Carry Everything You Need on a Tiny USB Stick

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5 Ways USB Thumb Drives are Really Useful

USB computer memory flash drive on keyboard
Thomas J Peterson/Photographer's Choice RFSB

USB flash drives (a.k.a., USB memory sticks or USB thumb drives) are very inexpensive, common storage devices; you can even regularly find them given away for free as promotional items. Even though they're cheap and ubiquitous, though, don't overlook the power of these little storage devices -- they can be highly useful tools for always having important documents and program settings on hand.

Benefits of using USB flash drives

Besides being very small and cheap, USB flash drives are really simple to use: plug one into a computer's USB port and you can access the documents stored on the drive immediately. You can also run portable programs from the drive without having to install them on the host computer. Because program settings (e.g., favorite bookmarks in Firefox) are also saved on the drive, it's like having your own personal computing environment with you wherever you go.

You can use a USB flash drive to:

  • Keep emergency information and current project files always at hand
  • Have your browser and other program settings with you for secure use on any computer with a USB port
  • Troubleshoot and repair computer problems
  • Make Windows run faster
  • Run a different operating system without changing your hard drive

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Use a USB Flash Drive to Keep Essential Files Always Available

Microsoft SyncToy
The free Microsoft SyncToy can keep files synchronized between multiple devices. Screenshot © Melanie Pinola

USB flash drives can hold several gigabytes of data -- enough to make sure you always have in your pocket or on your keychain stuff like your latest projects files, Outlook files, photos of your house and equipment for insurance purposes, medical records, contact lists, and other essential information you would need with you in case of emergency or just for accessing on the go. If you sometimes have to work in different offices or travel a lot, USB flash drives are great tools for accessing your work files wherever you go.

Important Note: Before you store any sensitive information on your USB flash drive, however, make sure you encrypt the drive so the data on it is protected in case it ever gets lost (an unfortunately likely scenario, with an estimated 4,500 USB sticks lost or forgotten every year in the UK alone, left in places like dry cleaners and taxis).

USB File Management & Security Resources:

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Use a USB Flash Drive to Carry Your Favorite Applications and Settings With You

Portable Apps menu
Portableapps.com bundles useful applications that can run off a USB flash drive. Photo © Portable Apps

Most popular programs have portable versions that can be installed and run entirely off of USB flash drives or other portable hardware (e.g., iPods or portable hard drives) without changing the computer's hard drive. Another benefit of using portable apps on USB sticks is that when you remove the USB drive, no personal data is left behind. There's a portable version of Firefox, OpenOffice portable, and many others.

  • If your USB flash drive is a "U3 smart drive" (many SanDisk drives are U3 capable because SanDisk holds the rights to the U3 platform), you can choose from thousands of U3 "smart applications" to install and run from the U3 Launchpad. Many U3 drives come preinstalled with portable apps like Firefox, RoboForm2Go, Evernote, and McAfee Antivirus.
  • PortableApps is another platform for running programs from your USB flash drive. The free, open source suite includes an integrated menu and backup utility as well as Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, Sunbird calendar/task, Pidgin instant messaging, Sumatra PDF reader, KeePass password manager, OpenOffice, CoolPlayer+ audio player, and some games.
  • You can also download portable apps directly from the software providers' websites or from directories like USB Pen Drive Apps.

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Use a USB Flash Drive to Troubleshoot and Repair Computer Problems

AVG Rescue CD screenshot
AVG Rescue CD can run off a USB flash drive to perform antivirus, antispyware and other rescue and recovery functions. Photo © AVG

Utilities for troubleshooting computer issues and running diagnostics can be run directly from a USB flash drive. AVG, for example, has a USB-optimized antivirus application that can do a virus scan on a troubled PC from the USB drive.

Your USB flash drive repair kit should include utilities like the ones below (links lead to descriptions at PC World and Pen Drive Apps):

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Use a USB Flash Drive to Make Windows Run Faster with Windows ReadyBoost

Windows ReadyBoost
Windows ReadyBoost uses flash memory to speed up Windows systems. Photo © Microsoft

Windows Vista and Windows 7 users can use USB flash drives to improve system performance by using the USB drive (or an SD card) as an additional memory cache. When you connect a compatible removable storage device to your computer, ​Windows ReadyBoost will automatically launch and ask if you want to use the device to speed up performance with Windows ReadyBoost. (Don't worry, if you change your mind, you can later ​​disable Windows ReadyBoost for the flash drive.)

The amount of space Microsoft recommends setting aside on your USB flash drive for ReadyBoost is one to three times the amount of memory on your computer; so if you have 1GB of RAM on your computer, use 1GB to 3GB on the flash drive for ReadyBoost.

Note, however, that not all USB flash drives may be compatible with ReadyBoost. The drive needs to be at least 256MB and drives that have poor write and random read performance can fail the compatibility test. If you have a compatible device, though, using ReadyBoost can make a significant difference in how fast Windows starts up and loads applications.

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Use a USB Flash Drive to Run a Separate Operating System

Linux Live USB Creator
Linux Live USB Creator allows Windows users to create a bootable Live USB key with Linux on it. Photo © Linux Live USB Creator

You can run a separate operating system from your USB flash drive so you won't have to modify your computer's hard drive. If you're curious about Linux, for example, you can buy a USB flash drive with Damn Small Linux already embedded in the USB pen or install your favorite Linux OS from the USB drive using Pen Drive Linux.

It's even possible to boot Windows XP from a USB flash drive, which can be useful if your PC is unbootable and you need to get back into it to troubleshoot and repair.