USB Flash Drive
The best way to carry and exchange
Small Devices such as this hold anything up to 64GB of data and
compatible with most PCs.
Data can be very
quickly written to, or read from, this convenient portable
(Dime included to
Here is a great way to backup
'must have' files when you're traveling, or to conveniently swap
data between computers.
Since this article was first
written, USB flash drives have continued to improve in terms of
their storage capacity and read/write/transfer speed, while
delightfully dropping in price. They are even more useful
- and essential - now than they ever have been before.
Do you need a USB Flash Drive
If you're traveling and your
laptop becomes lost or broken, what would you do if you had a
vital Powerpoint presentation trapped on its hard drive?
Or if you want to
conveniently take some files from the office to home, work on
them, and then return them? How would you do that?
Traditionally, all computers
had floppy disk drives, and their 1.44MB capacity was more than
enough to handle any reasonable type of file you'd ever need to
transfer. These days, many new computers don't have any
floppy drive at all.
As programs and files became
larger, CDroms - a technology that almost died as a
non-mainstream curiosity and which Bill Gates championed -
became more common and now are almost universal. CDrom
writers also became more common, and transferring larger files
was commonly done by burning them to a CDrom.
Various other technologies,
such as Iomega's Zip (100-250MB) and Jaz (1-2GB) drives, also
briefly appeared and then disappeared again, and what once
seemed to be very high capacity, way back then, are now
Jump forward to the present
day. Few computers even have a floppy disk drive.
While most computers have CDroms, not all have CD burners, and
even though the cost of single use CDs has dropped down to less
than 50c each, the technology to write onto them is cumbersome
and slow. A newer technology - DVDrom - is becoming
commonplace and replacing the earlier CDrom drives;
happily DVDrom drives usually read CDroms too.
A new type of universal data
storage format was/is needed. Increasingly it seems that
the USB flash drive might be exactly what is now needed.
What is so special about USB
A USB flash drive is very
simple. Basically, it is built around a memory chip.
But unlike regular computer memory, which is dynamic, this is
static memory. Dynamic memory needs to have a continuous
flow of power to keep the information alive. Static memory
does not need any power to remember the information it is
holding, and it is estimated that information stored on a flash
drive can last up to ten years.
Because the USB flash drive
is basically just an intelligent static memory chip, it needs no
battery and has no moving parts. This makes it much more
convenient than any type of storage that needs power, much more
robust than any sort of disk, and generally more reliable every
A USB drive simply plugs
into a computer's USB port. And, yes, I do mean simply.
If you're running Windows 2000, Windows XP, Vista or 7, the operating
system will automatically recognize is as another disk drive,
and immediately give you full read and write access to it.
This means you don't need to
load any software to make it work. You simply plug it in,
and it is automatically available to be used. What could
be simpler than that? This makes the drives brilliantly
simple and foolproof to use.
Unlike some types of high
density disk storage, there is also never a problem with
compatibility between one computer and the next. Some
older high density disks could only reliably be read on the same
drive than had been used to write the data onto them, which
limited their value. With a flash drive, any computer with
a USB port can read and write to/from the drive.
A USB flash drive truly is
universally compatible. Its compatibility with just about
any modern computer with USB support (this includes Macs as well
as PCs), its ease of use, its reliability and robustness, its
small size and its low price all make it a definite must-have
for anyone who may need to store or transfer data.
USB flash drives are
available with different storage capacities. The 'sweet
spot' (now updated to March 2010) seems to be for a 8GB device, costing,
at online discounters, about $12. A 4GB drive costs a bit
$10, and a 16GB device is slightly more than $30. Almost
certainly capacities will continue to increase and prices
continue to fall.
In my case, I was about to
travel out of town to give a Powerpoint presentation. I
had it stored on my laptop, of course, but I absolutely didn't
want to risk anything going wrong, and so wanted to have a
backup with me in case my computer proved not to work with the
supplied data projector, or if it broke, or anything else.
I could have copied the presentation to a CDrom, but I also
wanted to be able to store fresh copies of it, anticipating the
probability that I'd make some last minute changes while
rehearsing my presentation the night before.
A flash drive seemed the
obvious and logical best solution.
And so I purchased a SanDisk
256MB Cruzer Mini USB Flash Drive, costing just under $50 (this
was back in March 2004 - the same money, three years later,
would pay for a 16 times larger 4GB drive, and two years further
on again would buy more than a 16GB and almost a 32GB drive - isn't progress a marvelous thing!).
