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When did you last use a floppy disk for anything?

Many computers today don't even have floppy drives.  And while CDs can be used to exchange data, writing a CDrom can take time and not everyone always has a CD burner.

There's a better technology out there.  USB Flash Drives.

 
 
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USB Flash Drive

The best way to carry and exchange computer data
 

Small Devices such as this hold anything up to 64GB of data and are automatically compatible with most PCs.

Data can be very quickly written to, or read from, this convenient portable device.

(Dime included to show size)

 

 

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 laughably small.

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 Flash Drives

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 which way.

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 less than $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 industry 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 nice.

The unit has a generous 2 year warranty.

Functionality

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 device.

A note of caution when unplugging

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 updated).

Cost

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 through Amazon for $49.

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 to be Amazon, and this link takes you to their main menu page of Flash drive units.

These days (March 2007), Amazon sell 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 find it.

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.

Summary

These are very simple and easy to use, and represent a very convenient way of storing data and of transferring data between computers.

Recommended.

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Originally published 12 March 2004, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

 


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