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Eric Moore

Introduction to USB Flash Drives

Eric Moore, CUGG

September 10, 2005

USB flash drives are one of the greatest inventions since sliced bread.  They provide a quick and convenient means of moving and sharing data between computers, and can fit in your pocket unlike larger media such as floppies and CDs.
USB flash drives are electronic devices that function like CDs and floppy disks, but are based on a different design principle.  Unlike a traditional drive, which has moving parts including a rotating disk made of plastic or metal, a flash drive has no moving parts to wear out or break.  The information stored on a flash drive is maintained in non-volatile RAM.  Unlike the RAM in your computer, which loses information the moment you turn off the power, non-volatile RAM in the USB drive retains your information even when the drive isn’t connected to a USB port.  One note of caution however: the information is not permanent.  Even a flash drive can lose information over a long period of time.  You should not use a flash drive as a long-term storage option.  It is best that you always back up any critical files from your flash drive to other media such as a hard disk or CD.

You can save files to a flash drive as transparently as you would to a conventional disk.  When the flash drive is inserted in the USB port, Windows will detect the device and display it under My Computer with a drive letter.  You can save new and modified files through programs such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop.  You can also drag and copy folders and files to and from the flash drive with Windows Explorer.  When you unplug the drive, it is best to do so as you would other hot-swappable devices.  When the drive is plugged in, Windows will display a tiny gray and green icon in the System Tray in the lower right-hand area of your taskbar.  Left-click once on the icon and you should see a listing for your flash drive.  Left-click once on this listing and Windows will attempt to safely unmount the drive.  If information is still being written to the device, you will receive a warning and have to try again later.  Otherwise, you will receive confirmation when it is safe to remove the drive.  It is especially important to remember to do this when saving or modifying information on the drive.

Flash drives come in a variety of capacities ranging from a few tens of megabytes to a few gigabytes.  Smaller models are comparable to low capacity Zip disks, while larger models can store more than one CD’s worth of information.  Prices vary according to manufacturer, features, and accessories, but you will generally pay between four cents and eight cents per megabyte of storage.  (As a rule of thumb when computing the cost per megabyte, one gigabyte is equal to 1024 megabytes.)  Flash drives are sold by most online computer retailers as well as brick and mortar stores such as OfficeMax, OfficeDepot, Circuit City, and Best Buy.  When searching an online retailer’s site, you may find the flash drives listed with other storage products such as hard drives, or under a separate category for USB devices.

When shopping for a flash drive, consider the features and accessories that are provided.  Depending on the make and model, the drive may have such features as encryption support to protect your data, a write-protect switch to prevent accidental erasure of information, an LED to indicate when information is being read from or written to the device, and a hardened case making it more crush resistant.  Accessories may include a lanyard, a USB extension cable, extra caps, and/or a CD with drivers for Windows 98SE.  If a CD is not provided, you should be able to download the Windows 98SE driver for free.  Windows Me, 2000, and XP generally do not require any software be installed, unless you are using a drive with encryption.

Some drives are designed better than others.  Some have caps that may easily fall off and become lost.  Others have caps that are attached to the drive and swivel on and off.  Some drives have a hole for the lanyard on the cap, which increases the chances of losing the drive while wearing it around your neck.  Others have the hold on the drive itself.  Some drives are very slim enough that two may fit in side-by-side USB ports.  Some are thicker which makes them easier to handle and find in your pocket or purse, but allows less room for plugging them in.  For instance, if your USB port is located near the bezel of your computer case, it may not provide enough clearance for the drive.  In such cases, you would need a USB extension cable or USB hub.  For more information, you may search the internet for reviews on USB flash drives or send a message to CUGG at to request advice.

Some drives support USB specifications 1.1 and 2.0.  Others may only support 2.0.  If you are not sure whether your computer supports the newer 2.0 specification, be sure to consult your computer’s documentation or manufacturer’s website.  If possible, you will want support for USB 2.0, as it supports faster file transfers.  Some manufacturers’ drives are faster than others, so you may wish to consult product reviews in computer magazines and online for comparative performance data.

Drives with plastic cases are more likely to crack or break than those with metal cases.  I almost broke one drive while it was plugged into the back of a laptop.  I had to tip the laptop back to read some information on the bottom.  This jammed the drive downward against the tabletop and almost split the plastic cover apart.

If you use a drive with encryption, be aware that you may not be able to access your data if you use the drive on a PC that does not have the encryption drivers.  For instance, a computer at a public library probably will not have the required drivers, thus preventing you from accessing your information.  If security is not an issue to you, then you may be best off turning the encryption off.

I use a flash drive regularly on the job, and much prefer it over conventional media such as floppies, Zip disks, and CDs.  The drive I use is a 1 GB Lexar JumpDrive Sport.  Unlike most drives which have a plastic cap that slides on and off, the JumpDrive Sport has a durable rubber cap that reaches all the way around the drive.  There is no chance of it falling off when I carry it in my pocket.  I primarily use the drive when I need to carry a copy of a program to be installed on several computers.  I just copy the necessary file(s) to the drive, install the software, and then delete the files when I am finished.  (Copying files to a flash drive is easier and can be faster than it is to burn the files to a CD.)  I have even copied an entire installation CD to the drive and used it to install software on a computer with a defective CD drive.  It is also ideal for quickly copying large files from my laptop to a desktop computer, including this very blog entry.


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