How Long Do Memory Cards Last?

How long do memory cards for cameras last?

Another CF Memory Card Bites the Dust

In response to my article entitled “9 Things Photographers Need to Know About Memory Cards“, Richard Cole and Aloha Lavina sent in a question about memory cards and this post will serve as a response.

The Memory Card Reliability Question

How long do CF memory cards last?  Should I replace my old cards after a while, or will they still work reliably 5 years from now?

The Short Answer

While most memory cards can last for 5 years or more, there is some evidence suggesting that memory cards may be more reliable sometime after a few weeks of use and before 2 years of use.

The Technical Answer

Most of the time, memory cards will work reliably for longer than their technological shelf life.  I still own a few memory cards that are 6 years old.  They work just like new, but they are only 128 megabytes.  That would fit exactly 11 photos from my current camera.  Can you see the obvious problem?

This anecdote probably offers some insight into the question at hand, but I think the reader’s question deserves more attention.  Many wedding photographers would be glad to spend $70 for a new memory card for even a slight reduction in the chances that an older memory card could fail.  But is this wisdom, or an old wive’s tale?

The truth is that time has less to do with the longevity of a memory card than the number of write cycles.  That means that number of times that data is written to the card.  Industry insiders often refer to this as the number of “Program/Erase Cycles” or “P&E Cycles.”  Almost all modern memory cards can withstand at least 100,000 Program/Erase Cycles, and some cards can withstand as many as 10 times more cycles than standard cards.  What this all means is that, according to the card manufacturers, you could fill a memory card every day for a couple decades without having any problems.

This reliability is thanks to a technology in the controller of memory cards that tells the camera where to write the data in the card.  This technology spreads the data writes across all cells and blocks of the cards, and significantly reduces the wear and tear on certain areas of the card.  This technology is called “wear leveling.”

The Practical Longevity of Memory Cards

This is the technical answer discussed above may be convenient for a scientific analysis of the problem, but in practice it doesn’t quite work so nicely.  In my own experience, the 2 year mark seems to put a target on the back of my memory cards.  While I have had cards last MUCH longer, I have seen a dozen or so cards go bad around the 2 or 2.5 year mark.

The problems arise from a few sources.  First, I am brutal with my memory cards.  I toss them in my bag of gear, take them in and out of the card reader multiple times per day, and occasionally blend them up in a smoothie for a little extra flavor.

This wear and tear has no effect on the card’s internals, but it can chip off pieces of plastic on the outside of SD cards that get brittle after time, and can even bend the pins on a CF card.  I have also had cards fail when the tiny metal connectors became corroded from the humidity in Southwest Florida, USA.

I usually use cards until they die, but I never shoot weddings or other important shoots on a card that is two years or older.  I know that cards can easily last MUCH longer, but I’ve seen enough failures to know it’s not worth the risk for me personally.

One last consideration is that brand new memory cards have a slightly higher failure rate.  In theory, they are tested before leaving the factory but I have seen many memory cards reported as being DOA.  Consequently, I’d use a card for a couple weeks before shooting something vitally important like a wedding.

Short Answer From Lexar

Just thought I should include this short answer from Jeff Cable, as well.  Jeff is a photographer and Lexar employee and wrote an answer to this question in a comment on the post from a few days ago.  Thought I should include it here as well…

“Every memory card does have a theoretical limitation to how many times it can be reformatted (less so on cheaper cards which use a lower quality of Flash Memory), but the number is huge. Unless you format your card 10 times a day, it should last a lifetime. And…of course…if you have a Lexar Professional card, it has a lifetime warranty and can be replaced if anything does go wrong.”

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    Thanks for this detailed response, especially the info on the write cycles. It makes sense that high frequency usage would compound wear and tear on the electronics. Do you have any information on the lifespan of budget triggers like the Cactus V4? Maybe another blog post? :)

    Great work, I enjoy your site and look forward to learning more from you.

  2. says

    Thanks! I have 12 4GB CF cards I have been using for three years, and will continue to use… but… I think I will buy some of those Lexar cards with the life time warranty for this years weddings!

  3. says

    This is my first response to one of your blogs but I wanted to say thanks for all of your information.

    As for CF longevity, I can say I’ve had my 1 GB (Sandisk) since my old Nikon Coolpix 5700 (circa 2002) and it works the same as it did when I purchased (seems like a century ago). I even have an old IBM micro-drive, both cards are used today in my D200. I guess what I’m saying is that CF cards do last; unless you need to blend one in for a little flavor.

    Thanks again and please keep providing the help.

  4. says

    Please folks, something to keep in mind about any lifetime warranty: You might get the card replaced, but you might not get the data replaced. (It *is* possible in many cases to recover lost data on a “dead” card, but not always, and not always in a timely manner.

    Bottom line is that even with a lifetime warranty, it is still safest to use cards less than 2 yrs old for anything you can’t shoot again later that you really care about.

    Don’t trust baby’s first step to old/cheap cards. Don’t trust that $100k wedding shoot to cheap/old cards. The Grand Canyon? Sure, go ahead. It’ll still be there if something bad happens and you lose everything.

  5. says

    For that $100k wedding you may want to use a camera that can record on two cards simultaneously and then you shouldn’t worry how old the cards are.

  6. says

    For those that are interested, wear levelling works a bit different than what most users think of it. In fact, wear is not spread out across all blocks evenly.

    Rather, when a block can no longer be written to, the controller inside the flash card detects this and allocates a spare block to replace that block, and internally remaps that block. This generally can not be detected by the hardware that is using the flash card (the SD or CF controller) and is totally transparent. So in effect, a block is mapped out and replaced when one is needed.

    There may be specific filesystems out there that seek to minimize erases by organizing writes sequentially and what not, but that is irrelevant to the inner workings of the card.

  7. says

    The memory itself is a solid state integrated circuit so, it should last a very long time with normal use (don’t leave in sun, moist, drive over, dog eat, etc.). But the little box or case around that circuit and terminal posts might not last as long due to wear and tear.
    But some makers, like SanDisk and Lexar make cards that are supposedly tested to hold up better in adverse environmental conditions. Those are the ones the pros should use!

  8. says

    If I had the possibility to vizit the Gran
    Canyon I woud use the most reliable equi
    ment . An earthquake can close it….
    Now , the question was not answered .
    We have a photo of my father . Circa a.D
    1900 . THE QUESTION IS : Will a photo re
    corded on Memory Card stay useful for one
    century ? Memory Cards are integrated cir
    cuits . So , I am afraid that the answer
    is NO!.

  9. says

    I still have a 1 Gb microdrive from about 10 years ago. It still works but it is so sloooow that I never use it, just can’t bring myself to throw it away. My camera does have four or more times as many pixels now as I had then so that makes it seem even slower.

  10. guslb12 says

    I have sd memory which i don’t know if they work the same way but they have lasted well over two years. The only problem I’ve ever had was one getting corrupted when i unplugged it from the computer hitting the eject mass storage device link first. The cards are about 5 yrs old and i use them everyday.

  11. Doug1951 says

    As a pro I find having a dslr with two card slots to record to both is recommended for inportamnt events such as a wedding. You have a “back up” card just in case. I’ve never had a card fail to date thank goodness. (we use Lexar and sandisck-and format afeter every use).

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