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Solid state drives with flash memory will wear out much slower than their very cheap counterparts in thumbdrives and dongles.

My wife and I recently purchased a pair of iPads as Christmas presents for our college age children. A fellow at the Apple store told me that the main memory in the iPad is a flash memory device. I remember you stating in at least a couple of your columns that flash memory can be unreliable. That it can and will fail over time and often without warning. Therefore, backup everything. Is it not imprudent for Apple products to use flash memory as a hard drive?

In this excerpt from Answercast #87, I look at the lifespan of flash memory in things like USB dongles as compared to high quality (and expensive) flash hard drives.

Solid state drives wear out

No. And here's why. There's flash memory - and then there's flash memory.

The flash memory that's being used for solid state drives (as they're called) is actually of a significantly higher quality than the flash memory you might find in a USB thumb drive.

So, for example, as I sit here recording this AnswerCast, the PC in front of me isn't a PC at all; it's a MacBook Pro, the Retina version, and it has a 300 and some odd GB flash drive. That's a solid-state drive that uses this higher quality and more expensive flash technology.

The USB drive that I also have on the keychain in my pocket is dirt-cheap. That's the flash memory that will wear out too soon.

Everything wears out

To be clear, all flash memory will wear out, absolutely! And that includes the hard drive in my Macbook Pro here. The difference is how quickly.

The higher quality flash memory will last probably longer than the computer itself. In other words, longer than the useful life of the computer. And that's really all you care about; that's really all you need.

The flash memory that's on the USB keychain? Well, it depends on how you use it. But it's gonna last a significantly shorter period of time.

So there is flash memory, absolutely! But be aware that the flash memory that they're using in devices like iPads and phones and in laptops and so forth, besides being very cool and very fast, is also of a significantly higher quality with a significantly longer lifespan. A lifespan that is long enough that the life of flash memory for solid state drives is not something that you typically need to worry about.

USB thumb drives

What you do need to worry about is the lifespan of the flash memory in things like USB dongles, USB key chains, USB thumb drives - whatever. Those have a much more limited lifespan because, in part, they are so much more inexpensive.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Article C6242 - January 14, 2013 « »

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.

Not what you needed?

Ken B
January 15, 2013 7:38 AM

As we used to say: "fast, cheap, reliable --- pick two."

Peter B
January 15, 2013 8:39 AM

Despite the long expected life, I'm surprised Leo didn't add his usual comment - you still need to back up!

Mark J
January 15, 2013 12:19 PM

@Ken B
Let me guess, you must be an engineer. I just shared that word of wisdom in one of my English for engineering classes last week.

January 15, 2013 3:40 PM

ALL memory is doomed to failure somewhere down the road. I had a SD card I constantly use in a camera give up after 3 years. That's a LOT of photos and I got my moneys worth. Then again, I have an old 30 mb EDI drive I 'rescued' that's still going strong after 8 years. Your mileage may vary.

January 18, 2013 8:44 AM

What about SD and microSD cards? You did not
mention them along with the dongles. Are they the same 'cheap' ssd?

SD cards are essentially the same as USB keys. While individual quality varies, they are not of the same quality level of SSD drives.

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