“...so don’t use them as a backup option,” I said to a customer over the phone, thanked them for calling and hung up just as Geoff walked in the room. “What was that about?” he asked. I told him a customer was hoping to use an 8 GB USB stick to store their family photos rather than having to burn them to disk. “I told him it wasn’t a great idea.” Geoff just looked at me for a minute before asking, “Why do you think that?” When I explained my logic, it turned out that I had probably told our customer the right thing to do, but for the wrong reasons.
Since I like to be right, I had Geoff bring me up to date on the pros and cons of the latest USB sticks so I’d be better prepared for the next USB call. He started with the positives, counting each point off his fingers. “They’re small, portable, convenient, inexpensive, and are now available with enough storage space to be useful.” Then he held up his other hand to count the negatives. “They’re easy to lose, easy to break, and counting on inexpensive technology to protect expensive or priceless data can be a bad idea.” I, unfortunately, know all about ‘easy to lose’, but I wanted to hear more about the easy to break part – aside from dropping and damaging them. I know all about that too.
“It’s really important to perform a ‘safe eject’ when using a USB stick,” Geoff said. He told me that pulling the stick out of the USB slot can do a number of nasty things to the data and the hardware. Data can be lost if the ‘save’ process was not quite complete when the stick is removed. The drive and/or the data can be corrupted, leaving the stick inoperable or the data unreadable. “So how would I do a safe eject?” I asked. Geoff pointed out an icon down by the time at the bottom right corner of my screen. “Hover the mouse over the icon of media with a green arrow, and it will say ‘safely remove hardware’. Click here and a list will pop up, select the line representing the USB stick and you’ve done a safe eject.”
“What if I take a file to a friend’s house and use their computer to do some work. Can I work directly on the USB drive without saving to their computer?” I asked. Geoff replied, “As long as you do the safe eject process at the end, you can work directly on the flash drive without any problems.”
“What about storage? Are they stable enough to use for long term storage?” I asked. Geoff told me that stability really isn’t an issue. Easy to lose and easy to break are the two main reasons not to rely on flash drives for storage of important date. “Memory sticks cost under $25.00 and are really designed for transferring files, not data storage,” he said, reminding me that an external hard drive is still the best option for creating a secure backup of my critical files – like pictures of my dogs.
--update: most usb sticks if just written to once and stored on a shelf should last about 5-10 yrs before they loose their charge, if they are used alot they have around a 10,000 write cycle life span, some have more some have less write cycles.