Hector writes, “Whenever I unplug my USB thumb drive, a warning pops up telling me that I didn't eject the drive, and it could cause damage if I don't eject it. I usually ignore this message and it hasn't caused me any issues yet. Is this really a problem?”
We’ll admit it, Hector, we’ve occasionally done the same thing. There’s nothing more irritating than waiting for a computer to eject a thumb drive when you’ve got to be somewhere. What’s worse is trying to eject a drive only to have the computer tell you that it’s “busy.” Busy doing what? Getting a cup of coffee?
As annoying as it can be, the truth is you really should eject all USB devices before you unplug them. This is especially true for external hard drives, as the sudden loss of power can cause physical damage to the spinning discs inside them. That doesn’t have to happen too many times for the hard drive to fail, taking all that data with it.
Now that’s just for USB hard drives. USB flash drives (or thumb drives as many people call them) use flash memory so they don’t have any moving parts inside them. However, flash drives do have an important limitation: they only have a certain number of times they can be written to before they wear out. Each time a computer writes to a flash drive, that number decreases. To try to extend that lifespan, your computer will try to make fewer writes to the drive by grouping them all together.
For example, let’s say you decide to copy three different files to your flash drive. Instead of writing to your drive three separate times, Windows will hold onto them. Then when you tell Windows to eject that device, it will finish copying the files over, reducing three jobs down to one. This is where that “busy” warning comes in; Windows is letting you know that it needs to finish saving these files.
You may be wondering how long you can expect your flash drive to last. This varies based on the quality of the drive, so unfortunately there is no one true answer. However, high quality flash memory is rated to nearly one million writes, which translates to one use every day for almost 10 years.
Just remember, Hector: you must eject before you disconnect!