Hard Drives vs. Flash Memory: Cost Per Gigabyte Explained

By · Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Hard Drives vs. Flash Memory: Cost Per Gigabyte ExplainedIf you are like me, you have often wondered what the best solution is to store backups of your favorite or most important files. On one hand you have relatively inexpensive backup solutions such as CDs, DVDs, and hard drives that give you a wide variety of data capacities, but the cost per GB is relatively low. On the other hand you have flash memory such as SD cards, USB flash drives, and Solid State Hard drives that provide superior performance, lower data capacity, and a higher cost per GB.

Well it sounds like a no brainer; one is cheap and has quite a bit of space, the other is lower capacity and higher cost. But do not be so quickly to judge, as Premium USB would like to take a quick look at the cost per gigabyte of the most popular backup solutions and help debunk some misconceptions about each.

CDs and DVDs
Let us start with CDs and DVDs for viable backups. CDs and DVDs have been around for quite some time, and almost everyone knows they store their information rather efficiently. A little less than a decade ago, CDs and DVDs were “the” way to store and backup data as they were inexpensive, very user friendly, and can retain their data for years.

But with all of these advantages, discs had some disadvantages as well. CDs and DVDs are only limited to 700mb and 4.5GB storage space respectively. This meant that if your data was larger than either of these sizes, you had to use multiple discs for backup. Discs by themselves also take up quite a bit of physical space as every disc is vulnerable to physical damage without some type of case. Jewel cases were the primary choice, but even after a while, stacking CDs or DVDs becomes troublesome.

Discs are also very vulnerable to scratches, smudges, breaks, or even sunlight! They can be damaged by as something as simple as a paperclip, destroyed by excess physical pressure such as a drop from a sufficient height, or even lose data retention when exposed to excess amounts of sunlight. So are discs a reliable way to store your important files for years to come? Chances are you will accidentally scratch or destroy your disc before its natural life expectancy, so it is probably not the best solution to store your information for longer periods of time.

Hard Drives
Hard drives are the most logical choice when it comes to backing up files and it is hard not to see why. They are inexpensive, can be portable, and are what most people are familiar with when it comes to saving information on a computer. Hard drives are also the lowest cost per GB as you can now purchase a 1TB hard drive for under $100. That is under $0.10 per GB!

Hard drives are also more durable than discs because of their outer protective casing. This casing protects the inner discs from smudges, scratches, or physical pressure. However, hard drives can be ruined. Many hard drives used for permanent storage are portable. These portable hard drives are exposed to quite a bit more abnormal conditions than a traditional internal hard drive would.

Unfortunately portable hard drives are more likely to be dropped, stepped on, or even accidentally dropped in water. All of these listed above and many more have the potential to dislodge a moving component inside the hard drive or damage the internal discs. In the case of water, it can fry circuits inside the drive as ruin the hard drive permanently by even covering the discs. Even if you let the drive air out, it will probably never work again. So are Hard Drives a viable solution for long term backup? Of course they are. Hard drives make an excellent storage solution assuming they are stored in a safe environment. Remember, hard drives are more durable than discs, but they can still be broken fairly easily.

USB Flash drives
USB Flash Drives are relatively new to the storage game, but are showing some major promise. The first USB drives had almost no capacity worth mentioning, especially when compared to a traditional hard drive; however, in recent years the capacity of flash drives has increased dramatically and with huge performance gains as well. Today, the world’s largest USB flash drive can store up to 256GB worth of information.

Now a USB drive does not store as much information as a hard drive, but it is more versatile, more durable, and can survive physical damage that almost no other storage platform can survive. A USB drive is lightweight, can fit in the palm of your hand or stored easily in your pocket, and is the most widely used data transferring device in the world.

USBs have no moving parts, all your information is store electronically. What this means is that with no moving parts, USB drives are extremely durable. Most if not all USB drives can survive up to 1000G of force before failure. This means that no matter how many times you may drop a flash drive, it will survive the fall. This is a great improvement over hard drives that can fail with a single drop of only 3-5 feet.

However, USBs do have some advantages. They are small and easily misplaced or lost. There is a reason why many people now carry them with some sort of accessory that helps them hold on to their drive. USB flash drives are also more expensive than CDs, DVDs, and hard drives in the cost per GB area. Although in recent months, flash memory prices have gone down, but still are not at the level of the other media.

So are USBs a viable solution? USBs make a fantastic way to store your data so as long as you can keep track of the drive. They survive way more random accidents than any of the other media and can actually survive being submerged in water. Some USB drives are waterproof! You will have to put a little extra money for this backup solution, but it is money well spent.

Solid State Hard Drives
Solid state hard drives are the newest backup solution and have yet to hit wide spread adoption, but they make phenomenal backup devices. First and foremost, a solid state hard drive is going to be your most expensive solution; hands down, but the HUGE increase in performance may be worth it to you.

One of the unforeseen aspects to backing up information is the speed at which you do so. A 1Mb file takes almost no time at all, but if you have to backup 100GB of data, then you might as well order a pizza and wait because it is going to take a long time to backup that amount of information.

As far as capacity, Solid State hard drives do have more space than a USB drive, but at far greater cost.
SSDs cost per GB is upwards of several USD. For example, you can buy a 30GB SSD for about $100-120. Obviously this is much more costly than a conventional hard drive.

But is this performance and durability worth the cost? A SSD is worth the cost under a few conditions, if your needs do not fall into this particular conditions, then a SSD is probably not for you. First in order to really achieve the performance increase, the SSD should be hooked up with a USB 3.0 or SATA connection. These forms of data transfer far exceed a traditional USB 2.0 interface. The second thing you have to figure is if the information you are storing is worth the cost.

Overall, there are many different storage solutions and more than we didn’t even mention. The decision is up to you to decide but if we had to choose the most viable, cheapest, longest lasting backup solution; it would probably be an external hard drive or USB flash drive. The hard drive gives you space, portability, and cost; whereas the USB flash drive gives you portability, versatility, and durability.

CDs and DVDs have a tendency to get scratched to easily, and SSDs cost is a major downside, but a hard drive and USB flash drive provide the best backup solutions for your buck!

Comments

One thing to be aware of, however, is the data retention of flash. Though it is physically very tough, the charge that is stored to represent your 1s and 0s slowly leaks out. This isnt a problem for short term backups, but you cant be 100% sure your data to be there if you load your drive, throw it in a draw for several years, and come back. This is becoming more of a problem as the density of flash increases, as it correspondingly shortens the amount of time any given cell retains a charge.