Can a USB thumbdrive “wear out”?

While the technology continues to improve, the fact is that flash memory has a limited number of times it can be written to. It can, in fact, wear out.

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I have a database application that I share between multiple computers. We keep the database itself on a USB thumb drive and simply move that drive to the other computers as needed. The database is never copied off the thumbdrive, we just update it in place. Seems very simple.

A friend of mine just told me that I was asking for trouble. He said something about thumbdrives “wearing out”, and that sooner or later, probably sooner, the data on my thumbdrive would become corrupt. Is that true? Do these USB drives actually wear out?

Yes.

I strongly recommend that you backup the contents of that drive – yes, sooner rather than later. And perhaps even rethink how you’re sharing that data.

Inexpensive flash memory, the type used in USB thumb drives, memory sticks and other devices, is very, very cool. But there is a dark side that people don’t talk about much.

Flash memory “wears out”.

Putting the flash in flash memory

Flash memory chips are called “flash” because in order to write to it, the memory is loaded, and then a signal is sent to the memory circuitry that says “remember this” – kind of like the flash on a camera. (In all honesty, I don’t know if modern flash memory uses this exact technique, but it remains a fairly accurate metaphor for the process.)

Once the memory has been “flashed”, power can be completely removed, and the memory will retain whatever was written to it.

The problem is that memory can be flashed in this manner only so many times. I’m finding numbers between 10,000 and 100,000 times – though as with anything, I’m sure that is increasing over time as well. Regardless, there is a limit. When that limit is approached, some portion of the memory may not properly remember what was written to it, resulting in corruption. It may only take a single bit of information to be wrong, or to “wear out”, for the entire contents of a flash memory chip to be lost.

Some flash memory chips, perhaps even most, now also include circuitry to avoid “bad bits”. That means if a portion of the flash memory finally wears out and goes bad, the chip itself can compensate, and it will look to the user like everything is fine. Another approach is called “wear leveling.” This spreads the use of flash memory across the entire device, even if you’re only writing to the same spot in the same file every single time.

But these techniques only last so long and only postpone the inevitable.

Now, in your case, you’re using USB thumbdrive in perhaps the worst possible way for longevity. Database applications in particular are notorious for writing to the disk – a lot – as tables, fields, indexes and the like are updated. Even if you don’t write to your database, the files may be updated with things like “last access” information and other administrivia. As a result, the USB drive is still being written to. A lot.

With all that writing going on, reaching the failure point of some random bit or bits in the flash memory stick doesn’t seem that far fetched. Remember, in the unluckiest case, it might only take one worn-out bit of information to render the entire contents unreadable.

Using inexpensive flash memory

USB Memory Stick

USB Memory Stick

The best use of USB thumb drives and other flash memory-based devices is simply copy-to and copy-from. By that I mean copy the information to the thumbdrive to store it, copy it from the thumbdrive to a local hard disk to use it, and then copy it back to the thumb drive to store it.

Never run disk-intensive applications directly against files stored on the thumb drive.

If you copy to and from even ten times daily, you’re looking at three years of usage for the low end of the flash memory lifespan. (Yes, I know that’s not exact. In fact, it’s way more complex than that; factoring in things like the type of file system, FAT or NTFS, the efficiency of the device driver, and even the circuitry on the specific flash memory device – but it’s a good order of magnitude.)

You may also note that your application speeds up when you copy your database to the hard disk for use. While reading flash memory is typically quite fast, writing is not.

And finally, if you really need external storage, a thumbdrive may simply be the wrong solution to your problem. There are plenty of external hard drives that could do the same job without the write limitations. Or perhaps a networked solution is the way to go.

Back up

Knowing that inexpensive flash memory-based devices will wear out eventually, there’s one other thing you need to make sure to do, and that’s to back up.

If you keep your only copy of important data on a flash drive you are asking for trouble. It will wear out eventually, and your data will become completely unrecoverable.

Remember the “golden rule” of backing up:

If there’s only one copy, it’s not backed up.

If there’s only one copy on a flash drive, its days are numbered.

