External SSDs have become a popular option for external storage due to their fast speeds and compact size. However, some users may be concerned about relying on external SSDs for long term storage due to fears about data retention and hardware failure over time.
How do external SSDs work?
An external SSD is functionally similar to an internal SSD, but housed in a portable enclosure with interface ports to connect to a computer. Like an internal SSD, an external SSD uses flash memory chips rather than a spinning hard disk platter. This allows fast access speeds, quiet operation, and resistance to shocks.
Data is stored in cells within the flash memory chips. External SSDs today predominantly use 3D NAND flash memory, which stacks flash memory cells vertically to increase density. 3D NAND is considered more reliable than older planar NAND flash.
The external SSD connects to a computer through an interface like USB, Thunderbolt, or USB-C. The computer accesses the external SSD as external storage, allowing files to be read from or written to the drive.
Are external SSDs reliable for long term data retention?
One concern with using external SSD storage long term is whether the data will remain intact and accessible over years of use. This requires examining how reliable and stable the flash memory and components are.
Overall, modern external SSDs are reasonably reliable for long term data retention, for a few key reasons:
- 3D NAND flash memory is fairly reliable and stable, with a long lifespan before memory cell degradation. Endurance is typically rated at hundreds to thousands of write cycles.
- Controllers and firmware manage flash memory to optimize lifespan and minimize errors.
- Data is distributed across the flash memory, so a few failed memory cells do not necessarily cause data loss.
However, there are factors to keep in mind for long term retention on external SSDs:
- Lower-quality drives may use less reliable components or firmware.
- Without sufficient airflow, drives may thermal throttle, reducing lifespan.
- Heavy frequent writes will consume drive endurance faster.
Overall, quality external SSDs from reputable vendors that are not heavily abused should retain data reliably for 5 years or more. But heavier long term use or lower-quality drives introduce higher risk of failure.
Best practices for long term external SSD storage
To maximize the lifespan of an external SSD for long term storage:
- Choose a high-quality external SSD with proven components and firmware.
- Avoid extremely heavy write patterns if possible.
- Allow proper airflow around the drive to prevent overheating.
- Use the drive in a proper enclosed case, avoiding physical damage.
- Periodically read data from the drive to check for integrity.
- Maintain backups of critical data.
Do external SSDs fail or wear out faster than hard drives?
Because external SSDs have no moving parts, they are less prone to sudden mechanical failure than external hard disk drives. However, SSDs do have a limited lifespan and may wear out over time after substantial use.
Here are some key differences in longevity between external SSDs vs hard drives:
|Mechanical failure risk||Lower||Higher|
|Lifespan of memory media||Limited write cycles before wear||Gradual surface wear over time|
|Sudden failure modes||Less common||More potential points of failure|
|Long term data retention after write||Good with 3D NAND||Proven technology|
Overall, both technologies carry risks of failure and limited media lifespan if used heavily over many years. SSDs are less prone to sudden failure, but their memory cells have a finite write lifespan. Hard drives have proven reliable for long term storage if not heavily used.
What causes external SSDs to fail?
While external SSDs are generally reliable, they can eventually fail for a variety of reasons:
- Write endurance exhausted – Flash memory cells wear out after thousands of write cycles. Heavy write patterns will use up the drive’s rated endurance faster.
- Component failure – The SSD controller, firmware, or other components can fail, rendering data inaccessible.
- External damage – Physical damage from impacts can break connectors or destroy the drive circuits.
- Overheating – Excessive heat can degrade the flash memory cells and components.
- File system corruption – Errors or power loss during writes can corrupt the file system metadata.
- Manufacturing defects – Imperfect manufacturing can leave cells or parts prone to early failure.
Many of these failure mechanisms are mitigated with proper handling and use. And advanced SSD firmware helps minimize errors and protect data. But over time, some amount of SSD failure is inevitable.
Warning signs of external SSD failure
These issues may indicate an external SSD is failing:
- Frequent disconnects, stuttering, or slow performance
- Inability to access or recognize the drive
- Corrupted data returning unreadable files
- Visible physical damage to the enclosure or connectors
- Overheating when operating
- Error messages related to bad sectors, data corruption, etc.
If such issues occur, stop using the drive immediately and have data recovered by specialists if needed. Continued use will likely exacerbate any failure.
Can you repair and replace parts in an external SSD?
Unlike internal hard drives, external SSDs are not designed for end-user repair or replacement of internal components. This is due to a few factors:
- The small size and dense circuitry leave little room for component swapping.
- Connectors and chips are often permanently soldered to the board.
- Openly tampering with the device will void any warranty.
- Specialized tools and a cleanroom may be required for part replacements.
Some components like the external enclosure or interface cable can be replaced, but this requires matching replacements. Overall, external SSD repair is limited compared to internal hard drives.
In most cases, it is not feasible or cost-effective to repair a failed external SSD. Data recovery services can rescue data off failed drives. But the drive itself is typically replaced rather than repaired if it fails.
Options for repairing a damaged external SSD
- Replace failed interface cables or the external enclosure if possible.
- Specialty data recovery services can repair drives in a cleanroom if cost-effective.
- Contact the manufacturer to see if they offer a replacement/repair service.
- For minor damage, ask the vendor if repairs under warranty are possible.
- Otherwise, replacement of the entire external SSD is usually required.
How long do external SSDs really last?
The lifespan of an external SSD varies substantially based on usage patterns and environmental factors. However, today’s quality external SSDs typically last for:
- 2-5 years of very heavy usage with significant data writes per day
- 5-10 years of moderate to heavy use as a primary external drive
- 10+ years of occasional external storage and backup use
For typical consumers who use an external SSD for backup or secondary storage, it should function for 8-10 years or more barring any accidents. But heavy users pushing the drive’s limits daily will substantially reduce its lifespan.
You can maximize lifespan by choosing a quality drive, allowing airflow, avoiding excessive writes, and handling it with care. With modest use, today’s SSDs can retain data for many years.
Comparing external SSD and hard drive longevity
|Heavy usage lifespan||2-5 years||3-7 years|
|Moderate usage lifespan||5-10 years||7-15 years|
|Light usage lifespan||8-15 years||10-20 years|
For light usage in optimum conditions, hard drives may outlast SSDs by a small margin. But for general external storage use, SSDs and hard drives have broadly comparable usable lifespans.
How can you monitor external SSD health and lifespan?
To monitor the condition of an external SSD and catch issues before failure, you can utilize:
- S.M.A.R.T. data – Tools can read health metrics like drive temperature, bad sectors, write errors, etc. from the SSD firmware.
- Write cycle counts – Will show how much of the SSD’s write endurance has been consumed.
- Benchmark speeds – Drive errors can cause performance to degrade over time.
- Checksum utilities – Can validate integrity of data files stored on the drive.
- Visual inspection – Check for any physical damage or deterioration.
Monitoring tools paired with periodic full backups can prevent unexpected data loss. At the first sign of trouble, you can replace the drive before failure.
While no storage device lasts forever, modern external SSDs are reasonably reliable for long term storage. Their lack of moving parts gives them an edge for shock resistance and portability. But the limited lifespan of flash memory must be considered when using SSDs for archival data storage.
Quality external SSDs should outlast typical product lifecycles when used appropriately. And they offer huge speed benefits over mechanical hard drives. But mission-critical or archived data is still best stored on multiple drives, and backed up periodically to new media to be preserved indefinitely.