Frequently Asked Questions About USB Flash Drives

Everything you need to know about ultra portable storage

A batch of USB flash drives

 Maxim Trukhin / Getty Images

Portable USB flash drives remain one of the most curious computer peripherals available today. Some people wonder what in the world they're used for, while others wonder what in the world they can't be used for.

This FAQ will help clear up some of the basic questions we hear about those miniature memory sticks you so often see dangling from people's key chains.

What's the Difference Between a USB Flash Drive and a 'Regular' Flash Drive?

A “flash drive” is solid-state drive (SSD) technology that stores data like a typical hard drive found in most PCs, but uses no moving parts. Flash drives come in many forms, including external storage devices, portable USB drives, and even as the main storage drive in some laptops and netbooks.

Photo of a Sandisk Cruzer Glide USB Flash Drive
SanDisk Corporation

A USB flash drive is the industry term for a very small, very portable flash drive meant for easy data storage or transfer, and which connects to a computer via a USB port. USB flash drives are so small that most of them are designed to easily attach to a key ring.

What Do People Use USB Flash Drives for?

Because of their extreme portability (most weigh in at an ounce or less), the most common purpose for USB flash drives is transferring files between computers at different locations. As their storage capacity has increased, they have also become more and more useful for backing up important files from your PC’s hard drive and storing them in a secure location.

What Are the Benefits of Using a USB Flash Drive?

Necessity is the mother of invention, and USB flash drives are so popular today because they are faster, easier to use, and more convenient than almost any other method. Burning CDs takes time, and is a permanent process. If you’re taking a project from your office to your home, and you’re going to be finished with it at the end of the week, burning a CD just for that can be wasteful. What’s more, if you make changes to the project, you have to burn a whole new CD in order to take it back to work.

USB flash drive and multiple USB port malfunctions
kyoshino / Getty Images

Transferring files directly from computer to computer can sometimes be oddly complicated, and in most cases, you need them to be right next to each other. With a USB flash drive, it’s as simple as dragging and dropping your files and folders wherever you need them.

What Does'Mbps' Mean and Why Is It Important?

Mbps stands for “Megabits per second,” and simply means the speed at which your files will be transferred from your PC to a device — in this case, a USB flash drive. The speed can range from 30 or 50 Mpbs to many hundreds. Generally, the larger your USB flash drive’s speed, the quicker it will be able to transfer your files. This is because larger files need to be transferred faster.

Corsair Flash Voyager

The statistic itself is not particularly important. Most flash drives will have similar speeds for their capacity, and none of them will be so noticeably slow that you need to avoid it.

How Much Space Do USB Flash Drives Have on Them?

Drives are almost exclusively available in the range of gigabytes these days. You used to be able to find 512MB versions, but due to lowered costs and increased transfer speeds, such a comparatively small capacity is largely outdated.

Transcend JetFlash 810

Sizes can range from 1 gigabyte to a massive 2 terabytes, with a sliding price scale to go along with it. You can get the “smaller” capacity drives for less than $10, and you can spend several hundred dollars on a 1 or 2 terabyte USB flash drive.

How Can USB Flash Drives Be so Small?

USB flash drives use solid-state flash memory technology, which stores data without using moving parts, as most physically larger internal PC hard drives do. Over the years, solid-state memory has been able to decrease the size required to store data many times over enabling more and more memory to be stored on a very small memory chip.

How Secure Are USB Flash Drives?

If you’re storing important information about your job, or valuable copyrighted files if you are a creative person, many USB flash drives offer encryption features that will be able to protect your files from prying eyes. This is not a standard feature among USB flash drives, but they are available, and that can be invaluable to someone who might leave their drive on a busy train, or in a locker somewhere.

Physically speaking, USB flash drives are extremely robust. Without moving parts, and being so light, most flash drives can withstand being jostled around, dropped, or stepped on without sustaining internal damage. Most also come in a sturdy, rugged encasement that can withstand plenty of roughhousing.