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Formats, Defrags and Flash Drive Death

Is formatting a flash drive different than defragging the drive? I generally format the flash drive when I want to clean everything off after having transferred it, I also format my camera card after downloading the pictures. Am I causing too much wear on the cards?

Formats, Defrags, and Flash Drive Death!

Whatever you do, don’t do this:

conboy_defrag_1 [1]

Or this:

conboy_defrag_2 [2]

Formatting, the process of deleting all data from a drive, and defragging, an operation used to re-arrange file fragments on a disk drive, are two procedures common to power users whom wish to have their hard disk drive perform with optimal efficiency at all times. While performing a regular defragmentation operation or full format of a hard disk drive is still recommended as a solution to a variety of performance issues, initiating such an operation on a flash drive is not. In fact, when it comes to keeping your flash drive in good working order it’s best to avoid defragging completely, and only perform a drive format when absolutely necessary. Why? Surprising as it may be to some, defragging and sometimes even formatting a flash drive can actually lead to decreased performance and, in the long run, a shorter life span for your flash drive. This is due to a major difference in the way flash drives and hard disk drives write and store their data.

Unlike hard disk drives, which use spinning platters and a mechanical arm to read, write, and store chunks of data, flash drives use electrical signals to transfer data files to and from a drives’ storage chip. As the de-fragmentation process, (aka defragging,) is typically used to make it easier and faster for the mechanical arm of a hard disk drive to access data on the platters beneath it, defragging your flash drive, which has neither platters nor mechanical arms, is virtually pointless from both a physical and a performance standpoint. To make matters worse, defragging a flash drive can cause thousands of write commands to be sent to your drive in a very short time span; an incredibly unhealthy situation for any flash drive as write commands, over time, will degrade your drives’ performance, and eventually render it unusable. (For a more in depth discussion of how defragging a flash drive could cause its demise, click here [3].)

This brings us to the topic of formatting a flash drive. While performing a quick format on a flash drive is not nearly as write intensive as defragging, formatting a flash drive can still cause extra unnecessary write commands to be issued to a drive which, as we just covered, will shorten the lifespan of a flash drive over time. Even worse, if instead of a “standard” simple/quick format operation, a so called “secure” format or disk wipe is performed, the flash drive could be subject to a flood of write commands even more severe than that of a defragmentation process. This is due to the fact that such programs which performs a “secure” format will many times do so by overwriting every bit of data storage available on a flash drive, and possibly do so multiple times each time the “secure” format process is run. This constant writing and overwriting of data, despite the data itself being virtually empty, would certainly have an adverse impact on the longevity of a normal flash drive over time.

So, if you can’t defrag and shouldn’t format, what should you do to keep your flash drive clean and running smoothly? Simply delete any unnecessary files when they are no longer needed; saving a “secure” format/data wipe instead for the day you give or throw away a flash drive which is either unneeded, or showing signs of an impending demise (such as slower transfer rates or unexplainable data loss.) Issuing a standard “delete” command to a flash drive will have no impact on its life span, as only write, but not read or remove commands, have the capacity to degrade a flash drives’ performance with repeated usage.

~J. Conboy