How Good Is Your Digital Storage Lifespan? Hint: Not Very

How Good Is Your Digital Storage Lifespan? Hint: Not Very

Jason Yang
Sep 30, 2011

After our fearless leader, Gregory Han, recently spent his weekend recovering from the death of his hard drive, we felt compelled to begin to examine not just our own backup plans but the question of just how long a hard drive is supposed to last? The answer is surprising, as we looked into other media formats as well, from hard drives to CDs/DVDs, flash drives, and more. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Burned CDs:
Some say only two years while many real-world thrill seekers are counting decades while living on the edge. The Independent recommends making new copies of your CDs every couple of years so that your discs are never more than 3-5 years old.

Hard Disk Drives:
As Gregory can attest, hard drive loss can be a painful experience. provides a helpful list of signs that your hard drive is having troubles. PCWorld reported that failure rates were much higher than manufacturers were letting on. ZDNet explains what "mean time to failure" means, and how overrated the number is as reported by manufacturers.

It was hard to peg down a hard drive's lifespans, as a 2007 Google paper seems to conclude with many findings that hard drives either fail fairly quickly or go the distance. If manufacturers report their mean time to failure as over 100 years, then the more relevant information might be a hard drive's failure rate. The less often a particular type of hard drive fails, the better the chances your drive will actually last for any measurable length.

So how long do hard drives last? Hard to say, but from forums and personal experience we'd suggest if your hard drive is going on 5-10 years, you might want to consider backing it up. Like now.

Memory Cards:
Memory cards may not have as many moving parts as a conventional hard drive but they are still apt to fail now and again. Probably the most important number gleaned from a memory card's specs is the rated number of write cycles. After storing data so many times, the memory card can begin to fail. That being said, it's more likely that we'll physically damage or lose a memory card in the meantime. Clumsy us.

Magnetic Tape:
These things supposedly last 30-100 years, but for anyone who recalls pulling data off of them, it was a slow and painful process. Does anyone even make/sell these anymore anyway?

Backups Tips, Strategies, and Stories from Unplggd:

(Images: Flickr member originalpozer, alikins, jon_a_ross, jemimus, James Bowe licensed for use under Creative Commons)

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