The plunging price of storage

Four or five years ago, as I was working on an update to Windows XP Inside Out, I remember getting into a brief back-and-forth with a colleague over how to describe the price of USB flash drives. I wanted to say that devices of a specific size were available for “reasonable” prices, and my colleague contended that every reader’s circumstances were different, and that “reasonable” meant different things to different people. We wound up calling them “inexpensive.”

OK, here’s the punch line. We were talking about drives that look positively puny now: 64MB drives going for around $50. And we were both impressed a year or so later to discover that some 1GB flash drives (slow, bulky, with nonstandard designs) were finally available for under $100. I still have a handful of those old, small drives hanging around. They’re useful for moving drivers and downloads between machines, but that’s about it.

Roughly a year ago, I picked up some high-performance 1GB drives for $24, which I called a “remarkably low price” back in January. This week, I’ve seen multiple ads offering flash drives with the ReadyBoost logo (meaning they had passed a meaningful speed test): $18 for 2GB , $30 for 4GB, and roughly $50 for 8GB. The 4GB and 8GB sizes are big enough to hold enough entertainment for a cross-country flight: a movie or two, a week’s worth of recorded TV programs, or 100 albums. They’re also considerably easier to use (and more importantly, to reuse) than blank DVD media, which offers the same storage at roughly 1% of the price.

Given the current price-performance curve, I expect to see inexpensive 128GB flash drives within the next five years. At that price, I should be able to store 1000 albums or a dozen high-definition movies on a thumb drive or a hybrid drive I can plug into a notebook. As a consumer, I think that’s pretty cool. If I were an entertainment industry executive, I’d be much more concerned. Either way, it sure does change the definition of “portable.”

6 thoughts on “The plunging price of storage

  1. One of the canards that’s constantly brought up re: flash drives is the fact that you only get so many write cycles for a given drive. I’d love to see you do some kind of real-world testing — perhaps with one of the Sysinternals tools — to get an idea of exactly how many read/write operations are involved with a given drive on an average day, and then figure in wear leveling and all the other factors to compute how much of a life you’d expect to get out of a flash drive when used as a substitute for a hard drive.

    My gut feeling is that you won’t come anywhere near to approaching the lifetime of duty cycles for a given flash drive before it becomes technologically obsolete.

  2. Of cuorse, Serdar, that depends on how often you use it. I have a 5-year-old PNY 1GB drive (which cost $120 when I bought it) that still works great, because I only use it a couple of times a month. If I were using it every day, say for portable Firefox, it might have died long ago. Is there such a thing as “an average day” for everyone? No, everyone’s usage is diferent.

  3. My big thing with flash drives is trying to figure out why my older ones cannot work with Vista.

  4. I’ve had several older USB sticks die on me after what seemed like a small number of usage cycles (guessing less than 100.) They fail very much like a floppy disk; either the data becomes corrupted or the stick is unreadable.

    I’ve also had several of my SD cards die in a similar fashion. (SD cards would be the new floppies for portable devices.)

    I’ve never bothered to run “recovery” utilities on the dead memory; the sticks were 16M and 64M and the SD cards had just 32M and 64M and no data was on them that I didn’t have backed up.

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