The balance of this article uses the specifics of this unit as a
means to consider the remaining issues to do with these devices.
In March 2009, I was
recommending an 8GB unit for about $15. In March 2010, the
8GB unit remains the best buy, and the price has only slightly
lowered, down to about $12.
There is an
association for makers of these drives that has more
information about this technology.
What you get
The 256MB flash drive
(pictured at the top) is small and light. It measures
approx 2.75" x 0.75" x 0.25" and weighs 0.2 ounces.
Note : This typical dimension has remained unchanged over
the years, and similar dimensions apply to most other flash drive units,
although some come in novelty shapes as promotional gimmicks.
Higher capacity units are no larger in size and no heavier.
It comes with three
protective plastic caps that can be snapped over the end which
plugs into the USB port. This was a nice touch - allowing
you to safely lose one or even two caps and still have a spare
one to use.
On the other hand, these
days (ie 2009) the 'state of the art' in cap design has evolved.
I prefer units that have a retractable connector that simply
slides into the Flash drive body for protection - you don't have
to worry about losing the cap. Some units also have other
forms of integrated protective housing, such as a piece that
swings around. Caps are probably the least desirable
option now - and in any case, I remain somewhat ambivalent about
the need for any sort of protective covering in the first place.
It also has a cord that
could be looped around the unit and then hung around your neck
for carrying convenience.
At one end of the unit a
green light illuminates when the unit is plugged in to a USB
port. This seems to serve no useful purpose, but looks
The unit has a generous 2
I tested the unit with
various different USB ports, variously on a USB hub, a laptop,
and a desktop unit.
In all cases, the same thing
happened. Plug it in - the computer recognizes the unit,
and after a few seconds to reconfigure itself, it appears
as another disk drive in 'My Computer' or 'Windows Explorer'.
This model drive used the
new USB 2.0 high speed interface. It can transfer data to
or from the unit much faster than the older USB 1.1 interface,
but even at 1.1 speeds, it is still faster than a CD rom.
If you have a choice, it is
better to choose a unit with the USB 2.0 specification, but it
is not very important. USB 2.0 is backwards compatible
with 1.1, so either type of USB port can handle either type of
A note of caution when
When you've finished using
your USB flash drive, it is generally recommended that you
should first of all click on the 'Safely Remove Hardware' icon
that appears in the System Tray in the bottom right of your
computer's Task Bar before then unplugging the drive. This
makes sure that no programs are continuing to access the drive,
and in particular, it makes sure that no programs are in the
middle of writing some data to the drive when you unplug it.
With delayed caching
functions, you might think you've finished with the USB drive
even though the computer still has some pending tasks. If
you unplug the drive while the computer is in the middle of
updating a file, you'll probably end up with a corrupted file,
and perhaps you might end up with an entire corrupted flash
drive (due to the index file also being open or not correctly
These types of drives are
available at computer stores, Costco and other major
discounters, and - of course - online. Back in 2004, I bought mine at
Costco for $50, and then discovered I could have bought it
Update March 2010 :
Interestingly, prices are almost the same this year as last.
The lowest price I found on Amazon for an 8GB drive was $12,
only slightly less than last year's $15, and all 16GB drives
were over $30.
Update March 2009 :
These days, USB drive prices are about $10 or less for 4GB,
about $15 for 8GB, and $30 for 16 GB. 32 and 64 GB drives
are also available. The best range and pricing continues
Amazon, and this link takes you to their main menu page of
Flash drive units.
These days (March 2007),
2GB units for as little as $25
and 1GB drives for less than half that price. The 2GB is is our recommended
size, but in terms of lowest cost per GB of storage, the 1GB
unit is best value.
However, we suggest you buy one with the largest
storage capacity you can afford. They are the same size
and weight, no matter what their storage capacity is, the only
difference is the cost and the convenience. The chances
are that, over time, you'll find you need to use more and more
of its capacity, so the bigger you get, the more useful you'll
At present (March 07) the
'sweet spot' for pricing (lowest cost per MB) seems to be the
2GB units, but units can be purchased with capacities as small
as 32MB and as high as 8GB.
These are very simple and
easy to use, and represent a very convenient way of storing data
and of transferring data between computers.
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12 March 2004, last update
21 Jul 2020
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.