How reliable are USB flash drives, compared to other storage mediums?

I got a 128 meg flash drive (woohoo! free swag from a vendor) and it got me curious how reliable this technology is, in comparison with other storage media. My Googling has failed to find this data.

Is it more or less reliable than a hard drive? I would guess more, since there’s no moving parts, but that’s just a guess.

It is more or less less reliable than a CD? I have no guess here.

Well, I’ve been using one for a long time and have never had a failure. I’ve long chucked my trusty zip drive. Your 128MB one is good, but man, you gotta get at least a gig to totally forget about using CDs to transfer any large amounts of data.

Wiki has a bit onflash drive reliability

I just wish Apple would make a firewire keychain drive.

a 2 gig Firewire 800 Keychain drive. That’s better than most firewire hd’s already.

      • I have a question: does Windows 2000 normally have drivers onboard for basic USB flash drives? …In the web work I do, when I have to go to the location–most of the machines are Win2000, and so I end up using floppies or burning CD-R’s to bring anything there. I can’t even use CD-RW’s because many of the CD drives in the PC’s they have are so old that they won’t reliably read CD-RW’s. USB flash would be perfect if I knew it would just plug in and work, and even a little 64-meg stick would be way more storage than I’d ever need.

I’ve been using a couple of flash drives, a 128MB and a 512MB, in my consulting work as the best way to get stuff from my system to customer systems for a couple of years now, and I’ve never had a Win2K system fail to correctly recognize and mount either of them.

In my experience, flash drives are more insecure than hard drives. I’ve never experienced a hard drive delete data out of the blue, but I’ve had that experience with flash drives. I would never rely on a flash drive, as I never did rely on a floppy disk. Flash drives are for moving data, or making it available; not for storing data that must not be deleted. Such data are on hard drive and backup.

Only opinion and some experience though.

I’ve been using one for a while, and I’ve used it on XP, 2000, and OS X machines with no trouble at all. I’m writing this post on Portable Firefox running from the flash drive, along with GAIM, on my Win2K work computer.

…and personally, I can’t wait for digital cameras and car stereos to have USB ports so we can all do away with proprietary camera transfer wires and discs of any kind.

My 256MB USB drive survived when I left it in my pocket and then tossed the pants in the laundry. I found it while I was transfering the clothes to the dryer. I’m not sure it would have survived the dryer.

I just let it air dry for a couple of days and it worked perfectly.

From this article:

A “computer expert” told me it’s important to remove the flash drive the right way, not just pull it out of the USB port willy nilly.

According to Mr. CS, you should right click on the “remove hardware” icon at the bottom of your screen and then “stop” the drive. I’m not sure I am buying that.

Can anybody confirm or refute?

MY IT department has told me you’re OK to just pull it out as long as it’s not being written to at the time.

You should handle your flash drive in this manner, to avoid pulling it while OS is writing to it, which might result in corrupt data.

If you’re sure nothing is being written to the flash drive while pulling it, for example if you just copied a document from the flash drive to the hard drive, it doesn’t matter, you can safely pull it. Heck, that’s the point with USB anyways.

I suppose that is the “right” way but any data that you have already written to the drive is going to be there however you pull it out. I suppose you could confuse Windows and have it not recognize a new USB device when you plugged it in later or the USB port could become non-responsive. I doubt that would happen too often however and the card would be fine.

Mine (a really slim Samsung 256MB one) has survived the dryer.

It scratched up the Samsung logo, but that’s it.

I’ve learned that if you:

  1. Slam it in a door, seriously fucking it up

  2. Plug it into your laptop, then tip the laptop back so you can read your XP key (thank you Microsoft on your new verification procedure) you’ll break the solder connecting the USB connector to the board

  3. You’re out $60 on your 1GB drive.

Then again, I suppose a CD wouldn’t survive the same treatment.


Just a quick tip: You can left-click the Remove Hardware icon rather than right-clicking, then left-clicking on the device to be removed. This avoids bringing up the larger right-clicked window.

It saves you a click or two and maybe a couple seconds. (Like I said, a quick tip. :slight_smile: ) If you’re like me and use USB drives a lot you may find this useful.

