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Reasons why USB thumb drives are the wrong choice

Erica Sadun
Erica Sadun|@ericasadun|September 7, 2011 4:00 PM

Photo: Dead Drops (Flickr)

So yesterday, the TUAW backchannel got into a heated discussion about USB thumb drives. We had just posted about why Lion Version support was not available on non-HFS+ file systems. Our debate wasn't over whether they were good or not, but rather why they were a poor choice for day-to-day work.

All of us had a number of drives around, but for the most part they are used for storing system installers, not for old-fashioned sneakernet-style file transfers. Nearly all of TUAW has moved on to some kind of cloud solution, be it Dropbox or Pogoplug or iCloud. These are all solutions that bypass any "HFS+ vs FAT, versions-support vs Windows-interoperability" issues, plus they don't have the "running apps from dmg"-like squicky feel to them.

The fact that some people still use thumb drives for live-saving work files (update: saving live to the drive instead of to disk as described here) came as a bit of a surprise to us. We were determined to come up with a list of reasons not to do this. In the end, we brainstormed a bit and turned to Twitter for further inspiration.

Our first knee-jerk reactions were the least motivational. Although several of us (and people on Twitter as well) mentioned "Aren't those drives always a bit failure-prone?", our googling indicated that the mean time between failures was relatively low high, and the number of supported read/write and insertion/ejection cycles surprisingly high, particularly for modern units.

So "they're not reliable" turned out to be a bit apocryphal, even for relatively cheap drives. That being said, USB thumb drives don't appear to use load leveling of any kind, and are not designed for constant read/write cycles. As one of our Twitter buddies pointed out, they are designed for file storage above all.

Instead, we focused on practical use, why thumb drives fail in the daily work process. Without further ado, here is our list of the top reasons you shouldn't be using thumb drives for directly saving your work.

Thumb drives don't integrate well into backups. Although HFS+-formatted USB sticks can and will use Lion versions and metadata, if your workflow involves saving directly to the drive and skipping your primary hard drive, you're missing out on a lot of what Time Machine can offer, especially when you go mobile. Consider updating your workflow to save to disk (in a normal work folder) and then copying to a thumb drive for transport. This way, you ensure that all file data is not just versioned but also passively brought into the normal Time Machine backup schemes.

Thumb drives don't integrate well with pockets, bags, dogs, and small children. Portable USB sticks are small. They are tremendously easy to lose or misplace. What's more, thumb drives can be inadvertently swallowed, flushed, put through the laundry, and more. If you're saving your only file copy to a thumb drive, you're putting that data at unnecessary risk -- especially if your two-year-old just learned how to flush, or you're figuring on giving your dog enough laxative to poop out the data he just licked off your desk. That's not to mention the "good friend" scenario, pointed out by one of our Twitter buddies, who reformats your stick for "some linux install tests" without your permission.

Thumb drives are physically flimsy. It's a lot easier to break the connector port by accident, losing access to all the data stored on the drive, than you might think. Their relative fragility make them a risk for anyone who relies on them for primary storage.

Thumb drives are subject to corruption. When you unplug a drive without unmounting it -- a common thoughtless mistake that many of us make -- your data could get corrupted. Combine this with a natural exclusion from backups, and a corrupted USB drive could cost you that data.

Thumb drives have low read-write speed. If you tend to engage in edit-save-edit-save cycles, writing directly to a USB stick can slow down your work a lot, especially when working with large data files like images.

Thumb drives aren't ubiquitous. Unless you're prepared to walk your drive to another location, their data doesn't naturally integrate with net-based cloud storage. And if you do use net storage, why are you using a thumb drive as a primary storage solution?

Thumb drives take up extra slots. Who amongst us have enough USB slots on their system? Every thumb drive occupies a space that could otherwise be used for external Time Machine storage or any number of other peripherals.

So that's our list of crowd-sourced reasons, beyond our instinctive knee-jerk "don't do that" response. If you want to gawk at a dizzying array of USB drives, check out the list on Engadget. Got more suggestions? Add them to the comments!

Thanks to everyone who tweeted suggestions, including (but not limited to) Arepty, Redbits Apps (for 2-year-olds learning to flush), Ed_h, Mark_Coker, Jecoffey, Biosblob, Niels_K, Dddat, DannoWatts, Endareth, Yittsv, Yboy403, JayFuerstenberg, TB10 (for load leveling), Cranies, Ech0riginal, Innoying, ChunkyGuy, JohnSea66, LMahesa, JasperJanssen, GoJohnnyBoi, GianLovesSurf, PaulRysz, Frank2Oh, StoreClock, David_Dre (for Linux friends), Savobien, Bosh (inconsistent mount points), JTokash, DanUdey, AEberbach, MikePuchol, RJALPHAdog, Hack3rsInc, iMacDan, JohnNelm9r, WiseQuark, Zad0xsis, McElhearn, AbrahamVegh,WeatherAngel, MBrit, and everyone else!