Backing up your data is essential, especially if you’re trying to store important files, as data recovery is a complicated process with no guarantee of success. Being one of the cheapest options for storage, you may wonder if flash drives are reliable enough for long-term data storage.
Flash drives are not good for long-term storage. The number of write-erase cycles they can support is limited, which means they are not safe for data backup after prolonged use. They can also be easily damaged or lost. External hard drives or cloud storage are better long-term options.
In this article, I’ll further discuss flash drives as a storage option, explain how long you can safely keep your data on a USB drive, and offer other suggestions for long-term file storage and data backup.
How Long Can Data Stay on a Flash Drive?
Normally, flash drives are designed to store data for up to ten years. That’s not the most impressive lifespan, but it still seems long enough for you not to worry about data loss. Then why do most experts say that flash drives are not the best option for long-term data storage?
The main reason is that ten years are only guaranteed if the USB drive is kept in ideal conditions that are not likely to happen in real life, especially if it is actively used. Flash drives are not intended to keep data for a long time: they are portable devices designed for your convenience to move files and store them for a limited time period.
Many factors weigh into how long your USB drive will serve you and how long you can rest assured your data is safe. To give you more perspective, let’s discuss what shortens the life of a flash drive and what you can do to prolong it.
What Shortens the Lifespan of a Flash Drive
We often use flash drives to transfer files, which then are erased, and new files are copied to the drive. The more you repeat this cycle, the closer you are to losing your flash drive as a reliable data storage device.
It sounds logical that frequent use eventually causes the device to wear out, but flash drives are specifically designed for the purposes of short-term storage and regular replacement of files, so the fact its cycles are limited may rub you the wrong way.
Yet, the technology is not perfect, and while some USB drives can withstand up to a million such cycles, others can only do about ten thousand. That’s part of the reason flash drives are so cheap: they cannot be used infinitely, and if you need them a lot, you’ll have to get a replacement every once in a while.
So, if you’re an active USB drive user, your device is not likely to last the ten years promised by the manufacturer. When the drive reaches its limit, it can no longer support the safe storage of your data. Data loss and corruption risks increase, which is a big concern if your flash drive carries important files.
Another factor that can shorten the lifespan is ejection—that is, the way you disconnect the drive from your computer or laptop.
Some people don’t know the right way around it, so they simply disconnect the USB drive y pulling out of the port. However, this is extremely risky, as ejecting the device without signaling your intent to the computer first can lead to data loss or corruption.
The reason it could happen is that while your devices are connected, they continue to exchange data. If you pull a USB drive out unexpectedly, you interfere with the communication process, risking damaging the flash drive and the files it holds.
What is the right way to eject a flash drive? Here’s a detailed instruction for Windows 10:
- Navigate to the Safely Remove Hardware icon and click it. This should be in the bottom right corner of your screen
- If you can’t see the icon, click on the up-facing arrow that says Show Hidden Icons and look among them.
- If the icon is still nowhere to be found, right-click the bottom taskbar and choose Taskbar Settings.
- In Settings, choose Select at the bottom of the screen. Turn on Windows Explorer: Safely Remove Hardware and Eject Media.
And here’s how to do it on Mac:
- Locate your flash drive’s icon on your home screen.
- Right-click on it and choose Eject.
Once you click Eject, you let the computer know you’re about to disconnect the flash drive, so it stops all communications with the device. You can now eject a USB drive safely.
Finally, if you physically damage the lash drive, you can experience an electronic failure that leads to malfunctioning, data loss, and other unwanted consequences. Your computer won’t be able to successfully read the files due to communication problems with the drive, or the data can get corrupted, which means you won’t be able to access it.
How To Keep Flash Drives for Longer
Limit the Number of Write-Erase Cycles
As flash drives cannot write and erase data indefinitely, the most important thing to do if you want them to last is not to repeat the cycle too frequently. If you have to use the USB drive a lot and often need it for business or personal purposes, getting two high-memory flash drives is best, so you don’t have to remove files and copy new ones repeatedly.
Eject the Flash Drive Safely
As mentioned, simply pulling the lash drive out of the port interrupts its connection to your device. This can lead to you losing the data stored on the drive or permanent dive damage. To avoid this, make sure you follow the correct process for removing a flash drive securely.
Protect the Connector
The connector is the most vital and, at the same time, the most vulnerable part of a flash drive. It can easily get damaged, especially if the device is actively used, which could make the data stored on your USB drive inaccessible.
