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When looking for storage media, we’re not short on good options. Whether you want large capacities, superfast performance or portability, there’s a perfect choice for you.

But just how reliable are these different media? We know that CDs and DVDs don’t last forever CDs Are Not Forever: The Truth About CD/DVD Longevity, "Mold" & "Rot" CDs Are Not Forever: The Truth About CD/DVD Longevity, "Mold" & "Rot" The digital age has revolutionized the way we handle information. Never before could humankind record and store so much information and in such diversity. While the amount of data has increased exponentially, the predicted life... Read More . What about hard drives and solid state drives?

How long will they continue to work in your computer, and how long will they store your data if you use them for archiving?

Let’s take a look.

Hard Drives

It’s well-known that deleting files from a hard drive does not mean that they are gone forever How Can You Make Sure Your Files Are Deleted Forever? How Can You Make Sure Your Files Are Deleted Forever? So, you've just deleted a file. Congratulations, that file is no longer a part of your life. Or so you thought! Read More .

Security experts will, from time to time, collect drives from discarded computers purely to demonstrate how much data can be recovered What Is Data Recovery And How Does It Work? What Is Data Recovery And How Does It Work? If you've ever experienced a major loss of data, you've probably wondered about data recovery -- how does it work? Read More off them. It’s normally a startling amount. In fact, the only way to be sure your data is gone is to physically destroy it.

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Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that a hard drive is a reliable long-term storage device.

A hard drive is totally reliant on a series of moving parts — a spinning disk that’s read by a moving arm with a magnetic head. Like anything with moving parts, it will break eventually.

Hard drives are prone to suffering what is called a head crash, where the head touches and scrapes across the disk. This can be caused by all manner of things, from a power cut or surge The Effects Power Outages Can Have On Your Computer The Effects Power Outages Can Have On Your Computer Do you unplug your computer during severe storms? If not, you may want to start. Read More , to physical shock to a manufacturing defect.

With regular use, a head crash, or other physical failure, will be the reason you need to replace the drive long before any other form of degradation sets in.


A 2013 study by cloud storage company BackBlaze looked at 25 thousand drives and found that around 5 percent failed during the first year and a half, most likely due to manufacturing defects. They were then largely stable until the fourth year, when the failure rate rose to 11.8 percent. 74 percent of drives lasted beyond the fourth year.

If the drive is unused — if you were to copy your data to it then store it away — you can reasonably expect your data to last for many years.

A hard drive stores its data magnetically Understand What Makes Your Hard Drive Tick Understand What Makes Your Hard Drive Tick Have you ever wondered what's inside of your hard drive? Let's find out together! Read More , and as long as you keep it away from another strong magnetic source, it is fairly stable.

The magnetism can diminish over time, putting the data at risk, but this can be restored by powering on and reading or writing the data. You should do this every few years if you’re using a hard drive for long-term storage.

Solid State Drives

The long-term viability of SSDs is less well-known, simply because they haven’t been around long enough for any definitive studies to provide the answer.

A solid state drive doesn’t contain the moving parts of a hard drive. The spinning platter (the disk), the arm and magnetic head are absent, and flash chips are used in their place.

This means an SSD is not vulnerable to head crash in the way that a hard disk is. The added durability gives the SSD an obvious reliability advantage, especially when it comes to shock or exposure to less than optimum environmental conditions. They’re also not affected by magnets.


However, it should be remembered that the other components in an SSD are the same as those in a hard drive, and are no more or less likely to fail. SSDs are also extremely susceptible to power failure, leading to corruption of data or even the failure of the drive itself.

With solid state drives still being in their relative infancy, it will likely be a few more years before we get a true picture of how well they hold up to repeated use.

The lifespan of each memory block in an SSD is limited to a certain number of write cycles i.e. the number of times a piece of data can be stored to it.

The number of cycles will only be a few thousand on most drives. This sounds alarmingly low, but is not really an issue in modern SSDs. Unlike hard drives, which write their data to the earliest free block, an SSD uses technique called wear-levelling 101 Guide To Solid State Drives 101 Guide To Solid State Drives Solid State Drives (SSDs) have really taken the mid-range to high end computing world by storm. But what are they? Read More to ensure that each memory block is used before the cycle begins again at the first block.

Unless you’re writing tens of gigabytes of data a day, every day for several years, you won’t get close to the limit on write cycles. Even if you did, the memory would become read-only, so your data would still be accessible.


