USB flash drives are pretty much a necessity these days. They’re far more convenient for moving files around than optical discs, and they make good backup devices. But not all USB flash drives are created equal. Here’s what to look for in a USB flash drive.
Here’s a tip: I don’t just use USB flash drives for transporting data and backups. I like to keep a modest-sized USB flash drive plugged into my router, turning it into a small NAS. It gives me a convenient, reliable place to back up data from any of my computers.
USB flash drives may seem like an odd thing to get snobby about, but brand matters. Remember, USB flash drives are just memory chips with a USB interface glued on. The companies who make the memory chips put the best chips in their own products, then sell the leftovers to everyone else. The first-tier brands are the brands owned by companies who make memory.
There are four:
- Lexar (owned by Micron)
- Sandisk (owned by Western Digital)
Buying a top-tier brand isn’t a guarantee against failure, but it makes premature failure less likely.
There’s very little point in buying anything smaller than 8 GB these days. Anything smaller than that isn’t very useful.
But if you buy a 1 TB drive, you’re probably overpaying for capacity.
A 128-gig drive is big enough to be useful, yet relatively inexpensive. With some shopping around, you can get a quality 128-gig drive for around $40. Don’t expect that price to drop much in 2017 or 2018, but by 2019, the price will plummet.
I think the sweet spot for cost and capacity is either 128 or 256 GB right now. With one of those sizes, the cost per gigabyte tends to bottom out. At 512 GB or more, you definitely start paying a premium for more capacity.
More capacity is better, of course. But don’t pay too much for capacity you won’t use. Analysts predict big price drops on memory chips in late 2018 or sometime in 2019.
Unfortunately, USB flash drives usually omit the tech specs on the package that we’re used to seeing on SSD packaging. At the very least, get a drive with a USB 3.0 interface. Not every computer has USB 3.0, but those that do will take advantage of it, and a USB 3.0-capable drive is likely to have faster chips in it so even when running at USB 2.0, it can be marginally faster than cheap drives.
If you manage to find specs for some drives you’re looking at, look for higher read and write speeds. Faster is always better. But don’t obsess over it too much. Most of the things you use a USB flash drive for aren’t super speed sensitive.
If you leave the drive plugged in all the time, you want the drive to be small, to lessen the chances of it being damaged if your computer gets dropped. I’ve done some interesting repairs on physically damaged USB drives.
That said, if you don’t leave it in all the time, you don’t want it to be too small. A drive the size of your thumb is harder to lose than a drive the size of a bottlecap.
If you carry the drive around with you, a drive with some kind of security mechanism built in is helpful. Then you can store your sensitive date in the secure area. But if your drive doesn’t have that, don’t worry too much. Save your sensitive documents with a reasonably long password. As long as you use something newer than the Office 2003 file format, that’s secure enough for classified information, let alone yours. Even a document full of your family’s insurance policy numbers, credit card numbers and social security numbers.
If you don’t want to mess around with password protecting individual documents, zip the files up and put a password on the zip file. Just be sure to specify AES encryption, not the older Zipcrypto encryption.