How to Choose the Right Flash Drive

The best one to purchase depends on your size, speed, and security needs

USB flash drives (also known as thumb drives) are super handy for backing up or physically transporting files and for many other uses. But which one should you buy? That depends on what you'll use it for. Here we take a look at the variety of flash drives available and the factors you should consider when purchasing one.

Storage Capacity

Close-Up Of Usb Stick On Keyboard
Tim Wege / EyeEm / Getty Images 

USB flash drive capacities range from under 1 GB to over 1 TB. There's no "right" size for a flash drive; the amount of storage you need depends on how much data you want to store. For example, if you just want to store a few Word or Excel files from one computer, a 1 GB flash drive might give you more than enough capacity. However, if you plan to back up all your files, you could need anywhere from a few GB to 500 GB or more.

If you want to store all the images and videos from your phone, go into your phone's settings and see how much space your media files are taking up. It could be anywhere from 1 GB to several dozen GB. Whatever it is, that's the minimum amount of storage you'll need, considering you might add more files in the future. You can use the same method for other types of files, such as MP4s. Remember to consider what other types of files you might want to store on the same drive.

The price of flash drives is directly related to their size; as the size increases, so does the price. See this list of the best USB flash drives for some quick price comparisons.

Transfer Speed

Car lights, Bernina Pass, Switzerland
Roberto Moiola / Sysaworld / Getty Images

Another factor you'll need to consider when shopping for a flash drive is transfer speed. There are two types of USB flash drives: USB 2.0, which is an older standard, and USB 3.0, which is a newer one. The transfer speed for USB 2.0 is 480 Mbps and that for USB 3.0 is 4,800 Mbps or 4.5 Gbps. That means USB 3.0 is approximately 10 times faster than USB 2.0.

The USB type you choose depends in part on the device you're transferring data from and the port you're using. In your computer's device management settings, confirm which standard the USB ports on your computer support and buy a compatible drive. 

Generally, a 16 GB file, like a digital video project, will transfer in less than a minute using USB 3.0, but will take nearly nine minutes to transfer using USB 2.0.

Security

Computer virus illustration
JakeOlimb / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

With the convenience of USB flash drives come some security risks:

  • Their small size may cause them to be lost or overlooked.
  • They're hard to track physically (some companies ban their use for this reason).
  • They can transfer malware from one computer to another.

The small size of a thumb drive can't be changed without giving up its portability but software encryption and hardware encryption can help prevent malware transfer and unauthorized access. Full disk encryption programs offer on-the-fly encryption of removable media. Another type of protection is a built-in keypad on which users must enter a PIN to gain use of the drive.

These extra capabilities might not be necessary if you're just, for example, transferring a few non-confidential files from one home computer to another. But if you're transferring files between multiple computers or are archiving important or proprietary data, you'll need to protect the device. Data security adds to the cost of USBs but, in making your purchasing decision, you should compare it to what the cost would be (in time, money, and aggravation) if your drive fell, unprotected, into the wrong hands.