All this means that SSDs are a great choice for day-to-day storage over HDDs, so long as performance is bigger priority than capacity, given the relatively higher price of a solid state drive.

An SSD is not a good option for long-term storage, though.

How long an SSD can store data without power depends on a number of factors including the number of write cycles that have been used, the type of flash memory used in the drive, the storage conditions and so on. A white paper produced by Dell in 2011 (PDF link) stated that it could be as little as three months to as much as 10 years.

Many SSD manufacturers will list data retention either as part of the specification or the warranty for their drives. The JEDEC Solid State Technology Association sets the industry standard at one year for consumer drives.

Flash Drives

USB flash drives, as well as memory cards like SD cards, have similar issues to solid state drives.

They have fewer components and are far more robust, but are restricted to a finite number of write cycles usually in the range of 3,000 to 5,000. And since they tend to use cheaper memory modules, they can be less reliable than SSDs.

Again, though, this needs to be kept in perspective.

If you’re using the flash drive for its primary purpose of moving files from one location to another Move, Copy, Open, & Remove Files With File Sorter [Mac] Move, Copy, Open, & Remove Files With File Sorter [Mac] Much of our purpose with computers is to get work done faster and more efficiently. there’s a free option that might make a useful introduction to bulk file and folder automation; it’s called FileSorter—a free... Read More , then a cheap drive will be more likely to fail through physical damage (such as breaking the connection between the USB jack and the printed circuit board inside the drive), before the write limit is reached.


Equally, an unejected drive will be more likely to put your data at risk. A lack of fault tolerance can put the entire drive in danger.

USB flash drives aren’t a great option for archiving. Drive manufacturer Flashbay has said that data retention could theoretically be in the region of 60 to 80 years, if stored in a perfect environment. In reality, it is far lower.

As with SSDs, data retention is affected by the health of the memory blocks. A flash drive bought specifically for backing up files then storing could potentially last for many years; a heavily used drive could lose its data within months if left unpowered.


The most important thing to remember when looking for storage media for backup is that nothing lasts forever.

You can reasonably a expect storage device to keep hold of its data for a couple of years if it goes unused. But you should also regularly check the drive, and that the data is still intact. Copying the data off the drive and then back on will ensure it extends its life for a few more years.

Of course, the only reliable backup solution is to make two or three backups and rotate them periodically (or use the triple backup solution The Ultimate Triple Backup Solution For Your Mac [Mac OSX] The Ultimate Triple Backup Solution For Your Mac [Mac OSX] As the developer here at MakeUseOf and as someone who earns their entire income from working online, it's fair to say my computer and data are quite important. They’re set up perfectly for productivity with... Read More ).

What storage media do you use for your day-to-day computing? When you make backups of your important files, how often do you check that it is still accessible? Let us know in the comments.

Image credits: Stack of hard drives via Ervins StrauhmanisShattered hard drive via AlexHard drive via Ovjea, Solid state drive via Ambra Galassi, Inside SSD via Intel, USB flash drive via Razor512

  1. Daniel
    July 3, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    I have and HDD in my computer with 10 years still working just fine day after day without signs of failure.

  2. Mahmut Yaman
    May 12, 2016 at 9:53 am

    SSDs are still broken. Do not trust them. They will not ready in few years. If you want, you can use raid with HDDs. They never failed me since 1997. I just repaired bed sectors or boards a couple of times.

    • Daniel Maurer
      July 31, 2016 at 3:52 am

      I've been using my SSD in my MacBook Air for over four years without a hitch. I don't know what you're talking about.

      • Mahmut Yaman
        August 4, 2016 at 1:54 am

        Its good luck.

        • Caiobrz
          October 1, 2016 at 9:57 pm

          I have 2 PCs with SSDs as main drives for over 2 years with daily usage. No issues. I have flash drives that I still use and are 5 years. Actually, I never had any flash/ssd failure, ever. In the space I got my first flash drive (still my keychain!), 2 main HDD and 1 secondary failed on me...

  3. David
    April 18, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    Hi Andy, thanks for the article!

    Are you considering an update? It'd be great to be able to used removable high speed flash media for backups in rotation - they're a lot less hassles than burning DVD's, and Blu-Ray media is inexplicably expensive - but I it's still not clear if the SDHC flash media can be considered reasonably reliable on par with other options. Above, it sounds like I ought to buy several HDD's and rotate those, with them generally powered off or on a shelf most of the time.

