The trade-off for size, though, is speed. Image Credit: AliExpress
The trade-off for size, though, is speed. Image Credit: AliExpress

Cloud storage is great, but the humble USB flash drive is tried and true — and it isn’t going anywhere just yet.

From backing up your data to installing operating systems, it’s still incredibly useful. But there are some things you should know before you purchase your next flash drive so that you can get the most out of it.

1. Similar Specs Can Be Deceiving

If you find yourself with two similar flash drives and asking, “Both of these have USB 3.0, are made by the same brand, and have 64GB of storage. Why does one cost more?”, the answer is quality of components, which dictate how well your drive will perform.

Two things determine the speed of a flash drive: the USB port itself and the flash drive’s components.

USB 3.0 is much faster than USB 2.0, but the standard must be supported by both the USB port and the drive itself. If your flash drive is USB 3.0 but your computer’s port is USB 2.0, transfers will happen at USB 2.0 speeds. (Roughly speaking, USB 3.0 transmits data at 100 MB/s while USB 2.0 transmits at 15 MB/s.)

The other thing that affects speed is the type of flash memory and controller used in the stick. The best drives use the same types of advanced controllers and quality of memory that are found in solid state drives (SSD) while cheaper drives use cheaper components, which aren’t as good at transferring and storing data.

Here’s an example that illustrates: the Sandisk Extreme USB 3.0 drive writes at around 200MB/s while most other USB 3.0 drives transmits at 100 to 110 MB/s. They might seem like “the same” on the surface, but you get nearly double the speed. Worth it? You bet.

2. Smaller & Thinner: Not Always Better

One problem with most flash drives is that their bodies are so big that they make it troublesome to use adjoining USB ports when plugged in. The good news is, flash drives tend to follow Moore’s law, which means that they’ve become smaller and smaller over the years.

The trade-off for size, though, is speed. Smaller flash drives are convenient and portable, but once they get too small, they can’t fit those quality components that were mentioned above.

Better components usually require more physical space, and cutting size means compromising. As Moore’s law picks up in coming years, we’ll eventually see thinner and smaller flash drives that offer the kind of performance you see on higher-quality drives — but they aren’t here yet.

So if you need convenience and portability, a smaller drive is fine, but if you want a powerful drive, then you may need to settle for bigger. Need a flash drive that’s small enough to carry around anywhere, looks good, and isn’t expensive? We recommend looking at the Transcend JetFlash Ultra Slim.

3. Limited Lifespans, But That’s Okay

On average, flash drives last for 3,000 to 5,000 write cycles. Seeing a hard number after which your flash drive will stop functioning might cause panic, but don’t worry. That’s a lot of cycles, and most flash drives won’t ever last that long. (For comparison, most flash drives last for millions of read cycles.)

You’re much more likely to damage your flash drive’s connector while inserting/ejecting it, or even end up losing it. At the bare minimum — 3,000 write cycles — that’s still more than four years of life if you use that pen drive twice every single day.

The only situation where you need to be slightly worried is if you’re using a flash drive as a portable PC, in which case those cycles will run out faster. But even then, you’ll be fine as long as you keep regular backups of your data. 

4. MicroUSB Ports: When They’re Useful

Android users are always tempted by flash drives that have both a normal USB port as well as microUSB port, like the Kingston Micro Duo. “I can transfer stuff from my PC to my Android phone so easily!” Well, kind of.

You still need to check if your Android phone supports USB OTG (On-The-Go), a standard that allows your Android to read external flash drives. The easiest way to figure that out is to check your phone’s box, your manufacturer’s website, or just Google it.

If your device doesn’t support USB OTG, then buying a flash drive with a microUSB port is pointless. However, if your phone does support USB OTG, then it’s a nifty way to add some extra storage.

5. Rugged & Secure Flash Drives

Several flash drives are designed specifically for users who want to keep data safe on their person at all times. Rugged drives offer protection from physical damage, like when you leave it in your pants and throw it into the wash. Secure flash drives offer protection from humans who want to hack or steal your data.

Is your data so sensitive that it must be encrypted in addition to being password-protected? If yes, then buy a secure USB drive, such as the ones offered by IronKey or the Aegis Secure Key, which actually has a physical keypad for entering a password.

Honestly though, most users don’t need this level of security and can save a lot of money by getting a regular flash drive and password-protecting the USB for free.

As for rugged drives, they aren’t as useful. Cloud storage is cheap enough to create backups of whatever non-sensitive information you are putting on your flash drive, and in case the drive gets crushed or demolished, you’ll still have the data. If that happens, just buy a replacement and transfer the data onto it.

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