April 16, 2005

The Future of USB Flash Drives

USB flash drives are great, aren't they? Tiny, portable, they work without needing special drivers in Windows 2000 and XP for basic features, and so on. But just how long can you expect them to store your data reliably?

The downside to many forms of flash memory is that it has a limit to how many "writes" you can perform to it. I've seen the specs on a number of flash media, and it's not uncommon to see 100,000 writes as the specified limit. Granted, that's a fair amount, but it's still limited. I've also noticed that some manufacturers don't even publish this information, and I question their motives.

A number of people, including myself, have recognized that flash memory is best used as short-term storage. Which is why they're used as floppies, MP3 players, photographic storage in digital cameras, etc. Many of us know that the data needs to be backed up to more robust storage media. But I still wonder if the CDs and DVDs burned today will be readable just 5-10 years from now (and how long we'll continue to use CD/DVD drives).

Even hard drives are not truly long-term storage -- we just keep porting the data from hard drive to hard drive, especially since most people upgrade to new computers, say every 3-5 years on average as an educated guess. So flash is an even more transitory convenience, and a good one. I do like that it's solid state, as I've dropped my thumb drive more than once without experiencing any problems. I shudder to think what would have happened if it were a tiny hard drive.

Jeremy Wagstaff (Loose Wire) has this great article on the future of USB flash drives. He recently talked with various manufacturers and saw their upcoming offerings. Jeremy posits that as hard drives continue to get smaller yet hold more and more, eventually we may just look back nostalgically at flash drives as "charmingly limited in what they could do for us." Rather like the original Pong video game.

And he may indeed be on the right track. Flash drive capacities, even at 2GB, are still too limited for more storage-hungry applications, such as taking your entire song, video, and/or photo collection with you. I was just sizing up the latest iPod offerings, and the Shuffle holds very little appeal to me -- far too limited for the price, even with its conveniently small size. Conversely, the iPod Photo is the Apple of my eye, even though I wish it were a bit more svelte. If I were to see an iPod Photo in half the form factor with longer battery life, you'd know what I'd run out to buy.

Until that day, there is a heck of a lot one can do with a flash drive. Check out Jeremy's other post of all the things you can run directly from a USB flash drive. There's likely something for everyone.

Until hard drives can get as small and slim as flash drives, there's still value in having a tiny storage device that doesn't bulge in my pocket or blocks my PC's adjacent USB ports -- as long as I can still fit a useful amount of files on it. But I'm with Jeremy in that I'm still waiting for a more robust, power-friendly, tiny, portable, higher capacity, long-term storage solution. I can dream, can't I?

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard

>But I still wonder if the CDs and DVDs burned today will be readable just 5-10 years from now (and how long we'll continue to use CD/DVD drives).

There have been reports that cheap CDs and DVDs will degrade in a relatively short time. For long-term storage, high-quality media is preferred. And the primary recommendation for critical long-term storage is: consider a mass conversion using new hardware/technology at least every three to five years. Do you want to be relying on Zip disks in 2010?

Posted by: yclipse at April 17, 2005 07:57 PM