USB Flash Drives – Are They Any Use Now?

Many people, myself included, have been using USB drives for the last few years.

Are USB drives still useful?

Why would you want one? Should you use them at all? Have other devices or methods replaced their usefulness. Probably most importantly, are they safe to use? I’ll try to help you figure out if a USB drive is something you will find useful.

A cartoon about USB flash drives
Are USB Flashdrives Still Useful?

What is a USB flash drive?

Flash drive. Jump drive. Thumb drive. USB flash drives go by several names. To be clear, in this post, I am talking about a USB device with built in flash memory. While a USB hard drive can act just like a flash drive, I am just going to be talking about USB devices that use flash memory. Flash memory saves the data electronically instead of mechanically like a hard drive. This makes these devices a bit more durable than a USB hard drive and usually much smaller.

Here is a video all about USB flash drives I made to accompany this post:

USB Drives

Let’s look at some advantages of flash drives:

They are small in size.

USB flash drives are very convenient to carry with you. Most flash drives will attach to a key chain and not be very noticeable there. Some drives are barely larger than the USB connector needed to attach them to your computer. Most weight next to nothing.

Flash memory drives can hold a lot of data.

At time I write this, the larger flash drives are 128GB in memory size. Some netbook computers currently come with hard drives that size. While drives that large are very expensive, USB drives in the 8GB – 16GB will are in the $10 – $25 range. I would recommend looking for a drive in this range if you want one. It’s a good price to size ratio and the size is big enough for most uses. Smaller drives can still be useful too. You can fit about 1000 MP3 songs on a 4GB flash drive and they can be found for just a little more than $5.

USB  flash drives are very durable.

While they are not indestructible and few manufacturers make claim to it, good flash drives can take a lot of abuse. You can expect a good drive to withstand the abuse of being on a keychain for some time. You shouldn’t have problems with a drive that you drop. I have read numerous reports of drives going through the clothes washer with no ill effects (I have not read anyone say the opposite either). There are no mechanical parts (some drives do have a slide out mechanism) to break so they are very reliable. In short, USB flash drives are a convenient. compact, cost-effective method to save and transfer data.

How can a USB flash drive be used?

These drives are great for transferring music, photos, and nearly any other data from one computer to another.

Handy if one or both those computers cannot connect to a network. You can more larger files than you often can using email. It’s less expensive and faster than burning a CD or DVD.

You can backup important data to one.

There is a lot to be said for making digital copies of important paperwork (insurance policies, titles, passports, legal papers, birth certificates, etc..) and saving them on several different drives in different locations (safe deposit box or have a relative in a distant location hold on to one). Files like this should be encrypted so no one without the password can access them. Should your home be destroyed due to a natural disaster or fire, you’ll have a record of all those important papers.

You can run software off them.

For some software, you can take it with you and run it off your USB flash drive. For most software this will not work but it can be convenient for programs that allow it. It lets you do your work (or play your game) on another computer that does not have the software installed.

You can run Portable Apps on your USB flash drive.

While this is running software like just mentioned above, Portable Apps are designed to run off a USB drive without making any changes to the computer you run them on. The Portable Apps programs are a collection of some of the best  and most useful software available and they are all free (and legally free). I’ll be having several posts dedicated to Portable Apps on this site as they have so many advantages they deserve a whole lot of attention just to themselves. Check them out yourself in the meantime at PortableApps.com . Yeah, I’m a bid fan of Portable Apps.

It is even possible to use a USB drive as a key to secure access to your computer.

When the drive is not plugged in, no one can use the computer. There are some obvious disadvantages of doing this.

You can use some drives as additional memory for your Windows computer.

You can expand the memory of your Windows computer with the extra space on your flash drive. This can help speed up some things. Microsoft calls this feature ReadyBoost. There is some debate as to if this is any advantage on later fast computers with lots of RAM.

You can run another operating system off them.

There are several versions of Linux that can be run off a USB drive. There are also “emergency boot” disks that can be run off a USB drive. These can be very useful if Windows will not run and you need to try and get something off the computer or fix the computer. Also, some types of malware are very difficult to remove from inside Windows and using another operating system or emergency boot disk can help make scanning and removal much better.

What are the disadvantages of USB flash drives?

Losing the drive.

Because they are so compact and easy to take with you, they can be easy to leave behind. It is important to be very careful with any personal or important data if you want to put it on a flash drive and take it with you. Consider encryption for anything sensitive you might put on one.

Flash memory wears out.

While physically very durable, it is actually possible to wear out the memory circuits in a flash drive. If you routinely write (or save data) to the drive, especially large files and then erase and write more files to the drive, you can eventually start to get errors. This is not normally a problem for most of us (we tend to lose the drive or need a new larger one first) extremely heavy users may find the drive failing after a period of time. ReadyBoost and running a version of Linux that saves settings on the drive are two uses that would increase the odds of seeing this.

Malware infecting the drive.

Of all the flash drive disadvantages, this is the only one that really concerns me. There is malware that specifically installs itself to USB drives and then infects any computer it is plugged into. It then installs on any drive plugged into those computers, spreading further. The Stuxnet malware that crippled the nuclear plant Iran was building was one of the first widely seen. This software works faster than you can see and hides itself (both on the computer and the flash drive) making it very hard to discover. You can imagine what would happen if one infected flash drive is used at a school and the malware is not detected. Other students use the infected computers and soon large numbers of computers are infected. For this reason, many government agencies and business no longer allow USB drives to be used.

