Our internet speeds are faster than ever. There’s plenty of online storage available for free or cheap prices. 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?
USB flash drives come in all shapes and sizes. But sometimes, all you need is sheer speed—and if that’s the case, here are the best ones you can buy right now.
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 rule of thumb, 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.
- Buy a regular 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.
Assuming you need a regular flash drive and not an SSD, here are the fastest USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 flash drives.
Fastest Write Speed on a USB Flash Drive: SanDisk Extreme Pro SDCZ880
- Capacity: 128GB, 256GB
- Advertised Read Speed: 420 MB/s
- UserBenchmark Read Speed: 297 MB/s
- Advertised Write Speed: 380 MB/s
- UserBenchmark Write Speed: 262 MB/s
- Who should buy it: Anyone looking for the overall “fastest flash drive.”
The SanDisk Extreme Pro cranks up the read and write speeds, and in fact, UserBenchmark ranks it as the fastest write speed. The next best, the Lexar Jumpdrive P10 and the Kingston HyperX Savage, are behind by 30 MB/s or more.
Such fast sequential write speed is best for copying large files; for video editing, for example. Since the SanDisk Extreme Pro comes in two fairly high capacities (128GB and 256GB), it is the best drive for such needs.
Also, if you have a habit of losing the covers or caps off your flash drives, you’ll like this one. The SanDisk Extreme Pro has a sliding mechanism to pop out the USB connector. No cap to lose!
Fastest Read Speed on a USB Flash Drive: Corsair Flash Voyager GTX
- Capacity: 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB
- Advertised Read Speed: 440 MB/s
- UserBenchmark Read Speed: 380 MB/s
- Advertised Write Speed: 440 MB/s
- UserBenchmark Write Speed: 168 MB/s
- Who should buy it: Those who work with the files directly off a flash drive.
The SanDisk Extreme Pro’s read and write speeds are impressive enough to make it the fastest overall drive, but the Corsair Flash Voyager GTX has a higher read speed. If you work with files directly from the flash drive (without copying them to your hard drive), then this might be a better choice for you.
If your laptop doesn’t have enough free storage space (it’s why you shouldn’t buy a 256GB MacBook), you won’t be copying anything to it. The flash drive is what you work from, and the Voyager GTX’s 380 MB/s speed is ridiculous. Plus it has storage options up to 1TB, so you should have everything you need here.
Fastest Cheap Flash Drive to Install an OS: Kingston DataTraveler 100 G3
- Capacity: 32GB x 5 Drives
- Advertised Read Speed: 100 MB/s
- UserBenchmark Read Speed: 134 MB/s
- Advertised Write Speed: N/A
- UserBenchmark Write Speed: 52.2 MB/s
- Who should buy it: Those who want cheap flash drives to create bootable installers of operating systems.
You don’t always need a USB flash drive with lots of storage. Sometimes, you need very little storage, but it needs to be fast and cheap. The 32GB Kingston DataTraveler 100 G3 has a brilliant multipack deal for this.
So that’s five separate flash drives, each of which you can turn into a bootable USB from an ISO file. At a cost of $10 per unit, you won’t even feel bad about someone borrowing one of these and never returning it.
Make sure you buy the 32GB variant and not the 16GB model, which also has a multipack deal. The 16GB model’s speeds are far, far lower and so it’s not worth it.
Fastest Flash Drive to Run Portable Linux: Corsair Flash Voyager GTX
- Capacity: 128GB
- UserBenchmark 4k-Read Speed: 24.4 MB/s
- UserBenchmark 4k-Write Speed: 49.8 MB/s
- Who should buy it: Those who run a persistent Linux OS from a Flash drive.
In case you didn’t know, you can run Linux from a USB drive. But the drive you use plays a big part in the performance too. Especially for anyone who runs Linux regularly, the 128GB version of the Corsair Flash Voyager GTX is the one to buy.
There’s a specific reason behind this. When you’re running an OS from a flash drive, a lot of small files are being constantly read, written, and rewritten. This speed, called 4k-Write and 4k-Read, matters more than the fastest sequential speed.
There’s also the question of capacity. It makes little sense to buy a 256GB flash drive to run an operating system from.
And there’s always the consideration of cost. You don’t want to spend too much on something like this.
All of this makes the 128GB variant of the Corsair Flash Voyager GTX the best balanced, fastest flash drive for portable Linux. If you want the actual fastest one, go for the 256GB variant, which increases the 4k-Read and 4k-Write speeds. But don’t go higher than 256GB; the speeds drop after that.
Note: UserBenchmarks actually ranks the Mushkin Ventura Ultra as faster. But closer inspection shows that the Mushkin’s speed rates are not consistent across different conditions, and several users have reported much slower speeds than UserBenchmark’s statistics.
Fastest USB-C Flash Drive: Samsung T5
- Capacity: 512GB
- Advertised Read Speed: 540 MB/s
- Benchmark Test Read Speed: 500-510 MB/s
- Advertised Write Speed: 540 MB/s
- UserBenchmark Write Speed: 470-490 MB/s
- Who should buy it: Those who have laptops with a USB-C port only.
Several laptops, especially the best ultrabooks, have moved to using only a USB-C port instead of the traditional USB-A port on most flash drives. That means you need a fast flash drive with a USB-C port.
Unfortunately, that limits your options terribly. Flash drives with USB-C aren’t fast. In fact, it’s better to buy one of the other flash drives mentioned in this article, and add a USB-A to USB-C converter.
I’ve refrained from recommending portable SSDs in this article because we’re looking for flash drives, but at this point, it simply does not make sense to get a USB-C flash drive.
You should ditch that though and go for a mini portable SSD.
The Samsung T5 has blazing fast read and write speeds, especially on the Dell XPS 13 and the new MacBooks. The 512GB version is also excellent value for money, given its storage per dollar ratio.
Yes, it’s thicker and not as convenient as a flash drive. But it’s all you should consider, if you don’t want a converter.
For Large Storage Needs, Buy Portable SSDs Instead
The above list of super-fast flash drives should serve the needs of anyone who wants something with 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB capacity. Sure, there are 512GB and 1TB options available too. But I wouldn’t buy those.
For large capacities, especially beyond 512GB, it makes more sense to consider some of the best portable hard drives instead. They offer much better storage-to-price ratios, and the speed can really crank up when you use connectors like Thunderbolt.
If, on the other hand, you’re concerned about security—you could also consider a USB drive with built-in hardware encryption, or look into how you can easily password protect your flash drive.