    Flash media would be so convenient if it was reasonably safe to rely on - say, comparable to CD's or even DVD's:
    - for rare to occasional write (yearly or monthly or intervals)
    - Do I need to rewrite my digital photo's? Given the relative cost to former film development, I've been filling up SDX cards with pictures and not reusing them. How long do you think these can be reasonably relied upon not to lose them original data?

    It sounds like the scheme to use is to read and re-wite the data so often ... any rule of thumb recommendations?


  4. James
    April 1, 2016 at 12:29 am

    M-Disc last 1,000 years, and are perfect for archiving. See:

  5. Mark Ober
    February 19, 2016 at 8:19 pm

    With my Windows XP and perhaps other later operating systems, why were they having you use a flash drive in place of a CD for creating system backups? Wouldn't you later, when needed, go to the backup expecting it to be there but find it likely gone then? Why would they have promoted such an idea and allowed us to feel safe with having made such unreliable backups to flash drives? Are they still recommending this for system backups and if not, what are they now recommending that's reliable beyond the system backup partition on the original hard disks?

  6. Jill Adler PCSKiGal (SkiPlayLive)
    November 1, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    ok, I'll probably date myself but now you've got me wondering how long 3/4" and beta tapes will last...I guess the best thing to do is my photobooks of everything but even those pages will fade... sheesh.

  7. Bhavesh
    April 16, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    My friend have a laptop whose battery & cd driver doesnt works.the laptop starts working wen a charger is has windows 8 installed.
    recently he told me install windows7 instead of 8,so i used a bootable pendrive to install Windows7,but,during installation,accidentally charger was disconnected & laptop shuts down.after starting again,its nt completing the boot process,it shows windows7 logo & den again it restarts.
    how to fix this problem?
    please help me!!!
    reply soon

    • Greg
      January 16, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      That's a question for a technician, not a post about storage failure studies

  8. captamer90
    April 9, 2015 at 10:42 am

    The library of congress has analog data storage media still in perfect shape that is 100 years old

  9. PlaGeRaN
    March 25, 2015 at 6:23 am

    Nothing last forever.

  10. Ashley
    March 22, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    What comes up over & over is "media failure".
    For this reason I wonder why we are so obsessed with bigger & bigger storage media (HDD's are now being advertised at 2 & 3 Terrabytes). The bigger it is, the more you lose when it crashes. Personally, given the room to store them all, I'd rather use several drives at, say, 500mb. One for that important and/or personal stuff that you can't afford to lose, one for games, one for programmes, downloads, music, exe's etc and maybe another separate one for basic running.
    This way each is easy to back-up, and it is highly unlikely that all will crash at the same time.
    For what its worth, one young techie suggested to me that we should always use a backup (there are programmes that will automatically back up every time you save), then every 2-3 yrs discard the old drive, the back-up drive becomes the main drive, and a new back-up should be bought & installed.

  11. James Vang
    March 18, 2015 at 7:04 am

    Being a Network person I love this article. Thank you very much for recalling me tons of thing from my past too. Keep it up.

  12. PoliteTia
    March 16, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Sweet article A. Betts,
    Believe it or not, I have never taken a USB apart. This was the first time I have seen this and I was a computer hardware tech for five years

  13. dragonmouth
    March 14, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    TechReport tested some SSDs to the point of total failure. Here are the results:

  14. Andy
    March 14, 2015 at 9:04 am

    I started computing on a 286 machine with two 40MB HHDs and since then have had I don't know how many systems, some with multiple drives in. I have (and I've just counted them), 17 HHDs on my shelf that failed on me, interestingly, not one head crash, all electronic failures. I still have the two 40MB HDDs and they are still working!

    • Joz
      February 14, 2016 at 10:00 am

      hahahahahahahahah can't stop laughing hahah

  15. Alpha
    March 14, 2015 at 3:58 am

    I forgot to mention I have a complete copy of my music files (about 50GB) on a 64GB Micro SD card on my cellphone.

  16. Alpha
    March 14, 2015 at 3:50 am

    Both my PC and laptop have exactly the same things in them. This means I have two copies of everything so if one is lost, hope remains.

    It's a shame we haven't yet been able to invent something that is perfectly reliable for personal and local data storage. If we could make something which could hold our data for at least 50 years, that would probably do it for us because after, say, 49 years we could copy the data to another one and before the next 50 years were over, we were dead!

    Having said the things above, I feel a bit stupid but for now the best solution is cloud storage.

