The free USB sticks sitting in your drawer are a bit nastier than you thought

The free USB sticks sitting in your drawer are a bit nastier than you thought

MicroSD card without text built into the USB controller
Zoom in / An “unknown source” microSD card is soldered onto the USB interface board to act as temporary NAND storage.

CBL Data Recovery

When a German data recovery company recently conducted a study of failed flash drives sent to it, it noticed some interesting and bad trends.

Most were cheap sticks, the kind that companies gave out as promotional giveaways, but not all of them. What surprised CBL Data Recovery was the number of NAND chips from reputable companies, such as Samsung, Sandisk or Hynix, that were found inside cheaper devices. The chips, which showed a clear drop in capacity and reliability when tested, had their manufacturer’s logo either removed by corrosion or sometimes written in random text.

Sometimes there was no NAND chip at all, but a microSD card – perhaps also discarded during quality control – cleaned of IDs and integrated into the USB interface board. “There is less and less reliability regarding no-name products,” CBL wrote (in German, roughly translated on the web). CBL found branded products containing similar chips and soldered cards but did not mention any specific brands in its report.

Beyond the obvious physical bits, the overall trend in NAND storage cells has contributed to a decline in overall reliability, according to CBL. SLC, or single-level cell storage, has one bit per cell, a 1 or a 0, which are two different voltage levels. The QLC (quad level) chip uses four bits per cell, which means 16 voltage levels must be correct. QLC allows for denser storage, but as we noted earlier: “As the data density of NAND cells increases, their speed and write endurance decrease – it takes more time and effort to read or write one of the cell’s eight discrete voltage levels than to obtain or set a simple on/off value.” It is okay.”

With high-quality chips, a lot of work goes into debugging and temperature control. With chips that aren’t actually chips or were plucked from a quality control bin and their logo erased, “data loss is not surprising,” CBL wrote.

Finally, the CBL report says don’t put anything you really need to keep in long-term storage on a USB stick. This may not be a revelation to those who have read about proper storage practices, but CBL has additional recommendations for those who keep anything at all on USB devices:

  • Keep it stored in a cool place
  • Don’t use promotional sticks for anything of importance
  • Writing and reading to a USB stick once or twice a year, to correct errors (at least on higher quality sticks)
  • Do not fill up the entire disk, if you can avoid it, to give a chance for data maintenance and error correction.

The market for affordable, pocket-sized storage units has proven to be a chaotic market over the past few years. Indeed, high-capacity storage units are getting cheaper, but not at every corner — at least, not when you look closely. In mid-2022, a 30TB external SSD was listed at Walmart and AliExpress for just over $30. Inside were two microSD cards, hot-glued to a USB 2.0 pad and loaded with firmware that warped itself into Windows and rewrote its limited space over and over as I copied to it.

Likewise, the “16TB” SSD, listed at a relatively reasonable $70 and with dozens of five-star reviews, appears to actually be worth 64GB of microSD cards, as Review Geek discovered. We noticed a slew of similar negatives when we wrote about it, along with the issue of Amazon sellers being able to disappear once the jig is up, only to reappear soon after with a new batch of microSD cards being sold with significantly more counterfeits. capacity.

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