Technology Explained

USB Flash Drive Guide: 5 Things to Know When Buying One

Mihir Patkar 19-10-2015

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 Install Ubuntu on Your Computer Using a USB Flash Drive Want to try Linux but don't own a DVD burner? Why not use a USB drive instead? Here's how to install Ubuntu from USB in minutes. Read More , 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 USB 3.0: Everything You Need to Know USB 3.0 beats USB 2.0 in so many ways. Here's everything you need to know about why you should always pick USB 3.x when possible. Read More , 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.

SanDisk Extreme 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive With Speed Up To 190MB/s- SDCZ80-064G-G46 SanDisk Extreme 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive With Speed Up To 190MB/s- SDCZ80-064G-G46 Buy Now On Amazon

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 What Is Moore's Law, And What Does It Have To Do With You? [MakeUseOf Explains] Bad luck has nothing to do with Moore's Law. If that is the association you had, you are confusing it with Murphy's Law. However, you were not far off because Moore's Law and Murphy's Law... Read More , 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.

Transcend JetFlash T3 Series 16 GB Ultra-Slim Metallic Flash Drive (TS16GJFT3S) Transcend JetFlash T3 Series 16 GB Ultra-Slim Metallic Flash Drive (TS16GJFT3S) Buy Now On Amazon $47.28


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 Hard Drives, SSDs, Flash Drives: How Long Will Your Storage Media Last? How long will hard drives, SSDs, flash drives continue to work, and how long will they store your data if you use them for archiving? Read More . 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 Keep A Portable Ubuntu Installation With You Wherever You Go There's so much you can do with an Ubuntu installation. But what if you could take that same Ubuntu installation and make it portable so you can have it with you wherever you are? Read More , 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.

Kingston Digital 32GB Data Traveler Micro Duo USB 3.0 Micro USB OTG (DTDUO3/32GB), Black Kingston Digital 32GB Data Traveler Micro Duo USB 3.0 Micro USB OTG (DTDUO3/32GB), Black Buy Now On Amazon $13.72

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 Get Extra Storage On Android With A USB Flash Drive Want to add more storage to your Android device using a USB flash drive? We can show you how to do that, step by step. Read More .

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.


Apricorn Aegis Secure Key 120 GB FIPS 140-2 Level 3 Validated 256-bit Encryption USB 3.0 Flash Drive (ASK3-120GB) Apricorn Aegis Secure Key 120 GB FIPS 140-2 Level 3 Validated 256-bit Encryption USB 3.0 Flash Drive (ASK3-120GB) Buy Now On Amazon $189.99

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 How to Password Protect Your USB Stick: 5 Easy Ways You can't password protect a USB stick, but you can encrypt a flash drive! Here are the best free tools to secure your drive. Read More .

As for rugged drives, they aren’t as useful. Cloud storage is cheap enough Free Cloud Storage Upgrades: Grab 100GB of OneDrive and 2GB of Google Drive Cloud storage is getting cheaper by the day, but nothing beats downright free. Some of the top services have come up with a few schemes that will raise your online gigabytes without spending a dime. Read More 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.

So, What Should You Buy?

We looked at some of the best USB flash drives 5 of the Fastest and Best USB 3.0 Flash Drives Which are the fastest USB 3.0 flash drives you can buy? Here are five of the best, ranging from $20 to $200. Read More a while back, and most of those recommendations still hold true today:

SanDisk Extreme 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive With Speed Up To 190MB/s- SDCZ80-064G-G46 SanDisk Extreme 64GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive With Speed Up To 190MB/s- SDCZ80-064G-G46 Buy Now On Amazon Silicon Power Marvel M50 32GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive Read 90MB/s Write 60MB/s, Champagne Gold (SP032GBUF3M50V1C) Silicon Power Marvel M50 32GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive Read 90MB/s Write 60MB/s, Champagne Gold (SP032GBUF3M50V1C) Buy Now On Amazon PQI i-Mini 32GB Super High-Speed USB 3.0 Flash Drive PQI i-Mini 32GB Super High-Speed USB 3.0 Flash Drive Buy Now On Amazon IronKey 64GB Windows to Go (WGHA0B064G0001) IronKey 64GB Windows to Go (WGHA0B064G0001) Buy Now On Amazon

That being said, you might want to wait because a new wave of wireless USB flash drives is coming in. So far, we’ve only seen the SanDisk Connect, which works across different devices and connects to phones and tablets wirelessly. Kingston and others are working on similar technology, but haven’t released products yet.

SanDisk Connect 32GB Wireless Flash Drive For Smartphones And Tablets- SDWS2-032G-E57 SanDisk Connect 32GB Wireless Flash Drive For Smartphones And Tablets- SDWS2-032G-E57 Buy Now On Amazon

USB flash drives have been around for years now, so tell us which ones you’d most recommend. And truthfully, how many have you lost over the years? Share in the comments!

Image Credits:cracked ground by Adam Vilimek via Shutterstock

Related topics: Buying Tips, USB Drive.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. john
    February 20, 2016 at 9:40 pm

    This article may have told us the difference between whats good and whats just okay. That's great! The problem? It didn't tell us jack squat about what to look for when making a new purchase. Though the article suggests other wise, there is much more confusion when faced with all the different options and the hard to understand language use by manufacturers. Many people shopping on-line for their new drive can be easily confused. You gave no clue how to determine read speeds vs write speeds, how to identify internal components, or how judge the products security. The only thing this article uses effectively is affiliate marketing linking you to the suggested purchase from Amazon. I understand you want to make money to keep the sight alive. However, you need to be a little more through before you get paid.

