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When it comes to backing up your files, you might find yourself debating which type of “drive” would best suit your needs. Which is better, a regular external hard-drive, an SSD, or a USB flash drive? Today’s SuperUser Q&A post helps a curious reader make the right choice for a backup solution.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

Photo courtesy of AmsterdamPrinting.com (Flickr).

The Question

SuperUser reader Doctor Whom wants to know if USB flash drives can reliably serve as manual backup drives:

I am considering using several large USB drives as my backup media, with redundancy for important files. I am curious if this is a viable alternative to an external HDD.

Everything I have been able to read on this topic so far discusses shortcomings that do not really apply to us. Flash has limited rewrites, but we do backups manually, not using automated software, so that is basically irrelevant.

It is more expensive per GB, but we can fit everything important on a couple of 128 GB flash drives, plus one for redundancy of our critical files. We would store them safely, so there are no issues of losing or dropping them.

What are the technical pros and cons of using USB flash drives as backup storage? What would be the comparative reliability under safe storage conditions?

Can USB flash drives serve reliably as backup drives?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Brendan Long has the answer for us:

I cannot think of any reason to use USB flash drives for backups. First off, read the reviews of the most popular 128 GB USB flash drive on Newegg and ask yourself if you want to use that for backups:

PNY 128GB Turbo USB 3.0 Flash Drive Model P-FD128TBOP-GE (Newegg)

Some Choice Quotes:

  • Cons: Bought four and they all worked in the beginning, all but one stopped working. One was only used three times and only contained one small file. RMA-ed one last week, two others failed today.
  • Pros: It was defective from the onset, so my friend did not lose any data.
  • Cons: Died after one use, tried it on three different PCs and it was no longer recognized. Had to pay to return it.

I think you get the idea. Both spinning disk hard drives and SSDs are much more reliable than the average USB flash drive.

Beyond that, spinning disk hard drives are probably faster too (although with worse random access times, but that does not matter for backups). SSDs will be much faster and good SSDs will be even more reliable than spinning disks.

My Advice Would Be:

  • Consider building a networked backup solution so you can use it for multiple projects and so you will have enough usage to justify things like higher redundancy, multi-site backups, etc. This would also save you money by letting you use larger disks with an optimal cost per GB. Or just pay someone to host your backups for you. 128 GB is tiny.
  • If you just want good backups, use a few spinning disk hard drives and you will be fine. Use the money you saved to get more redundancy. Maybe buy them from different batches if you are paranoid.
  • If you need even more reliability or speed, consider SSDs. You can get very high quality 128 GB SSDs for approximately $250, and there are probably good ones in the $100 range.
  • Do not use USB flash drives.

Make sure to read through the rest of the interesting replies on this topic via the link below!


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