What about SSDs?

SSDs or Solid State Drives are indeed based on flash memory. And yes, they will wear out too.

Just not as quickly.

There is a difference between the “inexpensive” flash memory I’ve discussed far, and the flash memory on SSDs. USB thumbdrives; CF, SD and microSD memory cards are all relatively cheap. The type of flash technology they use is, as I’ve described, susceptible to wearing out if written to “too much”. Inexpensive drives can wear out from regular use in a relatively short time span.

Not quite so for SSDs.

SSDs use a more expensive flash technology, and are engineered differently than their inexpensive cousins. Even as prices come down to approach the per-gigabyte cost of thumbdrives, the technology remains fundamentally different and often significantly physically larger.

The same problem applies: an SSD will wear out – it just takes a lot longer to do so. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to assume that an SSD used as the primary drive in a computer can outlast the useful lifespan of the computer itself; again, depending on how it’s used. It’ll wear out eventually, but you’ll likely have moved on to another machine before that time.

Regardless, it’s important to remember that any media can and will fail. The differences we’re talking about have to do with how quickly, on average, the failure will happen. Again, based on use, traditional spinning hard drives and SSDs will significantly outlast inexpensive flash drives.

And you need to be backing them up.

All of them.

This is an update to an article originally posted : April 12, 2006

There are 62 comments:

  1. Robert Reply

    One other issue with USB thumb drives. The connector on the end is a high stress point. There are reported cases where it breaks internally. When that happens, your data is inaccessible!

  2. James Reply

    I recently blogged about this and had a good amount of feedback from readers regarding the debatable lifespans of flashdrives with some of them saying that most modern USB drives had algorithms which were intelligent enough to spread out the usage patterns, and also separate bad sectors to minimise the chances of the flashdrive completely dying anytime too soon. Check it out here:

    http://friedbeef.blogspot.com/2006/05/can-usb-thumbdrive-wear-out.html

  3. Annie Reply

    Hi,

    I need some guidance and introduction into using USBs for carrying my application. The application that I am developing would be loaded on a thumb drive without actually having to upload anything on the host computer. With an internet connection, all the data written to the thumb drive should be transferred to a server database.. Any help will be appreciated.

  4. Leo Notenboom Reply

    What you’re suggesting isn’t that difficult. Just minimize writes to the USB drive. I’m not sure what other pointers you might be looking for.

  5. Annie Reply

    Hi,

    I am new to the world of portable applications on USBs.So I need a little guidance.I am exploring of developing a portable application on a thumbdrive, which can be connected to a computer and can transfer data to a server database. It would be a standalone application probably developed in java.

    Now, I have been going through a lot of articles on the internet. They talk about thumb drive, U3, Ceedo. What would be the best option?can you tell em teh pros and cons of all these options available and what would be the best for my kind of application.

    Thanks

    Annie

  6. Cec Reply

    If you are able to format your USB drive with NTFS (not all systems support this), data on the stick will be “safer”. Note I said safer; safer then FAT or FAT32 storage.

    Hardware failure cannot be circumvented; however good care of the USB stick will assist in “increasing” it’s life span.

    Ordinary USB stick drives will “crash” sooner then an average hard drive. A backup copy, or rather copies, on various media is or are essential.

    Personally, I backup critical managable data onto 2 different computer drives (on different computers), also to DVD and items small enough also get zipped and emailed to myself.

  7. vera Reply

    my thumbdrive cannot be detected by the usb port. i cannot access my files. all my school projects saved in it are totally inaccessible now. pls help. i need them urgently.

  8. doug Reply

    Is there any software that will test a thumb drive for remaining life / failing cells / etc?

  9. Leo Notenboom Reply

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    Not that I’m aware of. You could try CHKDSK /R on it, perhaps.