Should you still use a USB drive?

I do. I have several with different uses for each. I have a LaCIE drive which looks very much like a key on my keychain. It has Portable Apps with my password program on it as well as some other software I find handy. I’ll eventually have some of those important documents encrypted and saved on it also. The LaCIE key drive is noticeably slower than some other drives I have but the key shape makes up for it in convenience. I am somewhat careful about the computer I will plug this drive into. I have a couple of 8GB Patriot flash drives that go along with me if I take a bag of any kind with me. They are extremely fast (for USB 2.0 devices). They have a rubber coating to protect them from extra abuse (although the LaCIE probably sees more abuse on my keychain). These drives I use for Linux and several emergency boot disk systems in case I need to fix a computer (I’m in IT so this is fairly common even when visiting relatives). I have another cheap drive that is too slow for normal use. I use it when I have a concern a computer could be infected and want to run some malware removal software like the portable version of SUPERAntiSpyware (one of my favorite malware removal tools). Are USB flash drives still useful? I think so. Online file storage systems like Dropbox may someday take their place, but not yet. Till we reach the day that everyone has access to broadband wi-fi at all times, I think there will be a need for some form of off line data transfer like a USB flash drive.

What should you look for when you buy a USB flash drive?

  • Stick with a name brand like Patriot, Corsair, Kingston, Lexar, SandDisk, LaCIE, and Ironkey. While there are some other good manufacturers, these companies are well know for making good drives and many are well known memory manufacturers. There are also cases where free or non-brand name flash drives have come with malware on them.
  • The speed of the drive is important. I can tell the difference in speed between my LaCIE key drive and the Patriot drives. Older or cheaper drives are noticeably slower than the LaCIE. Check the reviews (Newegg and Amazon) of the drive you are looking at (or similar models) to see if other users found it fast or slow. A cheap, slow drive will feel like it is sucking your lifetime away.
  • I recommend to start looking at drives 8GB – 16GB in size. I think flash drives seem to fill up faster than hard drives. They always seem to be just a bit short of the space you need to move those files. Remember that the memory in your digital video camera may already be larger. If you have some stuff on your drive and suddenly decide you wish to take that video file of junior to the grandparents, you may find it’s not big enough.
  • USB 2.0 or 3.0 . Beware of drives that are called 2.0 compatible. A lot of cheap drives will state on the front of a package they are USB 2.0 compatible while they are only USB 1.1. While they are compatible, they do not get the speed advantage a true USB 2.0 drive would have. The name brand drives are usually more clear about this (and promote their speed which needs the faster interface). USB 3.0 is just becoming popular with newer computers. I expect to see the same thing start happening with 2.0 drives claiming 3.0 compatibility. Compatibility does not mean it is USB 2.0 or 3.0.
  • Size and shape. There are a lot of gimmicky drives. You can get cartoon and superhero shaped drives. You can find everyday objects with drives in them. I’d suggest staying away from the oddly shaped ones. Sometimes they can be a hassle to fit in some computer USB ports. Sometimes the connections on cheap small drives are a little small to actually make a reliable connection. Again, start with a name brand and read the user reviews. Removable caps get lost easy but this is usually not too much of a problem (maybe over the long run it might allow damage to the connection). A well designed drive with a built in connection cover might be a good idea.
  • Durability. Many USB flash drive makers have drives that come in weatherproof or extra durable cases. My Kingston drives have a thick rubber coating. It makes them a bit bulky to go on a keychain and the cover on one disappeared. Except for some of the high end nearly solid metal drives, the standard flash drive is going to be just as durable as many “weatherproof” versions. Also, many of these special cases will be just as bulky as a Spongebob Squarepants drive to try and fit in a crowded computer port. If you feel safer with the extra durability, go ahead. Patriot, LaCIE, and Ironkey make very expensive, metal drives that will withstand extremely harsh conditions. They are also extremely expensive. The Ironkey drives are well respected though – I have yet to see anyone say anything bad about them.
  • Built-in encryption. Software encryption that is often included on flash drives can be slow and have compatibly problems (a concern for me as I use Linux for much of my personal computing). It often wastes some of the space on the drive. Ironkey uses hardware encryption built into the drive. Lexar also has drives with hardware encryption. Again, these models are premium priced. Except for the Ironkey drives, I would prefer to use other encryption software to protect data. There is extremely good and free software available to encrypt your data.
  • Software. In general, most of the software included with flash drives has a lot of disadvantages. The first thing I do with a new USB drive is scan it for malware, copy any files or software on it from the maker, and reformat the drive erasing anything on it. Many times the included software and formatting will slow the drive down. Also, the included software will leave traces on a computer it is used on after it is removed. The Portable App programs don’t have this problem and there is most likely a Portable App program to do anything you might wish to do. You may see Portable Apps soon being included on drives when you buy them.

A USB flash drive can be very useful.

Eventually, they will be replaced with new technology just like the floppy drive and the Zip drive are no longer used. USB drives need to be used with care as malware is a very serious concern right now.  Be sure to scan any flash drive when you connect it to your computer before you open it. For those in IT, it is an important tool. Buy a decent sized, name brand drive and you’ll find yourself finding all sorts of use for them. I hope you found this post useful. If you did, please take the time to Google+1, Facebook Like, and share it with your friends.