Why do my thumbdrives keep dying and how can I stop it?
September 26, 2011 12:31 PM   Subscribe

I've had two usb sticks die on me in the past few months - that's four years of school work down the drain (well, I have most of it backed up elsewhere, but it's not organized and it'll be hard to put back together). I have other memory issues which I'll explain after the fold.

I used to have an EEE netbook which I sold to my roommate. I backed up that hard drive to an external hard drive and uploaded that to an old Dell laptop which I inherited from my daughter when she moved. I recently obtained an Asus transformer which kind of replaced my EEE notebook except I can't really run Office on it, so I use the school computers for my homework (because I haven't got Office at home, nor do I have internet).

Anyway, on to my question. Because of the lack of teh interwebs at home, I usually use a memory stick to save any homework I do there (say, on Works on the Dell) and take it to the school computers. I did the same with the EEE netbook when I needed to print. Emailing things to myself isn't an option when there is no internet. Neither the netbook nor the Asus transformer have DVD drives. I have no idea why the stupid thumb drives are dying. I remove them properly. Neither died on the same computer (one died on a work computer, and one died on a library computer). By "dying" I mean that when I plug them in, the computer no longer reads them. Any computer. They're simply not seen as "there."

I can't afford to have all my schoolwork disappear like this, and I can't afford to keep buying USB sticks. When I use the school computers, I email whatever I'm doing to my gmail, but when I'm at home, I can't do that, so I have to rely on external memory. I'm pretty sure that usb is the only way. Am I buying the wrong brand (Memorex or however you spell it)? What could be killing them? I thought these things were supposed to be durable.

Bonus question: can i get my stuff of the dead drives? if so, how?
posted by patheral to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
They're not particularly durable. I've always found SD cards to be much more reliable than USB sticks. Why? I've no idea. So my suggestion is to try one of those little USB card readers plus two SD cards (so that you can make two copies of everything, just in case). They're just as cheap (cheaper, usually) than USB sticks.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 12:37 PM on September 26, 2011

You started off by mentioning 4 years worth of work down the drain. That means you were using the sticks as backup, which is not recommended. Use a cloud backup or external hard drive. Then you mention using the stick to transport your work to from home to school, which is what they are designed to do. They shouldn't be dying on you; you might try a different brand. Data recovery is possible, just Google "memory stick data recovery." For instance.
posted by beagle at 12:40 PM on September 26, 2011

I don't use these things a lot, but I am surprised to hear you've had such bad luck. I've literally washed the things before and have several almost a decade old that still work fine. Are you sure you're not doing something uncommon?
posted by odinsdream at 12:40 PM on September 26, 2011

How many times and in how many computers have you tried the USB sticks that have died? I have a couple of sticks that are quite flaky, and can require many attempts at connecting before the computer recognises the drive. I would make sure to try the stick a min 20 times, on a min of 6 computers, before declaring them dead. I would also try to access their contents a number of different ways through the operating system.

Apologies if you have already done this but I get a sense of hopelessness from your post, (which I completely understand given how much work is at stake!) but I am not sure you have explored all the options. A quick google results in software and tricks that could help, including professional data recovery services.
posted by unlaced at 12:46 PM on September 26, 2011

I've always found SD cards to be much more reliable than USB sticks. Why? I've no idea.

This is probably because with an SD card, it's pretty much literally just flash memory with no other components that can fail. Whereas with a USB thumbdrive, you have the memory component plus the USB communication components, which are generally not all that high quality and in my experience tend to break more often. Meaning that your information is probably still there, it's just not accessible because of the communication hardware (external hard drive enclosures are similar, a lot of times when they fail the drive itself is perfectly fine).

So my advice is to get something like this, which is basically the thumbdrive part that you can stick whatever micro SD card you want into and use just like a USB stick. That way if the USB communication part breaks you can just buy a new one without losing your data and you have more flexibility for using the memory in other devices.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:53 PM on September 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't mention why you don't have internet at home, but it sounds like it would be worth the money to get that set up, if even just with a portable wifi hotspot device.
posted by hermitosis at 12:54 PM on September 26, 2011

Just to throw this out there, but you can use other portable devices like an iPod or a phone for data transfer. You wouldn't want to use it as a permanent backup, but you could use it to get your data to school, where you could put it in a safe place online.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:03 PM on September 26, 2011

Hermitosis, I don't have internet at home because I rent a room and my landlady won't spring for internet. We're just on the border of the university's wifi, so we *used* to get intermitant internet (if we held our tongues right) until they moved a house into the empty lot next door, not we don't even get that. I thought about getting a portable hotspot, but don't know how they work exactly (I'm not savvy about these things) so I'm still looking into it.
posted by patheral at 1:05 PM on September 26, 2011

Try those usb drives on other computers, especially ones running different os's that might have different drivers -- a diff version of windows or even OSX.
posted by empath at 1:07 PM on September 26, 2011

And this is more cumbersome, but you could take your netbook to campus with you and use the wireless internet connection to transfer the data to whatever other computer you want to use (via dropbox, gmail, whatever). In this way, you use your netbook like the storage device. It's as convenient, but it's probably the most immediately cheap option. I'd still backup online, too. What's nice about using dropbox is that it serves as a type of online backup while you also use it to transfer files between computers.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:07 PM on September 26, 2011

*not as convenient.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:08 PM on September 26, 2011

You could always try a cantenna if you're nearly-but-not-quite getting wifi.
posted by katrielalex at 1:32 PM on September 26, 2011

Remember that the data doesn't really exist unless you have it in multiple places.

