Does it damage your files or USB drive to edit files directly on the drive?
September 12, 2012 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Basic USB drive question: Can you open and edit files for long periods of time right from the USB drive?

I have this vague notion that working off a USB drive will damage the drive or lead my files to be corrupted (I remember professors in college saying this is so), but my attempts to google this question isn't telling me one way of the other. When I work from home, I generally transfer the files I need to the USB drive from my iMac at work, then transfer those files to my MBP at home, then at the end of day transfer to the USB and later to the iMac again. (Anywhere from less than 1 GB to 9 GB of data at a time. Upgrading to Mountain Lion has cut down on transfer time since it will prompt to only replace files that has been edited instead of everything in a folder.) Lots of transferring! Today it struck me: can I just work right off the USB drive and save myself having the transfer the files I worked on at home back to the USB and then back to work?

The files being worked on are generally InDesign/Illustrator files, and they're not large enough that I notice any difference in speed when working from the USB drive. (I'm guessing speed might be the main reason for transferring files to your computer while editing them?) Also, I do back up my files every day and I save frequently while working by well-honed reflex, are the files in any way less stable if I work off the USB drive?

Thanks for helping me clear this up and potentially saving me some time!
posted by thesocietyfor to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It shouldn't matter. Do be sure to use the "Safely Remove Hardware" panel to shut down the drive before removing it, though.
posted by ubiquity at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2012

You aren't damaging the drive, per se, but you are using up a finite life. Flash drives are generally good for about 10,000 write cycles. You should be able to work directly off the drive for a while, but not indefinitely. How long will depend on how many times you hit "Save".
posted by briank at 11:20 AM on September 12, 2012

briank, modern USB flash drives, SD cards and SSDs all use wear levelling internally to spread your writes across the internal flash.
posted by pharm at 11:45 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did this for a while with lots of .doc files, and it was never an issue. The one thing I'd be careful about is backup: ALWAYS have current versions stored on your computer as well (and preferably in other places, of course). I once lost a USB drive and had to rewrite several thousands words of essay content because the 'backups' on my main computer were out of date.
posted by anaximander at 12:49 PM on September 12, 2012

If the USB drive in question is actually a USB-connected hard disk drive, there should be no reliability difference at all. If it's a thumb drive or similar built around flash memory, then there will indeed be a limit to the number of times you can write to any particular part of it. Wear leveling transparently spreads those writes across the entire capacity of the drive, so the bigger your thumb drive and the more free space it has, the slower it will use up its allotted lifespan.

Working directly off a thumb drive, especially when motivated by a desire to reduce "wasted" time transferring files, often ends up leading to having only single instances of new work. If you're always copying to a hard drive before you start, doing your work there and copying back to the thumb drive at the end, then backup is built into your workflow. This is a good thing. The correct attitude toward any digital data that takes more than two minutes to recreate is that it doesn't really exist at all until you have at least two copies.

That said: thumb drives are way more durable than floppies ever were. Far more thumb drives die from being sat on or going through the wash than from being worn out. On the other hand, their capacities are so stupidly large now that when they do go bad you tend to lose a lot of stuff; unlike rotating media, which tend to go bad a piece at a time, flash drives generally die by becoming totally unusable all at once. Sometimes you can get lucky but relying on it isn't sensible.

I imagine the rationale for your professors' remarks on removable drive reliability was based on the impossibility of explaining Safely Remove Hardware to college students in a way that would actually make them do it. As a school IT technician I frequently see people yoinking out a thumb drive while one or more files on it are still open in Word, even after having had the risks of doing that carefully explained multiple times.

Usually the people doing that are the same ones that think Word is the only tool available for working with Word files in any way because Finder and Windows Explorer are mysterious and complicated. But I'm sure you're not one of those.
posted by flabdablet at 7:32 PM on September 12, 2012

Fantastic answer, fabdablet, thanks! I'm going to take the time to transfer my files since I do indeed spend more than 2 minutes wih these files. (Coincidentally, meaning to pull out the USB stick for my keyboard, I instead removed the drive today with a few documents I was working on open. Guess I answered my own question with that—human error is more likely than my flash drive failing!)
posted by thesocietyfor at 7:55 PM on September 12, 2012

« Older (I know it's a long-shot) but could someone...   |   Is it a good idea to talk about ADD in a cover... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.