    Leo
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  10. Tri Dinh Reply

    I have a USB thumb drive problem. Just bought a new one 3 weeks ago. I cannot move files to it any longer, the message comes up as “the directory or file cannot be created.” I can move the file into a subfolder already on the drive but cannot move it into the drive itself without putting into a subfolder. Also, I cannot rename a subfolder in the drive. I had the same problem on a previous USB drive, bought a new one and all was OK for about 3 weeks, then it happened to the new drive also.
    thanks, Tri

  11. Patrick Reply

    Yap…it can be quite headache with Thumb drive. I can see my files in the USB drive,but when I try to open or copy them out to another drive, it could not.
    I could not even defrag it. any solution?

  12. Graham Sivill Reply

    Like the previous poster Vista’s ready boost system has always worried me from the point of view of wearing out the USB flash drive. I always believed that USB memory sticks had a limited read-write duty cycle and presumably using readyboost means that data is being written to and from the drive at a very high frequency?

    We really need to get someone from the flash drive industry to comment on this as increasingly we seem to be heading for solid state disk drives like the optional one in the Mac Air. If these drives are comprised of the same flash memory as USB sticks then presumably they have a limited life span that may be much less than the equivalent hard disk.

    Don’t get me wrong I want solid state technology as it peeeves me that in the year 2008 we are still using storage that has to spin at 7500 rpm or faster and they are the cause of so much noise, heat and power consumption. Flash drives are better in every respect … except perhaps one??

  13. Tom Garcia Reply

    Twice I have killed thumb drives when using them to move data from a MAC to a PC. MAC USB devices are not hot-swappable and if you forget to “eject” the device it can not only destroy data but render the device forever unusable. Neither the MAC or the PC now recognizes the existence of the drive(s).

  14. Leo A. Notenboom Reply

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    Everyone uses ReadyBoost as some kind of counter example,
    and it’s not.

    Regardless of the terminology used, ReadyBoost is NOT,
    repeat NOT a paging file in the traditional sense. It’s much
    more like a dynamically tuned pre-load cache, where Windows
    can *read* things from quickly as much as it needs to.
    Readyboost does NOT *write* to fash ram excessively – it
    only updates that pre-load cache on a kind of as-needed
    basis.

    I’ve heard of one person actually putting their real Windows
    swapfile onto flash memory. It lasted about two days before
    the flash drive died. And yes, died as in throw it away
    dead.

    I stand by my statement: flash memory wears out. It’s
    getting better, lifespans are increasing, technologies are
    being developed to avoid wearing it out any sooner than it
    has to, but the bottom line is that writing to flash memory
    wears it out. The more you write, the shorter the lifespan,
    as simple as that.

    Leo

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  15. J. P. Gilliver Reply

    1. The person who could write to subdirectories but not the root – maybe your root directory is full; try (moving everything out of and then) deleting a directory. There’s a finite number of entries allowed in the root in many filing systems.

    2. Hard disc bits fail too! It would be interesting to hear some how-many-writes figures for them (and maybe other technologies – ISTR CDRWs aren’t very high), to companre with the 10k-100k that seems to be being bandied about for flash.

  16. blahbleh Reply

    A quick search reveals that SLC flash has 100000 and MLC flash has 10000.

    There is almost NO need to worry about wearing modern flash memory out.

    If I format and rewrite the ENTIRE flash disk twice a day, it’ll last for more than 13 years with a cheap (read, common) MLC USB flash disk.

    In any case, USB flash disks ensure that the wear is even, not concentrated. So it’s not 10,000 writes; it’s much, much less dramatic.

    Use your USB as much as you like; it will be obselete before it is ruined.

  17. Nicholas Reply

    Comment and questions. Well, everything dies eventually. For flash drives, other factors may present risks, too. I have lost all info few times just because I did not have patience to wait until XP would allow to EJECT/ disconnect USB drive from USB port. That I believe would be the major cause for failure – but drives would work after re-formatting; some recovery software would even let me save some files. I carry my drives with my keys in the pocket of my pants – such a location where they are exposed to mechanical impacts, heat, cold, moisture, electric and magnetic fields from different, at times very powerful sources; you bet this can be damaging, too. [And I've found that data can be lost even from recorded CD-R(W)s or DVD-R(W)s, if the media is not very high quality or not fully compatible; if recording speed or conditions are not good...]
    Any technology is imperfect; I try to backup my USB drive onto an external USB or eSATA drive and on recordable/rewritable media, mostly DVD+-R as they are cheap now. And I try to be wise, prepared and “anxious for nothing”.
    MY QUESTION WOULD BE

  18. Joe Krahn Reply

    J. P. Gilliver is not completely right, as he forgot the point that live database usage can do thousands of writes in one day.

