What Is a USB Flash Drive?

By Christopher Capelle

A USB flash drive is a small data storage device that connects to your computer's USB (Universal Serial Bus) port. Also known as a "thumb drive," a flash drive is typically small, cross-platform, rewritable and extremely inexpensive. USB flash drives have effectively replaced established computer media, including Zip drives and floppy discs. Although obscure, there are flash drives that are physically larger, but this mostly has to do with the design, not the technology. Similarly, there are flash drives that utilize other interfaces, such as FireWire and eSATA, but these represent a miniscule portion of the market.

History

Flash drives were commercially introduced in late 2000. Early models had limited capacity (the first model held a mere 8MB of data), but as of 2011, models with 256GB capacity are available.

Physical Size

One convenient feature of a flash drive is its small size. They can easily be transported by being attached to a keychain, on a lanyard or stowed in a computer bag. Most models contain a cap that protects the USB interface or have a USB connector that can be retracted into the protective body of the device.

Design

Unlike a typical hard drive, a flash drive contains no moving parts, as data is stored on a non-volatile computer chip. It requires no additional hardware, as it draws its power from the USB port on your computer.

Cost

As of 2011, the price for smaller flash drives is minimal, generally costing under $10 for a low-capacity model (4GB, for example). The price increases along with the capacity; models greater than 100GB routinely cost well over $100.

Promotional Value

Some companies give away branded flash drives for free, an example being a promotional item distributed at a trade show. In some cases the drives are given away with some data on them, such as sales sheets on a company's products or a demo version of a software program.

Warning

Although USB flash drives are generally dependable, they should never be used to store or archive vital data. There are recovery utilities that allow you to recover data from corrupted flash drives, but you should avoid using a USB flash drive as an archival storage device.