Four years of work all on your usb drive, and only there (well, some was elsewhere but unorganized)... completely unacceptable.

If it is really, truly important, at a minimum it should exist in two "meat space" locations, i.e. two thumb drives, or thumb drive and back up hard drive, etc. AND in an online storage location. Can you use dropbox at school? upload your work there and then when your stick dies next time you won't lose so much.
posted by utsutsu at 1:35 PM on September 26, 2011

I suppose I should explain... I have a good deal of my work backed up on the external drive that was my netbook, but it's not the latest and greatest and nothing from this semester since I haven't used it this semester. I have some of it in my gmail (because I emailed it to myself) but it's unorganized becuase I'm not consistant about it, and I have two email accounts (sometimes I email to both, sometimes it's just to one or the other). Nearly everything was on the two USB drives. One died about two months ago and I kept meaning to back up the other (which died yesterday) but with school and work and the MA exam... my fault entirely. It's not all lost, but it's not all there either. I'm not a complete idiot to keep everything on one USB drive or rely completely on my computer's hard drive... I just didn't think both USB drives were going to kick the bucket like that. Hence the question -- I thought they were more durable.

I've never even heard of dropbox until now, and I just signed up for it. So, thanks for the suggestion, SpacemanStix.
posted by patheral at 1:47 PM on September 26, 2011

I came to mention Dropbox too- it's great. And there are Smartphone apps too, so if you have one you can access your stuff from your phone even without home internet!
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:54 PM on September 26, 2011

What you need to invest in is some time to organize your habits and files. The simplest would be to carry two usb drives and save the file(s) to each one a the same time. Similarly, at home, have a folder on your computer that has the same folder structure as the usb drives and copy the files there too. (There are applications that do this automatically, but I don't know anything about them.) It is a pain in the neck, but very necessary if the files have any importance. As utsutsu says, the data has to be in more than one place for it to be remotely "safe" from hardware failures.
posted by gjc at 3:45 PM on September 26, 2011

I've said it before, too many times to count, and I'll say it again: digital information doesn't really exist unless there are at least two copies.

Thumb drives are about as reliable as floppy disks (i.e. not very), hold a hell of a lot more information, and tend to fail catastrophically when they fail at all. So anything important that you're keeping on a thumb drive needs to be kept on at least two and preferably three thumb drives, and by policy these should always have identical contents. And as soon as one fails, your priority is acquiring another one and backing up the remaining drive before you do anything else with it.

The single most common cause of thumb drive failure is mechanical damage; pockets are unkind environments for little squashable plastic things. I've found that the kind with a stainless steel swing cover are the most durable.

It is sometimes possible to resurrect a broken thumb drive for long enough to back it up, but this is not something you should ever rely on.
posted by flabdablet at 6:53 AM on September 27, 2011

I just want to say thanks to those who suggested that I try to read the dead sticks again on a different computer. i did try that again yesterday, and I was able to get the computer at my new job to read the one that recently died. I backed it up to a new one (not a lot of time at work to bring up drop box) so I'll back it up again this afternoon between classes. I still couldn't get my home computer to read it.

btw - all the usb drives I have are the ones with stainless steel swing cases - I usually keep them in an empty coin purse in a pocket in my book bag so they're not banging around free in there. ATM I just have the one I bought to replace the one that died. Come next payday, I'll get a card reader and a card.

Thanks everyone.
posted by patheral at 7:24 AM on September 27, 2011

Sometimes USB sticks that are still perfectly fine will fail to be recognized on insertion, simply because a bit of gunk has got into the USB plug or socket and is preventing solid contact. Blowing vigorously into the socket and across the end of the plug will often clear this right up. I've also had good results from blasting USB plugs and sockets clean with non-lubricating contact cleaner spray.

I've also seen USB extension cables fail, often due to broken wires at the point where the cable exits the USB socket.
posted by flabdablet at 4:39 PM on September 27, 2011

Also, banging around won't usually kill thumb drives, but crushing and bending certainly will. So you might want to re-check that the pocket in your bag where you keep your drives doesn't ever end up underneath a bag of heavy books.
posted by flabdablet at 4:50 PM on September 27, 2011

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