In order to avoid that, it’s best to either purchase a protective case for your flash drive or buy one with a built-in cap for protection. This way, the device will remain highly portable without any significant risk of hurting the connector.
It’s also crucial not to pull the drive too vigorously as you disconnect it from your computer or laptop. Applying too much force can also easily damage the connector. Gently insert the device into the port and just as gently pull it back out.
Don’t Leave the Drive Connected for Too Long
Some people have a habit of leaving a flash drive in the port even if they are no longer using it. As your computer retains communication with the drive the entire time it remains connected, a prolonged connection can overload the device or cause electronic failure. So, once you’re finished using the USB drive, safely eject it and connect it again when needed.
Protect the Drive From Heat and Humidity
Another factor that can lead to flash drive damage includes temperature conditions. As with most electronic devices, flash drives don’t easily withstand overheating, and because they carry your files, you risk experiencing data loss if you expose the drive to excessive heat.
Humidity can also cause similar problems, meaning you should protect your drive from all weather elements, such as rain or snow. Keep it in a safe, cool, and dry place where you’re not likely to spill anything on it.
Pros and Cons of Storing Data on a Flash Drive
While there are risks regarding the long-term storage of files on a flash drive, there are also certain benefits that make people choose USB drives above other storage methods. To give you a broader perspective, let’s summarize the pros and cons of using flash drives.
Pros of Storing Data on a Flash Drive
- It’s extremely portable. Small and light, easy to carry around, and very convenient for transferring files from one device to another.
- It’s affordable. Compared to other storage options, flash drives are really cheap, as it is a relatively old and optimized technology.
- It doesn’t depend on power, so your files will be safely stored and accessible at any time.
- It’s fast. Copies and erases files with great speed and can be easily connected or disconnected whenever needed.
- It’s easy to write and erase files.
Cons of Storing Data on a Flash Drive
- It supports a limited number of write-erase cycles, and after reaching the limit, it is not safe to store files on it.
- It can be easily damaged by improper ejection, liquids, or applied strength.
- It is not designed for long-term storage and works better for moving files between devices.
- Its small size makes it easy to lose the flash drive along with all the data.
- Despite the fact that flash drives are supposed to last up to ten years, they typically last one to two years.
Best Options for Long-Term Data Storage
Now that we’ve discussed flash drives in more detail and have determined they are not the ideal option for long-term data storage, it’s time to talk about some possible alternatives. What can you use to back up your files safely and for a prolonged time period? Here are a few suggestions.
An External Hard Drive
An external hard drive works similarly to a flash drive but is more reliable in terms of capacity and data safety. It is also a physical and portable storage solution, which offers an extra layer of protection for your data, but unlike a USB drive, it is designed for long-term storage.
An external hard drive is probably the best alternative for those who find flash drives convenient but are looking for a long-term solution. However, keep in mind that they share the same drawbacks: vulnerability to physical damage, complete data loss if the device is stolen or misplaced, and potential data corruption due to electronic failures.
RAID, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks, is a solution for those who work with data on a larger scale. Typically chosen by large businesses, RAID combines a number of hard drives into one complex system. It’s more reliable than a single hard drive and offers more protection against failures.
However, this technology requires skilled maintenance and turns out to be pretty expensive, so it only makes sense to implement it if you need to store a lot of files and want them to be securely placed into one system.
Cloud storage is one of the most reliable methods of data backup. Its only significant disadvantage is that you must have access to the Internet in order to recover files to any of your devices, which is not always convenient.
Besides that, this method is highly secure, offers the highest level of protection against data loss, and has great capacity. It works well both for business and personal purposes. iCloud, Google Disk, Dropbox, and other services are widely used by organizations and individuals for data storage with great success.
You can ensure even more safety for your files by backing them up both to a hard drive and cloud storage. That way, you will be able to access the data anytime, even without an Internet connection, but you won’t lose it entirely if the physical device is lost.
Finally, data can be backed up to an SSD, also widely known as a memory card. It is fast, accessible, and safe for your data as it better protects it from failures. However, similar to a flash drive, its drawback is a limited number of cycles. Moreover, memory cards can be expensive.
While flash drives are portable and convenient, they’re not the best choice for long-term data storage as they can support a limited number of write-erase cycles, are vulnerable to physical damage, and can be easily lost due to their small size.
If you’re looking for a long-term data storage solution, consider using an external hard drive or an SSD. RAID can be used for larger data massives. Finally, cloud storage works great for most file backup purposes but requires an Internet connection in order for the data to be accessible.