    • Joz
      February 14, 2016 at 10:17 am

      Cloud storage you say? Not cheap though. By the way, reliable, personal, local data storage which would last 50 years wouldn't make money/profit. It's all about money. That's why we don't have such kind of solution.

  17. Per Duun
    March 14, 2015 at 1:21 am

    This is what i do:

    My PC has a SSD-drive for speed. I use Macrium Reflect (free) wich makes a total image of my SSD-drive og copies it to an external USB-drive with lots of space. Once a month i make a new complete backup and i keep the latest 20 backup-files. This not only backs up my data but the entire PC. You could do even better with to USB-drives. Keep one at home and another at another address and switch them fx every 6 months.

  18. DavetteB
    March 14, 2015 at 1:15 am

    Now the next article should be How to get the info out of you external hard drive when it is dying/has died?

    As the old saying goes, the lights are on, but no one is answering. 299GB of
    ?lost? data (some in other places some not).

  19. Kurt486
    March 13, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    What are the issues with backing up your data/files for long term storage to the cloud?

    • Perry Bruns
      March 13, 2015 at 10:02 pm

      Clouds are primarily water vapor, and thus...what? Oh, right.

      Seriously, cloud storage comprises whatever physical media are used at the distant end--usually magnetic hard drives set up in RAID arrays, so see above, but factor in questions about cloud services' trustworthiness, security and network access.

    • Dave Hysom
      March 16, 2015 at 12:17 am

      >questions about cloud services’ trustworthiness, security and network access

      Absolutely! And I'd like to add: considerations as to how long the CC (Cloud Company) remains in business; what happens to your data when they raise their pricing -- or go from "free" to "pay per Tbyte?" What is their guarantee (and do you believe it?) as to the privacy of your data? How secure is it from prying eyes (NSA)?

  20. Adrian
    March 12, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    To quote Black Widow from the upcoming Avengers 2 movie: "Nothing lasts forever". Having said that my own experience with the various media types has led me to the use of Hard Drives as my main long term storage medium.

    I used tapes and many times had found the backups to be corrupted when we needed them. Tapes stretch and wear out over time. Unless you have a proper schedule for testing and replacing them you're playing with fire.

    The brand name flash drives and SSDs are pretty stable and reliable but the cost per Gigabyte is quite high. I mean the average 128 GB flash drive will run you about $ 50.00 plus at this writing. You can get a 1TB HDD for the same price.

    Hard drives are tried and true technology but they're still prone to failure. That's why redundancy is the key. Keep two copies (and if you can afford it, 3 or more) copies of your data. It's highly improbable that all copies of your backups will fail at the same time once you take the proper precautions. For example, when I now started developing backup strategies, I kept my "backup" drive in the same computer as the main drive. Needless to say after a surge from a failed power supply I lost both drives and all my data. Lesson learnt.

  21. Jimmy Foster
    March 12, 2015 at 9:41 pm

    I'm using a solid state as a main drive in my laptop. I realize that it's eventually going to fail, but I have everything backed up to an external drive just in case. I went back to using a mechanical drive for a few days but it was slow and painful to use. Not to mention that with a solid state, I don't have to worry about moving my laptop while it's powered up. Every little bump and movement with a mechanical drive I worry about failure. (Also, I have a bad track record using them.)

  22. Darryl Gittins
    March 12, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    Why wasn't my comment posted? There was nothing inappropriate in it and it was relevant.

    "You're missing what might be the most important consideration here. Mechanical drives all fail over time but they typically warn you when they start to go. Usually, that gives you time to move the data to a safe location and replace the drive. Not so with an SSD. When an SSD fails, it's typically instantaneous, and you get no warning. Poof, and your data is gone. SSD's are terrific at what they do (speed up a system) but beware that you should not rely on them as a storage medium.

  23. Dan
    March 12, 2015 at 8:05 am

    How about the latest blu-ray disks? Some manufacturers claim their products can retain the data written on them for a century or even more if the media is kept away from any sources of intense heat or sunlight. Also, the blu-ray disks seem to be less prone to data corruption caused by scratches than ordinary CDs and DVDs.

    • likefunbutnot
      March 13, 2015 at 12:10 am


      All optical media is an unholy combination of materials that really don't want exist in the state that allows it to be read by an optical disc drive.

