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USB drives are made with different longevity requirements than Solid State Drives (SSD). Life expectancy is now well managed.

I keep reading here and there that flash memory devices, such as pen drives and camera memory SD cards have a limited number of read/write cycles after which they can go bad or cause errors. So how about SSD drives? Do they too have a limited life expectancy?

In this excerpt from Answercast #21, I talk about how flash memory works on an inexpensive USB device compared to a drive manufactured as a hard drive for a computer.

SSD life expectancy

Yes, but I want to clarify something first.

  • Limited number of read/write cycles is incorrect. It's a limited number of write cycles.

In other words, the more frequently you write to flash memory, the shorter its lifespan. That's one of the reasons that you don't want to use flash memory for things like your paging file, which is constantly written to... and will actually end up shortening the lifespan of that very significantly: specifically on USB flash drives.

People have often asked if they can place their paging file on an external USB flash drive to speed up their system. The answer is yes, maybe for a few seconds after which the flash drive won't work anymore.

SSD, or Solid State Drives

So, that leads to the second part of this question.

SSD drives are flash memory, but they are different flash memory. They are (to put it kinda crudely) expensive flash memory.

The flash drives that you have, that you might plug in via USB or other kinds of connections, tend to be relatively inexpensive devices. The technology within them is used with the assumption that they're going to be used significantly fewer times than, say, an SSD drive.

Basically, they're meant to be mass-produced; to be cheap. That's why you can go out and get flash drives for less than a buck sometimes. SSD drives, on the other hand (solid state drives), are designed for longer-term use.

The state of Solid State

The technology underneath the SSD drives is always improving. The flash memory that they're using (the technologies they're using) is in constant improvement.

The net result is that when you do the math, when you understand how SSD drives now compensate for this particular limitation of a limited number of writes, the fact is that, yes, they will wear out... but typically, they now have lifespans that are (finally) measured in years.

What that means is that it is not uncommon for SSD drives to actually outlive their usefulness.

Either it will outlive the computer or outlive the software, or outlive the person that's actually using it. The machine itself might be recycled because a new machine comes along.

Solid State Drives are long lasting

So SSD drives are absolutely viable right now. I haven't tried one yet myself. I'm looking forward to it on my next machine.

The longevity issue has kinda-sorta been dealt with.

Don't confuse SSD drives (even though they use flash memory) with the cheaper, inexpensive flash drives that are connected via USB. They really are different orders of magnitude in terms of quality and longevity.

Article C5396 - May 28, 2012 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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May 29, 2012 9:44 AM

Mr. Notenboom!

You must get these babies!!!
I have an ALL Solid-State drive laptop from Asus.

The boot-up time from an SSD is quick and easy and because there are no moving parts inside of them my laptop tends to run Cooler!!!

I would highly recommend them. However, it is easy to recover deleted files from them and there is no third-party erasure software (that I am aware of) that effectively work in an SSD'S.

So - - I wind up transferring All of my files - - the ones for deletion to my external hard platter-drive and there I use third-party erasure software to effectively delete and make my old files - - Unrecoverable!

Hope this helps.


Mark J
May 29, 2012 2:07 PM

If you are using a utility for erasing your SSD, make sure it is set to a one pass wipe. On SSDs that is sufficient to wipe all traces and anything more than that can make the drive wear out faster. Perhaps you already know this, but someone else who is reading this might benefit from that warning.

Oliver W
June 5, 2012 3:12 PM

Can this high-quality type of flash memory be obtained as a plug-in USB drive (e.g. for use as a regular back-up drive)? If so, how can I be sure that a device that I am thinking of buying is of this type?

Mark J
June 6, 2012 12:46 AM

SSDs are available as USB drives. It should indicate somewhere on the on the box or in the ad that it is an SSD drive. The size is normally a little bigger and much thicker than a credit card.

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