Carry Everything You Need on a Tiny USB Stick

5 ways flash drives can make life easier

USB flash drives are inexpensive, common storage devices. You may even find them given away for free as promotional items. Even though USB flash drives are cheap and everywhere, don't overlook how useful these devices are for storing your essential files and more.

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Use a USB Flash Drive to Keep Essential Files Always Available

Overworked businessperson with a stack of files and a computer

Rick Barrentine / Getty Images

USB flash drives hold several gigabytes of data. This is enough to make sure you always have your latest project files, Outlook files, photos of your house and equipment for insurance purposes, medical records, contact lists, and other essential information in your pocket or on your keychain. If you sometimes work in different offices or travel a lot, USB flash drives are great tools for accessing your work files wherever you go.

Most people have stopped using USB drives for data storage, opting instead for cloud services like Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive. Still, these devices make a handy backup for situations like public presentations where you cannot access your cloud drive from someone else's computer.

Before you store any sensitive information on a USB flash drive, encrypt it, so the data on it is protected if it ever gets lost.

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

Firefox Start Page

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

Not all of these apps are officially supported.

If your USB flash drive is a U3 smart drive, you can choose from thousands of U3 smart applications to install and run from the U3 Launchpad. Many U3 drives ship with portable apps like Firefox, RoboForm2Go, Evernote, and McAfee Antivirus.

Many SanDisk drives are U3 capable because SanDisk holds the rights to the U3 platform.

The free, open-source PortableApps suite includes an integrated menu and backup utility as well as a Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, Sunbird calendar/task, Pidgin instant messaging, Sumatra PDF reader, KeePass password manager, OpenOffice, CoolPlayer+ audio player, and some games.

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

The AVG Rescue CD.

Utilities for troubleshooting computer problems and running diagnostics run directly from a USB flash drive. These utilities offer a tool to fix boot-up errors as well. AVG, for example, ships a USB-optimized antivirus application that runs a virus scan on a troubled PC from the USB drive.

Your USB flash drive repair kit should include utilities like the these:

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

The Windows 10 desktop

In Windows, you can 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 automatically launches and asks if you want to use the device to speed up performance. If you change your mind, you can ​​disable Windows ReadyBoost for the flash drive.

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

Not all USB flash drives are compatible with ReadyBoost. It must be at least 256 MB. One that offers poor write and random-read performance can fail the compatibility test. If you have a compatible device, ReadyBoost can make a significant difference in how fast Windows starts and loads applications.

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Use a USB Flash Drive to Run a Separate Operating System

The Ubuntu Linux Desktop

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

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