one and a half terabytes (1 tb = 1000 gigs), which is their primary advantage. Although they are more durable than internal hard drives, they are still more subject to aging and shocks than flash drives.


A newcomer to the field, the internal flash (or solid-state) drive combines the best of both worlds. Although faster, more durable and better on your notebook’s battery life than standard hard drives, solid-state drives are not as yet portable, and cost about eight times as much as a standard hard drive.

So then the questions become “how much data do you have to back up” and “how much do you want to spend”?

Although thumb drives are now available up to 256 gigs, the price jump from 16 gigs to 32 gigs is substantial. A good 16 gig thumb drive will cost thirty or forty dollars, a 32 gig unit will set you back about four times that amount. A good 1 tb portable hard drive, on the other hand, can be had for around a hundred dollars. So, if you want to back up your entire hard drive, you may want to consider a portable hard drive instead of a thumb drive.

Caring for your flash drive
Most flash drives come with a cover or cap, and it’s always a good idea to keep the cover on when the flash drive isn’t in use. Some have a switch to retract the drive’s head into the unit, and although this is handy (and doesn’t include a cap to lose) it doesn’t do a lot to keep dust and other contaminants from fouling your flash drive’s contacts. If these contacts become damaged or fouled they can cause your flash drive to fail, either partially or catastrophically.

If you are strictly using your flash drive as a backup, it’s a good idea to simply leave your drive in a safe, dry, temperature-controlled environment.

Also, if you’re using your flash drive to back up irreplaceable information (such as family photos), you may want to consider redundancy. If you have photos and videos of your kids on two separate drives, it is almost impossible for both of them to fail at the same time.

Hope this answers your question.

~Randal Schaffer