How to Choose the Right Flash Drive

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

What to Know

  • Consider factors like USB storage capacity and transfer speed, as well as the type of USB port in your computer.
  • In Windows search bar, type Device Manager > Universal Serial Bus Controllers to view standard USB ports.
  • To make your USB drive more secure, consider software and hardware encryption.

This article explains how to select the right USB flash drive (also known as a thumb drive) for your needs. The price of flash drives is directly related to their size; as the size increases, so does the price.

Figure Out What Type of USB Port Your Computer Has

The USB type you choose depends partly on the device you're transferring data from and the port you're using. You can confirm which standard the USB ports on your computer supports in its device management settings.

  1. Type Device Manager into the Windows search bar and select it from the list of options.

    You can get to the Device Manager in Windows using the search bar
  2. Double-click Universal Serial Bus Controllers.

    A screenshot showing the Device Manager panel in Windows.
  3. Here, you can see which standard the USB ports on your computer support.

    A screenshot in Windows showing a PC with support for USB 3.0.

USB Storage Capacity

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're going to grab 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 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 types of files you might want to store on the same drive.

USB Transfer Speed

Another factor you 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 USB 3.0 is 4,800 Mbps or 4.5 Gbps. That means USB 3.0 is approximately ten times faster than USB 2.0.

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 when using USB 2.0.

What to Know About USB Security

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.

You can't change a thumb drive's small size 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 use the drive.

These extra capabilities might not be necessary if you're 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 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 unprotected drive fell into the wrong hands.

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