How Long Do Memory Cards Last?

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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.”

40 thoughts on “How Long Do Memory Cards Last?”

  1. 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.

    1. I have a permanent solution for all of you.
      buy m-discs, unlike traditional burnable dvd media which uses a corruptable dye layer that WILL GO BAD NO MATTER HOW YOU STORE THEM, THE M-DISC USES A ROCK LIKE METAL LAYER that is not affected by heat, cold, etc.

      and the m-discs are pretty reasonable in price.
      you can buy a five pack of m-disc dvds (4.7 gb dvd) for around 15 to 20 dollars.

      you need an external lg m-disc compatible burner which is also pretty cheap to buy.

      you can get an m-disc compatable burner by lg from walmart for about 30 bucks.

      transfer your photos from sd cards to m-disc and viola!!!

      your photos will last a lifetime,
      the m-disc was tested by the military to last for hundreds of years without any data loss.

  2. 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. 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. 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.

    1. Well, Never!
      Why would you need to format your card anyway ? just delete all your files or quick format them if you have to.
      Also if using SD cards it worth to quick format your SD once with SD(™) card formatter tool https://www.sdcard.org/downloads/formatter_4/ with format size adjustment on. [ Caution size adjustment on removes other partitions

  5. 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. 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. 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. 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!.

    1. This concern came up a few years ago, when deciding on “THE” most reliable CD or DVD, that would hold the data for archival purposes for that 100 year period.

      The answer is similar. Assuming the memory card can hold it’s data for 100 years, will there be a data reader capable or reading that data and writing to the next newest technology?

  9. 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. 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. 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).

  12. Thanks for the post – I was looking this up on google after my card suddenly started giving me corruption errors when transferring files to my PC. The files seem to transfer OK after I click “Try again” but I guess the card is just about dead. It’s been about 2 years and I have only been using that one card for a LOT of usage.

  13. So if I am just using the Micro SD Card as storage (drop a movie or file onto the card as its permanent location) it should last for a very long time as I am not writing and erasing the files?
    I basically am converting some of my DVDs into a video file for my tablet and then loading them onto a Micro SD Card and leaving them there. When the card is filled I wont be erasing anything just reading from the card.
    Would this make them last longer?
    Sorry, I know it is the same question 2 times but I just wanted to make sure you understood the question.

  14. i think a branded CF will last for decades as long as you keep it in a super dry place all the time. since it has no moving parts, moisture is only its enemy and may rust the internal circuits. other than that, just dont ever drop it and store in its case all the time and it can be passed on to your son

  15. I’m having problems getting the correct color on items that I photograph. Example: A red Shirt comes out to be purple or
    orange. Gray is sometimes blue.
    Is this problem from my Sony Cyber-shot camera or my SanDisk? I take pictures all the time and when I download them, I delete them from the disc.
    My Sandisk is probably more than 2 years old.

  16. At a media facility we Have been using SolidState CF & CFast cards since they have came out. Using them in an audio, video, file format; out of 300 CF & CFast cards none of them have ever failed….. The 2 year failure that is stated in this blog is incorrect.. Some of these cards are as old as 1995 and still work fine… But ours are kept in storage cases in our media news room.

  17. My oldest card I still use for certain tasks is a 8MB PCMCIA card which I used in a Kodac DC40 still works. Oldest CF Card I have in use is a Lexar 128MB card from 2001 which still retains info and a variety of old SanDisk 256MB and up. — For most of my shooting, I’ve been using the Lexar Pro 1000x 32GB UDMA 7 card which has worked fine last 4 years but I am considering upgrading to a new one and retire that one for misc stuff. I wear out cameras before I do the cards. 🙂 I’ve had some bad ones, mostly counterfeit ones I got on a good deal and didn’t know they were such. Won’t do that again. (I hope).

    I photograph a lot of funerals for free for families of fallen heroes and am glad my camera allows for 2 different formats… so I always have an automatic backup which I’ve never had to rely on due to the card, just due to brain farts.

    As far as magnetic media, I still have floppy disk holding pics from my Sony Mavica. Storage plays a role there and quality of the floppies. 🙂 (Yes, they are also backed up to another format.)

    Feel free to mail me any old CF cards after you have wiped them. Ecspeially 8GB or smaller cards. I use them in old technology.

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