Two weeks ago one of my Faithful Readers sent me a New York Times article about USB flash drives as fashion accessories. A day or so later, a colleague showed me a paper sent by his son’s school requiring all pupils to buy these drives in order to transport files between home and school.
Flash memory has been around for a while, and Real Geeks were carrying keychain drives at least two years ago while the rest of us were still figuring out which kind of card would fit into our digital cameras. A USB flash drive is similar to those cards—it just has a case around it to let you connect it to a computer without a card reader. These days you can get these USB drives built into pens, watches, and even cosmetics.
But besides being cute and trendy, what are they good for? On the up side, solid state memory technology isn’t vulnerable to mechanical breakdown. You will never hear one make that horrible clacking noise that signals a dead magnetic drive. The case protects them from dust and scratches. And they’re fast—they don’t have to spin in order to write data. You can even use them to transport files between a Mac and a PC (provided both have newer operating systems).
On the downside, flash memory costs more per megabyte than any other kind of storage. Moreover, its capacity is usually limited to less than that of a CD. If you only have a USB 1.1 port on your machine, the slow transfer time will counterbalance the fast write time. And the darn things are easy to misplace, which makes their frequent lack of security features a bit risky.
An M-Systems white paper on flash drive reliability states: “Flash technology is inherently unreliable…The first and foremost problem with flash is the number of erase cycles it can endure…Using the device over the specified number of cycles can cause data loss after even a few days!”
What does this add up to? Flash drives are great for storing data in the short term. If you want to carry files from one computer to another, they’re great. But don’t use them for anything that you want to store over a long period of time, never mind anything you want permanently recorded. You’re better off with a CD or DVD for those things.
And forget being able to store a mirror image of your entire desktop PC’s hard drive on one—at least for the next few years.
More backup news and commentary next week,