  2. Anonymous
    November 14, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    Hello, all.
    Too bad this didn't tell us anything about microSD cards, as they're seem to be essentially the same tech. The reason I mention it is I've had so many that don't seem to work as they should. The microSD card in my phone [LGL41C] is constantly 'losing' the apps I've moved to it, or needing to be remounted. I also have a 16GB USB 3 "Dram*Disk"™ that flashes it's lights but doesn't appear in Windos Explorer.
    I think many would appreciate a ]n article about testing &/or repairing/restoring flash drives, since it seems there are so many around that just don't 'work right'.

  3. Anonymous
    October 28, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    I must admit I've never bothered with replacements myself! The 'Blades' are on sale in the UK for such a reasonable price, that by the time you've paid postage & packaging to send the thing back, you're already out of pocket. I mostly use the small, 8 GB models anyway; I'm a Linux nut, I'm afraid, and I run different OS's from them.....mostly Puppy!

  4. Anonymous
    October 26, 2015 at 12:05 pm, Amazon packs items "frustration free", not that frustration free equates to fake. There are just lots and lots of fake drives floating around.

  5. Anonymous
    October 24, 2015 at 6:34 pm

    An important issue was raised about lifespan but not explained thoroughly. The lifespan of NAND Flash memory depends on the actual memory cell's construction - specifically SLC and MLC.. An SLC flash drive will give you 100,000 writes per cell and accesses that memory faster while the inferior MLC flash will give you 5,000 - 10,000 writes and is much slower.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:11 am

      We actually have an entire article dedicated to life spans, which is what I linked to in this article. It becomes information overload for someone who doesn't need that, but if someone wants to know more, there's information available in the link :)

      • Anonymous
        October 26, 2015 at 7:39 pm

        Thanks but I can't seem to find any article link that mentions anything in-depth about the lifespan of flash memory or mentions the difference between the different types.

  6. Anonymous
    October 23, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    "(For comparison, most flash drives last for millions of read cycles.)"
    Technically, reads aren't supposed to degrade flash drives or SSDs; that's why some models of SSD will switch to "read-only" mode when they run out of spare blocks.
    Something to look forward to are USB 3.1 flash drives, which will double the maximum speed (from 5.0Gb/s to 10.0Gb/s) and use the "reversible" Type C connector.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:10 am

      I love whatever I read about USB 3.1 with Type C. Really looking forward to that.

    • Anonymous
      August 29, 2016 at 11:34 pm

      It's kind of foolish to look forward to USB 3.1 flash drives for max speed, when they don't average (and rarely even peak) remotely close to max USB 3.0 speed. What to look forward to instead is the new flimsy connector form factor when the day comes that you need it.

  7. Anonymous
    October 20, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    I have only ever "lost" one. (my daughter lost it).
    I still have the very fist USB I ever purchased early 2004, a 250 MB 'Tiny Disk'. (USB 1.1)
    Has been washed twice, sat on numerous times, etc.
    It still chugged away when recently used to send Photos (no internet @ her address) to my daughter (remembering the one she lost).
    Lockable Thumb drive (Thumb is the actual size) 11 years ago it cost just over $100.
    It might qualify as 'Vintage' and be worth something, someday.??? Ha Ha.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:10 am

      Wow, just one flash drive lost in 10 years? Daryl, you *must* tell us your secret :D

  8. Anonymous
    October 19, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    I use SanDisk almost exclusively; specifically, one model.....the Cruzer 'Blade'. They're good, reliable drives, if not the fastest in the world. I use these for not only data transfer, but also running complete O/S's from; I'm a Linux nut, I'm afraid..!

    I use the 8 GB ones for this. For data, it's usually the 32 GB models. I have used the 16 GB models before now, but there's a well-known problem with these, thoroughly documented on the SanDisk Forums.....where for some inexplicable reason, they suddenly become 'read-only'; and no amount of re-formatting or otherwise messing around with them will get them to work again.

    SanDisk are well aware of the problem, and their answer is that there's NO answer to the problem; if it happens, send it back to them, and they'll send you a free replacement...(??)

    Apparently, the rumour is that they purchased a large batch of slightly iffy controller chips from SK Hynix, back in 2012...

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:09 am

      Have you got the free replacements yourself, Michael? I usually never bother with fixing pen drives, I just replace them.

  9. Anonymous
    October 19, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Many, MANY fake flash drives are sold. After I got a number of fake Verbatim, Crucial and Lexar drives from, I started demanding the OEM packaged versions instead of "frustration free" packaging.

    I definitely wouldn't bother with anything but a name brand drive, especially for larger size drives (probably 16GB and up as of this writing). It's too easy to package a cheap piece of plastic with some a tiny amount of flash memory configured for circular writing.

    • Mihir Patkar
      October 26, 2015 at 11:08 am

      When it comes to buying anything under $50 from Amazon, I always check the seller and buy it only when the seller is the company itself.

      • Anonymous
        October 26, 2015 at 12:03 pm

        I've gotten fake drives directly from Amazon. In fact, I believe that's the only way to get an item in frustration free packaging.