Regarding all other issues brought up so far:
I’m sure you can just remove the drive in most cases, but it’s really easy to do it right…so…do it right!

If you want to be able to just remove it without stopping the drive, you can turn off write-caching for the drive/port in Device Manager. This may degrade performance slightly. Or not.

I’ve dropped my USB drive (it’s on my keychain) many times and it still works with no problems. They’re rated for 1,000 or 10,000 (something like that) Gs.

I’ve got a 512MB drive and it does indeed kick CD-R/CD-RW’s butts. Unless you’re transferring to a Win98 PC, which doesn’t have the necessary drivers automatically installed. Everything Windows after 98 should work.

The number of write cycles these things are capable of should last me many years for just simple storage & transfer (ie not running OS, temp or swap files). These drives are programmed to spread the writes over the hardware so that single transistors don’t get used over & over again while others lie dormant. This should keep the number of available, working bits at a maximum for the maximum time.

Finally, to the OP: Reliable? I’d say more reliable than CDs, simply because of the physical toughness. Easier to mistakenly break/scratch a CD than to break a USB drive. More write cycles than CDRW. Produces less heat than a HD, but I wouldn’t run Windows off of one simply due to the constant swapping (==writing). Plus, not many BIOS let you boot the OS from USB. If they did, you could install the OS to the USB drive and have a small, quiet, cool HD for the swap file and other miscellaneous use. That would be interesting.

OK, there have been a lot of comments on this, stating both sides. Let’s clear up the confusion:

There are two different ways data can be corrupted if you’re removing a USB flash device:

  1. The data may actively be being written. There’s nothing you can do about this, there’s no way to make the bits magically fly through the air to the drive.

  2. Write-caching. It’s generally more efficient to write data to devices in relatively large chunks, and there may be other times reasons that your OS may want to limit data writes (for example, if you’re burning a CD or watching a movie in the background). So the computer uses what’s called a “write cache.” Data “written” to the drive ends up in this memory cache, and is written to the drive when enough of it accumulates or a convenient opportunity occurs. So it’s possible that even if you’re not writing to the drive at the moment you pull it, there could still be unwritten data waiting to go there.

The “safely remove hardware” thingy in Windows (or ejecting the volume on the Mac, or unmounting it in Linux) will cause the write cache to be written to disk. Generally, write caches don’t persist longer than a few seconds, but there are exceptions, and they’re impossible to predict. So you should use the safely remove option, or your OS’s equivalent…unless you don’t want to (see below).

In Windows XP, if you open “My Computer,” right-click on any drive, select “Properties”, select the the “Hardware” tab, select a mounted USB drive from the list, click the “Properties” button, and click the “Policies” tab, you’ll need to put ice on your clicking finger. But you’ll also get an option called “optimize for quick removal,” which disables the write cache. If you select this (it will apply to all USB drives), you can just yank the drive whenever there’s no current data being written, and all will be well. The cost is a little performance, but in my experience it’s a completely undetectable speed difference, do I leave it on all the time.

As for reliability: It has been my experience that these things are all but indestructable. I’m writing an application that does backup for them, so I’ve got (literally) a bag of them on my desk for testing. None of them has ever failed, even the one that’s been washed, run over with a chair, and dropped repeatedly, as well as used daily for a couple years, to the point where the paint is worn off it.

On the other hand, a co-worker has to get a new one about every three months because they fail on him. Of course, he runs them over with cars or bicycles a lot; I don’t think any of them have just spontaneously failed without an ESCE*. Certainly they’re far more reliable than a floppy, but I’d guess much less than a hard drive, just because of the accident factor.

*Embarassingly Stupid Crushing Event

I’m not doubting their honesty, but this really is one of those YMMV situations. Whether a particular USB stops working after a knock or a dunking is something that can’t be predicted with any accuracy at all. Some will survive the trauma fine, while others (even others of the same brand) will cease work immediately.

Anyone who’s spent any time on digital camera forums since the popularization of digital photography has probably seen hundreds of instances where people have lost their pictures after a memory card failure. Well, the technology in USB drives isn’t much different from that in Compact Flash and Secure Data cards.

They are, in 99 cases out of 100, extremely reliable. But use at your own risk.