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With computers growing smaller and lifestyles going mobile, less and less devices offer sufficient space for internal optical drives. Presently, the market is kept afloat by Blu-ray consumer home video sales, but in terms of data storage, optical discs are slowly becoming obsolete. Moreover, while most movie buyers still prefer to own a physical copy of their purchase, this market, much like the music market, will soon be taken over by streaming services. So are you still storing data on optical drives?
Optical discs have a storage capacity of up to 50GB (Blu-ray) and at around $0.08 per GB they remain one of the cheapest ways to store data. Under optimal conditions in terms of temperature, humidity, and handling, Blu-ray discs can last over 50 years, an impressive number. The problem is, optical discs require an optical drive to be used and such a device will likely break long before 50 years are up. The question then is whether those drives will still be available in a decade or two from now and at what point it is smart to switch to another storage medium.
The way you store your data should always be current. There is no point in chaining yourself to a specific method or medium. The key is that your data is easily accessible to you, now and in the future. Hence, the best way to store your data depends on your needs. How much data do you have? Do you want to store, transport, or share your data? Where do you need to access them? And for how long do you need to store your data safely?
To make potential alternatives to optical discs comparable, I have examined four different criteria: storage capacity , average price per GB, average or approximate lifetime in years or number of write/erase cycles, and compatibility with other devices and operating systems.
Option 1: USB Stick
Capacity: regularly up to 128GB (256GB available)
Price: from $0.60 to $0.80 per GB
Lifetime: 10 thousand to 5 million write/erase cycles, approx. 2 to 20 years
Compatibility: theoretically any device with USB port
Flash-based drives and particularly USB thumb drives are probably the best alternative to optical discs in terms of lifetime and portability. Since lifetime depends less on climate and storage conditions, but primarily on the amount of times data are written to or erased from the drive, flash drives theoretically could have a longer lifetime than DVDs or Blu-ray discs. With up to 128GB, thumb drives also offer more storage capacity (Blu-ray up to 50GB) and they do not depend on the availability of an optical drive. However, flash drives are significantly more expensive per GB.
Option 2: SD(HC) Card
Capacity: up to 128GB
Price: from $0.62 to $1 per GB
Lifetime: 100 thousand to 1 million write/erase cycles, approx. 1 to 10 years
Compatibility: adapter or SD card reader required
This is the most portable alternative to optical discs. With regular storage sizes between 16 and 64GB, SD cards are also comparable in size. Similar to USB sticks, the lifetime of SD cards depends on write/erase cycles and can thus be very short or rather long. Like all flash-based storage devices, the price per GB is significantly higher than that of optical discs. Moreover, SD / SDHC cards require an SD / SDHC card reader or an adapter.
Option 3: External Hard Drive (HDD)
Capacity: up to 3TB
Price: from $0.04 to $0.15 per GB
Lifetime: approx. 2-5 years
Compatibility: any device with USB port
External hard drives are the cheapest alternative to optical discs. They cost less, offer a much higher storage capacity, and are essentially compatible with any device that sports a USB port. In terms of connecting the hardware, compatibility is a non-issue. That said, keep in mind that the file system (typically FAT32 or NTFS) can potentially prevent recognition or full functionality of a HDD when connected to other devices (TV) or operating systems. The biggest issue, however, is the vulnerability of HDDs. They are easily damaged by physical shock, which makes them suboptimal for transporting data. Moreover, their operation relies on moving parts, meaning each use increases the likelihood of hardware failure.
Learn more about file systems from my article What A File System Is & How You Can Find Out What Runs On Your Drives, then find out How To Format A USB Drive & Why You Would Need To. And while we are on the topic of file systems, you might also want to know How To Reformat Your FAT32 Drive To NTFS – And The Advantages Of Doing It or How To Format A Large Hard Drive With Either FAT Or FAT32 .
Option 4: External Solid State Drive (SSD)
Capacity: up to 256GB
Price: from $0.80 to $1.78 per GB
Lifetime: 100 thousand to 5 million write/erase cycles, approx. 5 to 20 years
Compatibility: any device with USB port
In terms of price and durability, SSDs are similar to thumb drives or SD cards: expensive, but potentially long lifetime. SSDs are available with larger storage capacities than other flash-based storage devices, however, this also comes at a higher price.
Fancy an SSD? Be sure to look into my 3 Top Tips To Maintain Performance & Extend The Life Of Your SSD .
Option 5: Cloud Storage
Capacity: regularly up to 500GB with Dropbox (theoretically unlimited)
Price: from free to $1 per GB and year
Lifetime: theoretically unlimited, practically as long as service is available or as long as you pay
Compatibility: any device with internet access
Storing your data in the cloud is the most convenient way to backup, share, and keep your data with you, provided you have access to the internet. However, this is only practical for small amounts of data. If you have more than a few GB, it can get very expensive as fees are due monthly or yearly, for as long as the storage space is needed.
Before you make a decision on where to store your data in the cloud, browse our cloud storage articles for tips & tricks.
Many alternatives for optical drives exist, but few can compete with the price and theoretical lifetime of Blu-ray discs. On the other hand, many make for better long term investments. In the long run, you should always have your data stored in at least two future-proof locations. But for the moment, Blu-ray discs and DVDs are a viable storage method. Just make sure you move your data before your last way to access them disappears.
Do you still use optical discs to store or transfer data?