Our internet speeds are faster than ever. There’s plenty of online storage available for free or cheap prices. But the humble USB drive is still essential in 2016.
As fast as the internet is, it can’t beat the speeds you get from flash drives. Plus, when you have to transfer several gigabytes of data, why would you want to bottleneck your bandwidth?
Now, USB flash drives come in all shapes and sizes. You get rugged ones for protection, disguised USB keys to hide them in plain sight, and some funky designs too. But sometimes, all you need is sheer speed.
A New Breed of USB Drives
Technology has a habit of shrinking in size as the years go by. And that has happened to an incredible degree with solid state drives (SSDs). You can now actually get these in the same size as USB flash drives.
A solid state drive is different from the memory that most thumb drives use. While they are both basically flash memory, the quality of materials and the construction is much different. Typically, an SSD is of a much higher quality. Without getting into the technical details, here are some notable differences:
- An SSD-based thumb drive will cost more than a flash memory thumb drive.
- SSD-based thumb drives have better “fault tolerance”. Fault tolerance is what keeps your data safe when you remove the drive without clicking “Safely Remove” or “Eject” on the screen.
- SSDs use better quality flash memory, claiming more write cycles than flash memory. In plain English, the SSD will last longer.
Choosing Between SSD and Regular USB Drives
It’s not a simple choice between the two. From the same manufacturer, an SSD-based thumb drive is faster and better than a regular flash thumb drive. But some flash thumb drives will be as good as low-quality SSD thumb drives too. Also, SSD USB drives cost significantly more than regular flash drives.
As a thumb rule, here’s what to take away:
- Buy an SSD-based USB drive if you will use the drive regularly, need quick speeds to transfer data, and use it a little roughly. Important note: All decent SSD drives use USB 3.0 or 3.1 ports, and the high speeds work only on those ports.
- Buy a simple flash USB 3.0 drive if you are on a budget and need to read data from the drive more than write data to the drive. It’s not slow, mind you. It’s just slower than SSDs. Chances are, you’ll still be fine with the speeds.
With that in mind, it’s time to pick. The choice is yours, based on budget.
1. Fastest USB Drive Around $20: 32GB Lexar JumpDrive P20 ($20)
The Lexar JumpDrive P20 has only 32GB of storage, but what it lacks in space, it makes up for with speed. UserBenchmark, which records real-world USB read/write speeds from regular users, ranks it as one of the best drives in this budget.
Its average read speed is 141 MB/s and its average write speed is 53 MB/s, which is nothing to write home about. But in this budget, it’s a Ferrari.
If you want more storage instead, don’t bother looking up the read/write speeds. Buy the 64GB drive that is closest to the $20 budget from Sandisk, Kingston, or Corsair. It will give you the average speeds that this price category is capable of.
2. Fastest USB Drive Around $40: 64GB Sandisk Exreme ($29)
For 64GB drives, it’s a better idea to spend a little more than $20 and get the Sandisk Extreme CZ80. It garnered rave reviews from almost everyone who tested it, and WireCutter thinks it’s the best.
It’s not the fastest, though. The quickest drive still remains the 64GB Lexar Jumpdrive P20 ($40). But at $12 more than the Sandisk, and with a fiddly sliding mechanism, it’s not worth it. While the Lexar has a higher read speed, its write speed is slower than Sandisk.
In the end, Sandisk’s 246 MB/s read speed and 196 MB/s write speed is a better deal than anything else in this price. And it’s second fastest overall.
3. Fastest USB Drive Around $60: 128GB Patriot Supersonic Rage 2 ($50)
While the Patriot Supersonic Rage 2 is technically an SSD-based thumb drive, it doesn’t exactly perform like one. That said, it’s faster than the average 128GB flash drive for this price.
The folks at AnandTech reviewed the 256GB version of the drive, and thought it was pretty good. It comfortably outperforms the Sandisk Extreme’s read speeds with an average of 275 MB/s. But it falters on the write speeds, registering an average of 140MB/s.
Storage Review pitted it against the 128GB Sandisk Extreme Pro ($69), and found a similar shortcoming. In fact, the Extreme Pro might be a better alternative if you’re willing to shell out a few more bucks. It has read speeds of 229 MB/s and write speeds of 211 MB/s, which makes it faster on balance. This is why you can’t go by the advertised specs alone when buying a flash drive.
4. Fastest USB Drive Around $80: 256GB Patriot Supersonic Magnum 2 ($90)
There is no doubt in my mind about the best value-for-money deal around in SSD-based flash drives. The Patriot Supersonic Magnum 2 is an incredible proposition.
Forbes tested the Magnum with two batteries of tests, both real-world and synthetic. CrystalDiskMark, one of the best flash drive speed testers, recorded a read speed of 380 MB/s and a write speed of 327 MB/s. That’s far higher than anything else you’ll get in this price range.
There’s also the Patriot Supersonic Rage 2 ($90), which isn’t as fast the Magnum. On the outside, it has a rubber housing that protects it from drops and spills. Not a bad deal, if the durability ranks higher for you than speed.
5. Fastest USB Drive Above $100: 512GB Patriot Supersonic Magnum 2 ($165)
The 256GB version is the best value for money but if you need a larger capacity, the Magnum 2 also comes in 512GB. Even so, I’d advise picking the smaller driver. Apparently, the Magnum’s performance doesn’t drop for lower capacities. More or less, if you’re willing to spend big bucks, this is the USB key to buy.
The aluminum housing gives it additional durability, while the new USB 3.1 compatibility makes it a little more future-proof. To make the best use of it, you should probably get a PCI-express USB 3.1 card as well.
The bottom line is that if you want the fastest USB drive with the most amount of storage space, the Patriot Supersonic Magnum 2 is it.
Flash Drives vs. Portable SSDs
The shrinking of SSDs has resulted in one other phenomenon. Portable hard drives with SSDs have also shrunk in size. While bringing it down to the same size as a thumb drive is harder for the manufacturer, a slimmer and sleeker portable drive isn’t as hard. Take, for example, the Samsung T3 or Angelbird SSD2Go Pocket, which seem like excellent ways to get extra storage.
Plus, you can also get wireless portable hard drives for more efficiency. It’s reached a point where you really have to wonder. So reader, which of the two makes more sense to you, a flash drive or a portable SSD?