Backup Media Then

Not long ago there were only two choices available for backup media: magnetic tape for large backups or 3.5-inch floppy disks for small jobs. That was it. Back then it was simple; if you wanted to protect yourself against data loss, you invested the time and money required to make it work.

Backup Media Now

In today's fast-paced world of ones and zeros, magnetic tape still has a home. Because of its stability and massive storage capabilities, magnetic tape is used by corporations to backup terabytes of data every day.

But neither magnetic tape nor 3.5-inch disks come close to satisfying the diverse backup needs of today's small businesses and home computer owners. Backup media for small computer systems must be versatile, inexpensive, fast, and most importantly, easy to use.

The challenge in choosing a data backup software output media today isn't a lack of choice. But because there are so many options, it's knowing which one best satisfies your needs.

Backup Media Pros and Cons

To help you decide which one's best for you, we've listed the most common removable backup media with strengths and weaknesses for each:

3.5-inch Floppy Disks


3.5-inch disks are inexpensive, portable and most computers have the hardware to use them.


The 3.5-inch floppy has little backup potential, as single disks only hold 1.44 megabytes (MB) of information (approximately 400 pages of text), making them useful only for backing up small files and folders. They also have slow data transfer speeds, are easily damaged, are vulnerable near magnets and only preserve data for a few years.

USB Flash Drives (Also called pen drives, jump drives, thumb drives, key drives and memory sticks)


USB flash drives are fairly new and extremely popular. Two variations are USB 1.0 and USB 2.0; the USB 1.0 stores up to 512MB and USB 2.0 drives currently hold up to 4GB (over 4,000MB) of data. USB 1.0 drives are good for small backups and USB 2.0 drives are excellent for large jobs.

The transfer speeds on USB flash drives are also excellent. A USB 1.0 transfers from 1.5 to 12 megabits per second (MBs) and the USB 2.0 transfers up to 480 MBs. USB flash drives are reusable (if you want to store one backup at a time) or can only be used once for archiving.

USB flash drives are a snap to install (just plug into a free USB port on your computer), durable and highly portable-fitting into the smallest of pockets. They have up to a decade of data retention and are not vulnerable to magnets. USB 1.0 drives are fairly inexpensive.


High-end USB 2.0 drives can be expensive and if you purchase a new USB flash drive for each new archive performed, your backup costs can increase dramatically. Due to their small size, USB flash drives are more easily misplaced.

Zip Drives


Zip drives are a "second generation" floppy disk, which some predicted would eventually replace the 3.5-inch floppy disk. Zip disks, are faster, more durable and hold more information than 3.5-inch disks.

There are three different sizes of zip drives; 100MB, 250MB and 750MB - all are fine for small backups and are less expensive than USB flash drives.

Zip disks can be used over and over for backup or once as archive storage. Zip drives are easy to install and share between computers and are fairly portable - some newer models using USB ports. Zip disks have a data-retention life of up to a decade.


In order to use Zip disks, you must also buy the Zip Drive, which can be expensive. Storing several disks can be cumbersome since there isn't a big selection of Zip storage cases available. Zip disks are not as portable as a flash drives and, unfortunately, are becoming less common.

CD Technology


CD burning technology is an especially good media for backup archives. CDs come in two varieties - rewritable CDs (CD-RWs), which can be rewritten up to 1,000 times, and CD ROM discs (CD-Rs), which are cheaper than CD-RWs, but are limited to one use.

Holding between 650 to 700MB of data, CDs are more than adequate for small backups and have a transfer rate of 3 MBs for 20x CD drives and 8MBs for 52x CD drives.*

CDs are portable, easy to store and carry and most new computers come with CD burning drives. CDs are an inexpensive backup media, have a 5 to 10 year lifespan and are not susceptible to magnets.


If your computer does not have a CD burner, you'll have to consider the cost of the hardware and installation fee. CDs can become scratched and unusable through mishandling and daily use.

DVD Technology


DVD burning technology is a fine choice for small or large backups since regular DVDs can store 4.7 GB and dual-layer DVDs store 8.5 GB. Like CDs, the discs come in both multi-use DVD-RW and single-use DVD-R. DVD-Rs can be used once for archives or, if you use DVD-RWs, you can write to them over and over again (up to 1,000 times). DVD transfer speeds vary from 3.96 MBs for 3x DVD drives up to 21.13 MBs for 16x DVD drives.**

DVD technology is a good choice if your computer already has a DVD burner since DVDs are inexpensive. DVDs have an incredible data retention lifespan - 30 to 100 years - and aren\'t susceptible to magnets. DVDs are portable and share many of the same qualities as CDs, including ample storage choices.


If you must buy a DVD burner and pay to have it installed, your investment cost rises. If handled improperly, DVDs can become scratched and unreadable.

External Hard Drives


External hard drives are hard drives, separate from your computer system, which you can dedicate to backup storage. With a storage capacity of 40GB to over 250GB, external hard drives are perfect for the large backup needs. Utilizing USB technology, external hard drives transfer data at speeds up to 480 MBs for USB 2.0 drives.

External hard drives are simple to install - a cord plugs into your computer's USB port. External hard drives are portable, self-sufficient storage units that can be taken off-site for storage safety and are a must for anyone serious about large, frequent backups. They are durable and have long data retention-about 15 years.


Like your computer, external hard drives can be damaged if dropped or mishandled and are somewhat vulnerable to magnets External hard drives are an expensive investment, ranging from about $100 to hundreds of U.S. dollars for models with the most storage.


*OPTICAL STORAGE TECHNOLOGY ASSOCIATION (OSTA): Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, Revision 1.00. (January 2003).

**OPTICAL STORAGE TECHNOLOGY ASSOCIATION (OSTA): Understanding Recordable & Rewriteable DVD, First Edition. (April 2004).