    Here is a more important question: Do flash drives manage bad blocks like modern disk drives? If not, they are getting large enough that they probably will start to support SMART testing.

    Not quite like hard disks, but as I understand it, more modern flash drives do include something called “wear levelling” that spreads out the usage, and hence the wear, across the entire device, regardless of how it’s used. I’m sure this is oversimplified, but each time you write to the device, even if you’re re-writing the exact same sector, it’s written to a different physical location in the flash memory. It’s all transparent, so you never see it, but the effect is that even writing the exact same bit over and over again from the outside will actually get spread throughout the available bits in the device.

    - Leo
    17-Jan-2009
  19. Punk Reply

    this is just shocking, now i know the reason why my flash drive get many serious problems, when i put the flash drive connected to the computer, i just open my drive and directly run my applications stored in the flash, since the application writes and updates the data in my flash, that’s the problem, i had just ran out of write limit of the flash drive, you know, it has so many bad sectors today, i bought last year, yeah, you’re right, why don’t we just take out a large data storage for more safe and secure data to bring, ready to make a space for a hard drive in my bag, lol, thank you, this is open-minding for a amateur programmer like me

  20. S. Garrett Reply

    If these new SSD drives use flash memory, will they also become corrupted quickly from the constant writes?

    I keep thinking about jumping to SSD as the prices drop and the sizes jump, and the biggest attraction to me is not the blazing speed (that is nice too), but the peace-of-mind from not having to worry about the old fashioned platter-spinning drives physically crashing.

    However, after reading all these comments, it sounds like I’ll be lucky if an SSD drive can last a year or two as the main drive on my computer before all the little bits start blowing like fuses.

    Do these SSD drives use the same type of flash memory and what kind of life expectancy can I expect. (OZC’s latest SSD drive says 1.5 million hours mean time before failure or MTBF, but now I am wondering what that spec measures – is that all time spent reading data and none spent writing).

    If the little bits are all being flashed into oblivion will I even get a fraction of that 1.5 million hours? Should I hold off with SSD drives and embrace my good old platter-spinning drives for data integrity and longevity for a while longer?

    What I’m hearing is that the flash technology used for SSD drives is improving all the time, and that they may well be viable for many applications. Like you, I’d be nervous, but no longer so nervous that I wouldn’t consider trying it. But … BACKUP! Good advice anyway, but even more so now.

    - Leo
    22-Feb-2009
  21. Andre vanMeerbeek Reply

    Extremely interesting subject. I heard someone say the Eee computer from Asus (and other me-too products) did not have a hard disk, only flash memory. I just browsed through the Asus website, but did not find a confirmation. True, not true?

    Not sure on the specific model, but yes, some do have a solid state flash-based disks (SSD). The technology is improving. The flash disks will still wear out, and how quickly will depend on how you use them, but the SSDs likely use a better quality flash memory than your run-of-the-mill USB thumbdrive. I’m staying away from SSDs right now, but I expect that the technology will continue to improve such that an SSD won’t wear out until after the expected lifespan of the rest of the computer.

    - Leo
    12-Mar-2009
  22. Bart Reply

    the flash can not be read from any computer. They do not recognize a new storage device (the red led on the flash is not on) . is the flash drive gone for good or can it be saved?

  23. Skeptical Reply

    I’d rather see some information from the manufacturers on this. Wear-leveling is supposed to be built into the memory controller, so it automatically takes care of wear, and only writes to parts that haven’t been written to too many times. One would presume that it would also double-check everything it’s written to make sure it can be read correctly, and mark it as a bad sector if it doesn’t read back what it wrote.

