Buyers Guide: USB 2.0 Flash Thumb Drives Not All The Same

You may think that all USB Flash Thumb Drives are the same and therefore buy the cheapest one from Ebay or a stall at your local computer market – YOU ARE MISTAKEN and this article will tell you why

Buyers Guide: USB Flash Thumb Drives Are Not All The Same

As you can see in the photo above: USB Flash Thumb Drives vary in many ways: Price, Storage Size, Physical size and shape, Material they’re made from, Whether they can be attached to a lanyard, Retractable USB connector that doesn’t need a cap, With cap for the USB connector, with/without Activity light etc

NOTE: prices mentioned in this article were accurate as of October $2009. The Sandisk, Lexar and Dell products mentioned were on media loan for review. All other products mentioned are owned by me

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Price

When I bought a Corsair 256mb USB flash drive in mid-2006 it cost $36 ($144/GB)

Today I could buy a Corsair 16GB Flash Voyager for $36 ($2.25/GB). My point is that the price for USB thumb drives constantly falls and the capacity constantly rises.

If you need to buy one, buy it now at the capacity level you need now. Chances are by the time you need a larger drive it’ll cost next to nothing anyway

Storage Size

The largest size commonly sold in Australian stores at the moment is 32GB starting at around $70. 64GB, 128Gb are also available at a much smaller number of stores but are understandably much more expensive eg: $550 for a 128 GB drive!

I don’t think 64GB, 128GB, 256GB+ capacity USB 2.0 flash drives are going to be useful because they are limited by USB 2.0’s transfer speeds.

Speed

A 32GB Transcend Jetflash V60 drive filled with JPEG photo files connected to a Dell Studio 17 laptop took 22min 43.2 seconds to copy the photos onto the laptops hard disk. Because the write speed is half as fast it would take roughly 47minutes to fill the drive with photos copied from the laptop.

I estimate that even if a 256GB USB drive can be as fast as the Transcend drive I tested it would take 352 minutes (5 hours 52minutes) to fill it with files and 176minutes (2 hours 56minutes) to copy the files back to a hard disk drive.

This shows the limitation of the USB 2.0 connection used by USB flash drives. 32GB+ capacity USB flash drives won’t be useful in real life until the widespread implementation of USB 3.0 which is supposed to be 10 times faster than USB 2.0 and can upload and download simultaneously (USB 2.0 can only do one or the other).

Physical Size and Shape & Material

If you have a look at the top of this article you’ll see that there’s a big range in how large drives are, the smallest drive is both thinner and much shorter than the largest.

Most USB thumb drives are made from plastic so they are cheap, light and usually small. Unfortunately this means they are much more likely to break if dropped, stepped or sat on.

Some USB flash drives have an all metal case like the Lexar Jumpdrive or a mostly metal case like the Sandisk Cruzer Contour. They’re much more likely to survive being scratched by car keys, dropped, sat on etc but are heavier and fatter than the plastic drives so they make it hard to plug other devices into adjacent USB slots.

Reliability

Generally speaking USB Flash Thumb Drives have a limited number of write/delete cycles. The more heavily you use them to transfer many files/often the faster they will fail. For 99% of people this isn’t relevant because a drive will likely be discarded and replaced long before it wears out.

However I strongly advise against using cheap no name USB flash drives sold on Ebay and computer markets or given away at a conference. These are cheap/free for a reason – it’s because they’re made from low quality parts and are much more likely to fail.

I do some casual work at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the flash drives I’ve seen students using which fail and cause them to lose whole assignments are almost always cheap no-name drives.

Activity Light, Caps, Lanyards and Inbuilt U3 software

I think that flash USB drives with flashing activity lights are useful because they show when the drive is being written to. You should never pull a USB drive out of a computer when it’s light is flashing because you might lose data

USB Drives with a detachable cap are useless, sooner or later you will lose the cap.

Drives with swivel cap protection for the USB connection can be found every now and then (see 2nd drive from the left in photo at top of article). The benefit with these is they can be much smaller.

USB Drives with retractable USB connections are becoming more popular because they don’t need a cap. However this brings up other issues because the retractable slider switches are not always designed well and can get stuck.

If you like to hang your USB drive around your neck make sure it has a Lanyard loop and it’s big enough to attach your preferred lanyard.

U3 software is builtin to some USB drives and allows some applications to be run directly from the USB drive without leaving any trace of your programs or data on the computer. I personally dislike U3 software as it causes more harm than good:

All USB Flash Drives that support the new U3 standard have a locked, undeletable, 2nd drive emulating a CD-ROM drive which is setup to auto-install the U3 software on any Microsoft Windows PC you plug the Flash Drive into. If you don’t disable autorun, or hold down the shift key anytime you plug one of these drives into someone’s Windows PC the U3 software pops up and annoys you .. every .. single .. time 🙁

I have also seen U3 flash drives not work properly on Linux, Apple Mac OX, Windows 98 etc as well as not working at photo printing kiosks. So U3 sucks and you should avoid buying any USB drive with it builtin. If you’re unfortunate enough to own a USB drive with U3 builtin try these U3 uninstall instructions

4 thoughts on “Buyers Guide: USB 2.0 Flash Thumb Drives Not All The Same”

  1. Nice post.

    The speed it’s something that people overlook when they choose their pen but, like ram memories usb pen’s also have different speed that can make a huge difference.

  2. Can I ask a question please. I have a Toshiba thumb drive which seems to have lost most of it’s capacity. Has it just failed or can this lost capacity be retrieved. thankyou

  3. I definately agree that the implementation of USB3 will increase the effectiveness of higher capacity drives. We’re seeing it now. Many of the new systems are coming with USB3 and SATA drives are up to 6 GB/s transfer. I’m estimating that within the next 3 years we’ll be seeing TB transfer speeds.

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