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Constant writing to a thumb drive is going to wear it out. I suggest a few alternatives for keeping your files safe.

Many of my files are large, complex and graphics related (i.e. Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Corel Draw, etc.). These files are stored on and run from a high-speed, 32 GB memory stick. A Sony or Lexar brand using the NTFS format. However, I now worry that the heavy use of this memory stick could induce file corruption. My question, "When it comes to constant and heavy use of file read/write cycles, is it acceptable and safe to work from a simple memory stick with the NTFS format?"

In this excerpt from Answercast #39, I look at the problems caused by constantly writing to a thumb drive and suggest some alternatives.

USB stick reliability

My recommendation is that you do not.

Now, there are absolutely scenarios where it's perfectly safe. It really depends on how much you understand the specific characteristics of the program you're using.

  • Writing to a flash-based memory stick is what wears it out.

  • Reading does not.

So, if on that memory stick you have files that are constantly being read, and only being read, you're probably just fine. It's not really that big of an issue – and to be honest, I probably wouldn't be too concerned.

Constant writing

On the other hand (and in fact, I have warned friends of mine off of doing this) for example, if you keep a database on the memory stick that is constantly being written to,

  • You are going to cause file corruption eventually.

  • You will lose the contents of that memory stick eventually.

  • Writing, writing a lot (which many programs can do) is exactly what wears memory sticks out.

    How quickly I can't tell you because that varies dramatically based on the quality of the technology that's being used in the memory stick. You can certainly do a rule of thumb thing with price:

    • If you've got a free memory stick or a very, very cheap one, chances are the circuitry inside of it is probably pretty cheap as well.

    • On the other hand, if you spent a whole bunch of money, maybe they're using better technology.

    Don't rely on it

    It's not something that I would want to rely on day-to-day. So I have two pieces of advice for you:

    • One, back it up.

    If you're going to continue to use it this way, back it up and back it up often – because it will eventually fail on you.

    • The other piece of advice, of course, is don't do that.

    In other words, don't use it the way that you're asking about using it.

    Use your hard drive

    Instead, a safer way, a less impactful way of using your memory stick to deal with these files is to:

    • Copy the files to your computer's hard disk;

    • Operate on the files on the hard disk;

    • And then when you're done, write them back to the memory stick.

    That replaces this constant (or potentially constant) read/write directly on the memory stick with a single write after everything is done.

    That will definitely extend the life your memory stick at the cost of the inconvenience of having to copy the files back and forth.

    External hard drive

    The other alternative, for what it's worth, is to use an external drive;

    • An actual, physical hard drive in an external enclosure.

    There are definitely small ones. I'm looking at one right now next to my computer that I use for backing up all the time. It's the size of a pack of playing cards and since it is not based on flash memory, it doesn't have these kinds of issues.

    So, if it is really an important scenario for you to run in this manner, I'd actually suggest you change the underlying technology that you're using.

    Article C5640 - July 30, 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.

    Not what you needed?

    Ronnie Beck
    July 30, 2012 12:03 PM

    WOW! That is timely. After losing too much data to a hard drive crash many years ago I quit saving to my computer's hard drive and only keep reinstallable programs that I have disks for and use a flash drive for daily work that I back up to an external HD but I can be lazy about doing that so I see your point and will reverse the operation. I suspect my external HD is a better bet from your article for the writing aspect. Another reason to do what I was doing on the flash drive is that it is easier to take over to someone else's office and plug it in but again I can copy from a more reliable device when I need to do that. Thank you. I wondered what the reliability was of these flash drives.

    John Germann
    July 31, 2012 10:35 AM

    Do the same considerations apply to SD cards, such as are in cameras and smartphones?

    July 31, 2012 11:42 AM

    I recently purchased a SSD to replace my HDD in my laptop. I know SSDs use flash memory technology but how much more 'forgiving'/'tolerant'/etc. would you say SSDs were? Basically the same question but 'solid state drive' instead of 'flash drive'!

    You'll note that SSDs are typically much more expensive than your flash/thumbdrive. My understanding is that the quality of the flash memory used is significantly better. They still suffer from wear, but apparently the expected life in normal use is longer than that of most computers. But ... backup anyway, regardless of what technology you use.

    Mark J
    July 31, 2012 12:23 PM

    An SD card is a flash drive. It just has a different interface with your computer than a USB flash drive.

    August 1, 2012 7:27 AM

    @Mark J
    An SD card is, as you say, a 'flash drive' similar to a USB stick.
    Today's SSD's are something completely different. These have to be far more rugged and error-tolerant, as they are designed to replace hard drives.

    On a completely different note, I have something called an SSD for my Psion3 - and that pre-dates most of the technology being discussed here. It's capacity is measured in Kb, not Gb.

    You are confusing SD cards (the cards that get inserted into cameras and the like) with SSD drives (hard disk replacements). Two completely different things.

    A Richter
    August 3, 2012 12:15 AM

    Good advice. Some years ago, a Sandisk top-notch 1GB USB stick delivered a salutary lesson to me when it went dead and unrecoverable, after about a year of use.
    On SD cards: These are in a different class altogether, with excellent longevity when handled correctly. Again, the number of write cycles will be limited, so the less writing, the better the chances in getting access to full contents the next time round.
    Recently, there was a rich conversation taking place on a CNET forum re: SDHC cards as backup medium. Now, SDHC card is a different cattle of fish compared to the original SD card, and there is not enough general user experience to go by at the moment regarding longevity. However, the write cycle rule will doubtless apply there as well.

    Harvey Smith
    August 4, 2012 12:48 AM

    I built a new computer about 3 months ago, with window 7, so I keep an 8 GB jump drive in one of my USB 2 slots for ReadyBoost use only. I recently changed to a USB 3 jump drive to one of my USB 3 slots, for ReadyBoost only. This did seem to help my start up time a little. So is ReadyBoost one of the ways that is going to reduce the life of this jump drive?

    As I understand ReadyBoost it is not write intensive. It pre-loads things onto your flash drive that seem to be used a lot (perhaps at boot time) to make it faster to read them.

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