    Yeah, they wear out, but I’m skeptical that you would actually lose any data because of it. In a well-designed product, the available capacity on the drive would just decrease over time.

  24. Ken Amirault Reply

    “Diskeeper Corporation” has a reference in it’s settings for Diskeeper 2009 that says it has technology to help flash units from becoming error prone and suggests that longevity can be attained by using their defragmenting technology.

    If it “flashes” the drive as you say, defragmenting would reduce longevity, no?

    I’m not questioning your guruness, O Mighty Leo, but this seems to be a contradiction. I don’t know enough about it, just what I read.

    My 2 cents CDN.

  25. David Reply

    What about thumb drives used in Vistas’s “Ready Boost” facility or E-Boostr’s program that alleges to do much the same thing in XP?
    http://www.eboostr.com/
    I tried E-Boostr in XP and I can’t say as I noticed a great deal of difference in the perkiness factor, despite using high speed drives! How much reading/writing goes on using these facilities and what sort of life will the drives have? (Tedious, I would imagine!). I did read one report that MS expects a thumb drive using Ready Boost to outlast the PC’s life, which seems a tad optimistic to me.

    Ready boost actually doesn’t constantly write to the flash drive. What it does, as I understand it, is it “pre-loads” some things that you commonly use onto the flash drive for presumably quicker access. It’s not a swap file at all.

    So, yeah, I actually agree with Microsoft’s assessment – since it’s not constantly being written to it may well outlive your computer when used for ReadyBoost.

    I also have to agree with you. Every report I’ve heard back is that ReadyBoost doesn’t really help that much.

    - Leo
    15-Apr-2009
  26. Mark Reply

    I use USB drives pretty regularly with some pen drive apps, especially T-bird and Firefox and a few recovery tools I use to fix peoples computers like Bart-PE, Ubuntu and file recovery stuff. I haven’t had any problems but I keep a folder on my hard drive for each USB drive and back up regularly. No hardware is immune to failure. My only loss would be the $10 I invested in my stick.

    Here’s an old classic:

    Yesterday-The Backup Song
    Yesterday,
    All those backups seemed a waste of pay.
    Now my database has gone away.
    Oh I believe in yesterday.

    Suddenly,
    There

  27. Jo Wo Reply

    I’ve only had my 8gb kingston thumb drive for a short while and havent used it for much, the occasional word document or so. But as if overnight, I don’t know what happened, but now my thumb drive has been reduced to the capacity of 4mb! and also says that it needs to be formatted. I used some partition making program provided by kingston so i don;t know if that screwed up the thing or maybe its somehow this ‘wearing out’ phenomenon. I’ve formatted it but it still remains on 4mb capacity! What could have happened?? I don’t recall doing any thumb drive no-nos recently…

    It sounds like your partition making program made a partition. I’m guessing that you need to re-run it, or another partition program, and reconfigure that drive to be a single 8gig partition.

    - Leo
    05-May-2009
  28. Jint Reply

    They have error protection and will attempt to block out bad blocks and work around the problem.

  29. Misinformation, the Product of Wikipedia Reply

    Wikipedia has a way of getting people to believe stupid things (Like flash drives will suddenly stop working after 3 years). And people have a way of believing everything posted on Wikipedia to be verbatim

  30. Arthur R. Leger Reply

    To remove a “Fash Drive” from my computer, what do I have to close?

    Thank you in advance.
    Arthur

  31. mike Reply

    hi , i have a usb flash memory ,that i forgot the password , and i dont want to reset the passowrd coz i have information in it , i broke it by accident ! and i was wondering if thier is one basic part or piece in the usb that is responsible for saving the information? in that way if i could take this part and put it on other usb ???

  32. Bob Reply

    My experience with USB memory is this:
    I have never thrown away a Flash USB memory stick because it lost data. Ever.
    I HAVE thrown away one USB stick because it lost data, but that contained a ‘compactflash’-sized 4Gb hard disk drive (I bought it because it was twice the capacity and half the price of flash USB available at that time. I won’t buy another like it).
    I HAVE thrown away USB memory for other reasons though.
    The most common is physical damage. The stick gets sat on, or chewed, or gets mangled in the washing machine. The next most common is storage. As software and technology gets more amd more complex, the amount of storage you need spirals out of control.

