Q: I switched to SSHD as backup medium, but read a disturbing piece stating that if left dormant too long (time frame not given), since it's not hard/physical medium with hard state changes (ones and zeroes on a platter), one might find a drive essentially worthless if not used on a regular basis. Can you enlighten us all on this new medium's stability?

— Bill R., Fort Walton Beach

A: Yes, Bill. Yes, I can. Let’s start by making sure everybody knows what you mean by “SSHD” — including you, because I think you might have used the wrong term. The acronym in question stands for Solid State Hybrid Drive, which is a device that combines a traditional spinning magnetic platter drive (a “hard disk drive,” or HDD) with what I believe you’re actually asking about, an SSD, or Solid State Drive.

I’m supposing that since you explicitly mentioned that there is no platter, that you actually mean a pure SSD. As an aside, except for the lingering name, there’s probably very little reason to make the distinction between “floppy” and “hard” drives anymore. Other than a few specialized machines built for compatibility, I haven’t seen a computer with a built-in floppy drive in ages. I’ve always preferred the term “fixed disk” or “non-removable disk.”

As the name implies, an SSD has no moving parts. It isn’t a disk at all, but rather is a dense bank of fast-access non-volatile RAM, with an electronics package that allows the computer’s disk controller to perceive it as a drive. That fast-access part is important, because SSDs are anywhere between five and 25 times faster than an HDD.

Disk-based mass storage is designed around the principle of read/write heads floating over multiple rapidly-spinning disk platters. As the drive reads and writes, the heads must physically move to the next data location. Although it happens in the blink of an eye, relatively speaking, it is still a horribly slow process compared to the speed at which a computer operates.

SSDs solve this problem by getting rid of all the moving parts. When they were first introduced, all that speed came at a steep price, and megabyte-for-megabyte, SSDs were orders of magnitude more expensive than HDDs. As market penetration advanced, the prices dropped to reasonable levels, and many new laptops now come equipped with SSDs because of the performance boost they provide.

So, what’s this about problems with long-term storage? Well, the truth is that there is a bit of an issue with SSDs over time, but it’s not as bad as some have made it sound. It comes down to the environment in which the devices are used and stored. Temperature extremes can dramatically affect the time that data remain viable on an SSD. So having an SSD in an attic or non-air-conditioned residence in Arizona would indeed shorten the life expectancy of the data.

It’s not mere days, as some would have you believe, but data corruption can be expected to occur within a matter of months to a couple of years. There is no absolute, but the more extreme the environmental conditions, the shorter the data life. By the way, it’s not that the drive itself becomes worthless. It will still store data. It’s just that any data on it could vanish under the conditions I mentioned above.

My question is: Why would you want to use a drive that’s made for super-fast access as a mere data repository? If all you’re doing is archival storage of data, does it really need to be written 25 times faster than could be done with a traditional HDD? The biggest bang you’re going to get out of your SSD buck is to use it as the drive in your system where Windows lives and creates its virtual memory swap file. Your system will boot faster, programs will open quicker, and the overall experience on the machine will improve.

Using it for archival storage will decrease your backup time. Whee. That’s a process that most people configure to occur in the middle of the night, when they aren’t using their computer anyway. So, does it really matter if it happens fast or slow?

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