Q&A: Can I back up my hard drive to a high capacity USB thumb drive?

backup-thumb-driveQuestion from Alan F.:  Hi Rick. I have a question for you. I have an older Gateway desktop PC that I upgraded by adding USB 3.0 ports as you recommended in this post. The only thing I use this particular computer for is writing blog posts in Microsoft Word before uploading them to my WordPress blogs. That’s the ONLY thing I use this PC for.

I plan to turn my blog posts into a series of books some day so I want to keep the posts stored on my hard drive in MS Word format. Right now the 7 folders containing the posts and their associated images add up to a grand total of a little over 22 Gigabytes. My question is do you see anything wrong with using a 32 GB USB thumb drive to hold backup copies of these 7 folders? I don’t need to back up anything else, just the Word files and images. 

I bought the USB 3.0 card because I need really fast data transfer speeds when backing up to the thumb drive and I’d hate to think I’ve wasted that money. A buddy of mine says thumb drives aren’t reliable enough to use for backup storage. What’s your opinion about that?

Rick’s answer:  Alan, your friend is right about USB flash drives being unreliable, and if there’s one thing you want in a back-up medium it’s reliability. Flash drives can be quite finicky, and the way Windows caches data in system RAM before actually writing it to the drive makes the risk of data loss and corrupted files very real should you remove the drive from the PC before the files have all been written to it.

I have to admit that in your case the convenience of using a thumb drive for fast, efficient archiving does make it sound appealing. If you decide to go that route there are some steps you can take that could lessen the risk to almost zero:

1 – Always “Eject” the thumb drive before pulling it out of its socket by right-clicking on it in Windows Explorer and clicking Eject. This ensures that all data that has been cached in route to the flash drive has actually been written to it before telling you it’s safe to remove the drive.

2 – Don’t trust your precious files and life’s work to a single backup drive. If you’re going to back up your files onto a USB flash drive, back them up to at least two or three of them and store the drives in different physical locations (i.e. one at your house, one at a relative’s house and a third at a trusted friend’s house). That way a fire or natural disaster is unlikely to destroy all of your backups. These days 32GB thumb drives (even USB 3.0 models) are relatively cheap. Use several of them!

3 – Copy the contents of your backup thumb drive to a special folder on a different PC.

Bottom line: You CAN safely use thumb drives to back up critical files, but redundancy is an absolute must!


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