  33. Joey Baulbaggio Reply

    i have an old pentium 4 2.26 cpu with 256 ram. the ram runs at 266mgz and the HD is 7200 rpm. will this flash memory speed up my computer? i really don’t give a flying frigg if u call it flash memory flash ram hyper boost enema blast or any other numbchuck geeky term. all i wanna know is will it make the dadgummed computer run faster?

    It depends entirely on HOW it’s used. Just plugging in a flash drive does nothing. “ReadyBoost” supposedly helps speed, but I’ve heard mixed results. I wouldn’t look to flash memory to help speed unless you replaced your hard drive with one of the newer solid state drives, and even then it’s not guaranteed.

    Leo
    27-Oct-2010

  34. Charles Reply

    I’ve used flash drives for about four years now without a hitch. I used to back up to CDs, but flash drives obviously can’t be scratched, have much greater capacity for a good price (especially now) and are easier to use and store.

    After reading this I became concerned. I use Corsair Voyagers, and found a Corsair PDF that says they can indeed wear out (gasp!) but they use dynamic wear leveling, which gives their flash drives long life. According to them, one would have to write to every block of the drive to constitute an overwrite, and, for a 8 GB drive, overwrite 21 GB of data every day for 10 years to have a chance of wearing out the flash drive. Even if one overwrites 100% once a day to back-up, the life span would be at least 25 years.

    It all depends on how you use it. Personally, as Leo suggested, I never have anything on a back-up flash drive that I don’t already have on a hard drive, and it would be outrageous for both to fail at the same time. On the other hand, it seems to me the article is a bit alarmist.

    My understanging is that the Voyagers are a fairly high quality product – I carry one myself. The problem is that cheap flash drives wear out much more quickly. I don’t believe this is alarmist at all, since I hear reports of people losing data because of it fairly regularly. Sounds like you’re covered by a good quality drive, and appropriate backup/redundancy practices.

    Leo
    07-Nov-2010

    • Jeff Walters Reply

      I don’t see anything “alarmist” in telling people to back up their data. It doesn’t matter if it’s an a flash drive, CD, DVR, Hard drive, SSD or even an old floppy disc. If you can’t afford to lose it, it should be backed up somewhere, preferably 2 or 3 places.

  35. B Dharma Reply

    I have a 16Gb usb flash drive that i use everyday.
    Its about 2yrs old.
    It recently self destructed.
    The master file record was corrupted
    as well as some other files.
    CHKDSK etc did not help.
    Reformatting did not help in either NTFS or FAT.
    Luckily i make backups…..

  36. Texas Reply

    Gonna do some bashing here … but I have had several USB Flash Drives go bad … one day … just nothing happens when I plug it into the computer. And in each case, it has been a Kingston Brand Flash Drive that has failed. All others, no problem for me. Is it just coincidence? maybe, but since I’ve had 3 Kingston drives fail, its doesn’t seem very likely.

  37. Yeppers Reply

    Leo, does scanning a USB thumbdrive with an anti-malware software cause the thumbdrive to wear out extra fast? (I recall you saying that writing to memory causes the flash memory to degrade, but reading does not, so I’m guessing the answer is “no” — but I’m not really sure what an anti-malware scan involves.) Thanks…

    It really depends on the anti-malware program, but typically those are read-only operations, and thus shouldn’t shorten the life of the flash memory. As always, backup early and often. :-)

    Leo
    19-Apr-2011
  38. Boris C. Reply

    Leo are you saying that one corrupted byte of information can render whole thumbdrive useless? I assume not, because if that was the case then SSDs would not get invented.

    If it’s the wrong byte, then yes, it’s very possible that one corrupted byte can indeed cause the entire contents of a flash drive, SSD, or even a hard drive to disappear. More commonly with flash memory that first corrupted byte is a sign of many more to come very quickly.