      Audio CDs hold up very well over time because the amount of error correcting data built in to the spec is extremely high, but optical discs containing any kind of recognizable computer file system is going to have a relatively short shelf life. Even mid-grade media probably won't last five years, and it's almost impossible for a consumer to distinguish manufacturers based on external branding. Optical discs are a short-term storage solution at best.

  24. A41202813GMAIL
    March 12, 2015 at 4:44 am

    ( From Another Thread )

    All The USB Flash Drives I Own Have Small Sizes ( Up To 4GB ).

    Wherever I Go, I Carry With Me 3 Of Them ( Between 2GB And 4GB ).

    I Also Carry An External 500GB Hard Drive ( My Main OffLine Backup - I Have Never Opened Its Enclosure - I Think It Is A SATA 2.5 Drive ).

    On Different Occasions, All 3 Flash Drives Have Developed Some Sort Of Data Corruption On Several Files, But I Have No Complaints About The Hard Drive.

    Eventually, I Just Stopped Trusting Storage Media Without Moving Parts, Period.


  25. Darryl Gittins
    March 12, 2015 at 12:04 am

    You're missing what might be the most important consideration here. Mechanical drives all fail over time but they typically warn you when they start to go. Usually, that give you time to move the data to a safe location and replace the drive. Not so with an SSD. When an SSD fails, it's typically instantaneous, and you get no warning. Poof, and your data is gone.

    SSD's are terrific at what they do (speed up a system) but beware that you should not rely on them as a storage medium.

    • Bruce E
      May 13, 2015 at 9:56 am

      "Mechanical drives all fail over time but they typically warn you when they start to go."

      You forgot to add "if you know what to look for and where it can be found". With Windows operating systems, you can find disk subsystem errors in the System Event Log when the drive starts to fail, but the OS will not give you any kind of warning that something is wrong. You need to look for it yourself. It doesn't even use S.M.A.R.T. data in a decent manner. I have found that you are better off using a 3rd party tool such as HD Sentinel to monitor the health of your drives.

      Most users only begin to realize that there is something wrong when the computer starts to take a long time accessing or writing files. And many of them will attribute it to a malware infection. I can't even count the number of times I have had to replace failed hard drives in instances where the user says "It was getting slow so I ran antivirus scans that took forever to complete but it never found anything wrong".

  26. likefunbutnot
    March 11, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    Ironically, one of the best and most stable long-term storage formats is magnetic tape. Tape is definitely exotic for consumer data storage, but at one time it was relatively common. It is still widely used by organizations large enough to have a dedicated IT staff.

    An LTO changer costs as much as a decent laptop, but the incremental cost for additional tapes ($15 - $20 for 1.5TB) is low enough that, past a certain threshold, it's also the only backup medium that makes any sense.

    If you're planning to rely on mechanical drives for long-term storage, something to be aware of is that the currently-shipping 5TB+ consumer and "NAS" drives from Western Digital and Seagate specify unrecoverable read error rates that are low enough (one error in 1x10^14 bits read) that it's statistically likely that there will be at least one instance unreadable data on any given full drive. Expensive Enterprise-grade disks usually specify 1x10^15 read error rates. This statistic is true regardless of the shelf life of the drive. It's part of the hardware specifications.

    The best way to maintain data for longevity is probably to continually transfer it to new media. This should probably include multiple media types if possible.

    • Jim
      March 14, 2015 at 1:34 am


      Your statements on optical storage seem a little extreme. Do you have links to hard data to back that up? I ask because my own admittedly anecdotal experience has been that write one CD's and DVD's, that is not RW'S, that are 10 - 15 years old still work fine for me. Also a very brief Google search seems to bear that out. Most tests that people have run have indicated relatively few problems and many of the those problems were specific to very cheap no-name brands or were resolved by using a different drive or computer to read them.

      I agree completely that optical storage is probably not good for really long term and that truthfully very little if anything matches up to high quality paper in a controlled environment. However your limit of five years for optical seems extreme and given that when a hard drive goes it usually all goes I'm not so sure a single hard drive or flash drive would be any better?

    • Jim
      March 14, 2015 at 1:43 am

      Actually I just clicked the link on this page to CD longevity and apparently the five year figure you used seems to be for unrecorded CD's? That article also states that the next lowest is for DVD RW's and that is still 30 years. Not sure what the sources are for the data in that article but that seems more in line with what I've personally experienced.

      Again, I have no hard data to argue against your point but just raising the issue that your statement while perhaps factually correct that they may fail earlier seems extreme in how likely that failure might be.

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