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Is a USB Flash Drive More Reliable Than a Hard Drive?

USB and Flash drives are a popular method for quick and local data back-ups but how reliable are they?


Many computer users transfer files between PCs with USB flash drives. If you regularly use flash media, you might wonder whether NAND flash technology has a higher or lower rate of failure than a traditional desktop or laptop hard disk drive. The answer depends on a few key factors.

For example, the technology used by your flash drive's manufacturer directly reflects its expected lifespan. All flash drives have a limited number of write cycles. After a certain number of writes--usually from 3,000 to 10,000 cycles depending on the device--flash cells begin to break down, rendering the device unstable. However, this is only a limitation for write cycles and does not apply to any attempts to read files. You can safely open files on a flash drive without worrying about longevity.

There are a number of technologies built into modern USB flash drives to stop this type of data loss. The most common of these is wear leveling, which does exactly what it sounds like; the drive varies its cell usage. By spreading wear out across the entire flash drive, this technology makes widespread data failure much less likely. Most USB flash drives support wear leveling, but to different extents.

Other features such as error correcting code add additional resistance against data loss. However, some USB flash drive manufacturers do not use these technologies in order to keep costs down. When you purchase a USB drive, you should read reviews. If you are willing to spend a little extra on a high-quality drive, you will drastically decrease your chances of a serious data loss event.

How Data Use Affects Flash Drive Wear

The other factor that affects the possibility of permanent USB drive data loss is usage. If you regularly overwrite the contents of your flash drive, you will wear out the drive faster.

USB drives are not built for repetitive write cycles, so you should never edit photos, movies, sounds and other large files directly on your flash drive. This is a common mistake that can greatly accelerate wear and cause unexpected data loss. Your files are not necessarily safer on a flash drive, especially if you access them on a near-constant basis.

Move them onto your computer's hard drive before editing and never run an application directly from a USB drive. Your hard drive is built to run applications and is much more resistant to write wear, and this is one of the main advantages of hard drives from a reliability standpoint.

Moving Parts, Media Failure and Data Loss

Flash drives have no moving parts, and there are no read/write heads, platters or spindles. Hard drives have all of these components and are in constant physical motion when in use.

This means that flash drives are much more resistant to physical shocks and extreme changes in temperature. USB flash drives are not indestructible by any means, and many of the cases that we receive have some type of damage, but flash media is much more physically durable overall.

Keeping Data Safe on a Flash Drive

Overall, flash drives can be more reliable than hard drives, but they have significant limitations. Features vary from one manufacturer to the next, and your usage habits can drastically affect drive performance.

Always keep important data in at least three physical locations to avoid permanent data loss. Use backup software for important files and check your backups regularly. Never leave important files on a single hard drive or device, and if you lose access to your data, Contact Secure Data Recovery Services as soon as you can to schedule a free media evaluation.

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