    Leo
    23-Apr-2011

  39. Boris C. Reply

    What do you mean by “wrong byte”?

    I don’t mean any specific byte in all cases, but many file and folder data structures are dependant on some bytes being correct. For example if you corrupt the first byte of any .exe file, that file will no longer work. The same is potentially true of file systems – if the wrong byte in the data structure is corrupted then the entire list of files on your device may be lost. Similarly if there’s a partition table and the wrong byte happens to be trashed then the entire partition table could no longer make sense and everything on the drive could be lost. But I’ll reiterate that the way that flash drives now “spread the load” across the electronics within the device, as soon as one byte goes bad you should immediately assume that all data on the device is tenuous.

    Leo
    24-Apr-2011
  40. Yeppers Reply

    Leo, in your April 24, 2011 reply to Boris C., your last sentence states that “as soon as one byte goes bad you should immediately assume that all data on the device is tenuous.” That almost sounds like a user, at times, can tell when one or more bytes have become bad on a thumbdrive. If so, and assuming the entire thumbdrive has not yet become inoperable, what are some warning signs that a byte or two have become corrupted? Thanks…

  41. Mark Jacobs Reply

    @Yeppers.: If you have a file that appears corrupted or a program that won’t run, it’s possible that one or more bytes have been damaged. To see if you have any bad sectors:
    Open “My Computer”
    Right click on the drive you want to check and select Properties
    click on the Tool Tab
    Select Check Now under Error Checking
    check the box which says Scan For And Attempt Recovery For Bad Sectors

  42. Lawrence A. Murakami Reply

    Josh actually killed a 1G Sony Microvault USB Flash Drive in 2008 by writing but it took 90,593,104 (that’s 90.5 million) writes for the drive to die. The Flash Drive was unable to be written to any more but could still be read from. I don’t know how the life of this Flash Drive compares to others but am sure the technology is improving. I do like flash media and trust flash media but still back up anything impotant. For full details check out Josh’s Blog article.

  43. David Zabriskie Reply

    My experience has been that the device becomes
    un writable, but still readable. both for sticks and
    cards. I copied the data and sent the media to
    the manufacturer for a warranty replacement.

  44. lancaster Reply

    Is it okay to play mp3 files by directly double clicking on icons on the flash drive. Or should I copy them first to my hard drive and then play them. Is there any disadvantage associated if I play the mp3 files directly from the flash drive.

  45. Mark Jacobs Reply

    @Lancaster
    There should be no problem playing mp3 files directly from your flash drive. Writing to the flash memory is what wears it out not so much just reading from it. And playing music only reads the information once for each play,

  46. Robin Clay Reply

    Would it help to re-format the USB stick ?

    Absolutely not. Reformatting simply writes to the flash memory even more (often lots more) and would wear it out even further. If flash memory has worn out the only solution is to replace it.

    Leo
    30-Sep-2011

  47. Kevin Reply

    I have used USB drives daily for several years, moving data between 3 computers in different offices. Most recently I have been using 64GB Corsair Survivor GTR and Voyager GTR USB drives. I have had more than a half-dozen USB drive failures. The USB drives consistently die by 18 months of use despite obsessive attention to unplugging rituals. When they die, it is immediately evident when plugging the USB drive into the computer: the blue activity light blinks continuously on the USB drive and the computer recognizes a lettered drive but no content. This failure pattern has not changed with size drive / evolution over the last 5 years. Occasionally there is a warning of impending failure (continuous blue light blinking can be reversed after powering off computer), but more commonly, failure is abrupt. I think the millions of hours before failure quoted for USB drives refers to testing in which the USB drives are continuously plugged into the same host computer. I think the chance of failure is highest when plugging and unplugging: static, voltage transients, etc.

    Would love to see data on number of real-life plugs / unplugs of a USB drive prior to failure. And even better: a module on the USB drive that interfaces with the computer but is separate from the memory – and can be replaced independently from the memory!

