Media in the context of this article refers to file storage. I’ve covered this before but I have a few new things to add, plus it’s just a good refresher to know this stuff.
Facts about hard drives and optical media
Western Digital used to offer lifetime warranties on consumer PC hard drives
There was a point where any WD HDD you bought had a lifetime warranty. Then WD knocked that down to 7 years. Then 5 years. Then for some models 3 or even 1. If you want to see every type of warranty WD has currently, go here. You’ll notice that nowhere is the word "life" or "lifetime".
What happened is that the manufacturing process changed, and certain components on the inside of the HDD that used to be made from metal were changed to plastic.
I’m not saying WD drives are bad because I use them myself, but the phrase "they don’t make ‘em like they used to" definitely applies.
As a testament to this, there are still 386 PCs out there that when started, the drive takes a really long time to spin up, it’s really loud once running, but it amazingly still works 25 years later and all the data is accessible and ready to rock. I seriously, seriously doubt hard drives made today will be able to boast that 25 years from now.
The vast majority of blank optical media sold today is absolute junk
It’s very easy to tell if the spindle of blank DVDs you just bought are junk or not. Look at the sides of the discs in the stack. Do you see lumps, bumps and inconsistencies? If the answer is yes, they’re crap. Don’t bother returning them because every spindle you buy will be like that unless you go with a specific brand which I’ll mention in a moment.
Truly good optical discs have no imperfections that can be seen by the naked eye. Unfortunately the only way to get these is by special order because they’re never sold in stores.
The best optical media made is Taiyo Yuden like this. Yes, it costs more but you’ll never use a better disc. If you care about what you write to disc at all, use that brand.
How long will that media last?
You know from above that off-the-shelf media today is crap, much the same way floppy diskettes turned to crap at the end of their tenure. Manufacturers churn these things out without any consideration of quality file writes or reads for the long haul.
If you do opt to use this media, don’t plan on having anything last for longer than 2 to 3 years at most before read failure. It doesn’t matter if you have the best optical drive available, because there’s nothing you can do to fix junk discs, other than not using them and buying better discs.
The best way to make a hard drive last as long as possible is to use two. A smaller hard drive for the operating system and a large one for storage. This is a time-honored way of computing and it does allow for HDDs dedicated to storage to last longer. As for how much longer, standard fare is 3 to 5 years. A dedicated storage HDD will last for 5 or greater, possibly much greater.
And yes there are plenty of instances where people have had hard drives last well beyond the 7-year mark, however it’s never wise to assume that you will achieve that just because someone else did.
USB sticks have been around long enough to prove that they can definitely withstand the test of time better than any other immediately available affordable storage media. If you write data to a USB stick, toss it in a drawer then 8 years later go to use it again, it will work. A hard drive used that way is an iffy prospect at best and I’d never trust optical media to last that long even with premium brand.
I’ll put it to you this way: If I were making a time capsule and wanted to put some data in it, I’d use nothing but USB sticks if I wanted something I could retrieve two decades later and have relative assurance it would still work and not have decayed beyond being usable.
(Side note: If you’re thinking, "Hey! USB sticks are a great idea for a time capsule! I’m doing that!", make sure you buy the kind have a cap on the end to protect the plug from corrosion. You can add in extra ‘insurance’ by wrapping where the cap meets the body with a few layers of electrical tape.)
The only known thing that can kill a USB stick is either unmounting it improperly or running out of file writes as it does have a predetermined limit – but that limit is usually only reached if you’re doing something with the stick that requires a monster amount of reading/writing, such as running a biz-card sized Linux distribution off of one. Otherwise, Flash media will give you years upon years of trouble-free use.
I strongly suggest picking up a 3-pack of USB sticks where each is 2GB a piece; it’s $22 well spent. These are definitely worth having and believe me, you will use them.
If it sounds like I’m telling you to burn discs less and use Flash media more, I am. Flash sticks don’t suffer from scratches or any damage from being a moving part because it doesn’t move.
The PCMech.com weekly newsletter has been running strong for over 8 years. Sign up to get tech news, updates and exclusive content - right in your inbox. Also get (several) free gifts.