  48. Bob Reply

    I don’t think the number of plug / unplug cycles is going to be that significant. In one USB ‘pen’ drive test I saw online, the techie managed to get total failure under 8 hours without ever unplugging the device (he assigned the windows swap file to it).
    And I have seen USB drives with removeable memory – they are called ‘card readers’. I’ve even seen one where you can plug in up to 4 seperate 32Gb ‘camera’ type memory cards to create one raid-style drive across them.

  49. Terry Hollett Reply

    I’ve bought a half a dozen or more Nexxtech 16Gb flashdives in a period of a year from $10 – $20 (depending if they where on sale or not) three are already dead. A couple I can access on certain computers but not all (still trying to figure that one out) – I do not trust them for long term or important storage. And I haven’t used any of them very much. They do wear out, heavy use or not.

  50. steven Reply

    Hard drives have mechanical motors and other parts that can wear out. Does anyone know if I can read the data on a failed flash drive. I have not lost one, yet. Why is data recovery so expensive on these things, too? A clean room is not needed here, or is it?

    • Mark Jacobs Reply

      If you haven’t had a problem with a flash drive, you can assume you eventually will. The solution is to be proactive and keep one or more backup copies of all of your data, for both your mechanical and flash media.Recovering the data from a defective drive can be prohibitively expensive and in many cases the data may be unrecoverable.

  51. duane Reply

    Bob Rankin had an interesting article in today’s mail about SSD’s life expectancy. They aren’t really flash drives that are discussed in this article, but they are similar aren’t they?
    I’ve also been having an error message on my Kindle every time I download a book via USB. I thought it probably was a bad cable, but after reading your article and all of the comments I was wondering if the Kindle would fall into the category of “flash memory” failure?

    • Leo Reply

      It’s possible – that is flash memory – but I wouldn’t expect a Kindle to write so much to its flash memory as to approach the limits, unless you’ve had it for a very long time, have copied lots and lots of stuff to it, or the memory was faulty to begin with.

  52. Lance Bowman Reply

    I have a friend who runs his business from an Access database. His PC was failing and he asked me for help, since the only place he had stored his database was on that PC. (I know! It shocked me, too! Access for a business. Not backed up.)

    He bought a new PC and I migrated the database to the new machine for him. I also set him up with a box.com account, and taught him how to backup his database. I encouraged him to take the few minutes it takes to back up his database daily, at the end of his business day. He’s doing that now and [I] don’t know about him, but I know I sleep better at night.

  53. Chet Reply

    This topic is exactly why I won’t store personal movie media on a flash drive for viewing. I take the “old” approach and use blank DVD media. Yes, I know those have a lifespan, too, but in my personal experience, I have yet to “lose” a movie.

  54. Glenn Reply

    It’s the WRITE cycles that are limited, not the read. The reader said that he doesn’t write anything to the USB drive. That being said, I would definately make another copy because they can physically break at the connector as another poster said.

    • Leo Reply

      I’m not sure which reader you’re referring to – if it’s the database scenario then it absolutely DOES write to the drive, even when only “reading” data from the database. Many operations we think of as only reading actually do update overhead and other information on the drive, thus writing to it.

  55. Ron Reply

    I’ve had a few flash drives (Sandisk, PNY, etc) and using XP I’ve never had a problem. My Win 7 machine is another story. If I use a flash drive dedicated to Win 7, I’ll only get 3 or 4 uses before I get a device in use error or a read error. If I’m fortunate to get the data files written on the drive, they’ll work on my XP but won’t work on my Win 7. If I do a data write on my XP machine, my Win 7 machine says “Unknown Device” for the flash drive. Needless to say; I don’t use flash drives any more. I stay with disks and external hard drives for unsurpassed reliability.

  56. David Powell Reply

    Just for a change of pace from all the argument regarding wearing out or not (but I’m with Leo – these are for temporary storage only IMHO) – I seem to remember that the name Flash drive goes back to the days when an EPROM could be erased by exposing it to bright light – thus “flashing a PROM” became the shorthand for changing the content. Back in the day, this was the only way to revise the BIOS code.

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