Duck's Tech Blog

USB Sticks – Everything you need to know

by on Jun.17, 2011, under How-To Guides, Reviews

There’s a surprising amount of information that people don’t know about USB Sticks, a lot of people have wrong information about it. I’d like to write this post to explain to everyone some common misconceptions about USB sticks, what to look for when buying a USB stick and some cool tips for making them better.
Also, I just bought myself a new USB Stick and it took me a few days to find the one I wanted (yes, days, days of hunting to find the best one for me).

Common Misconceptions about USB Sticks

You don’t need to Safely Remove (or Eject) a USB Stick.

False, technically…

When you go to Safely Remove a USB Stick, your computer will make sure that nothing is doing anything with the drive. If you’re copying data to the USB Stick, it could corrupt files that are transferring to it. But here’s the big one: USB Drives typically use a thing called FAT32 to store their data, this is so the drive will work on both Macs and PCs. 99% of the time when you don’t safely eject, everything is fine, but there’s a special part of the drive that stores where all the files on your drive are, if this gets corrupted (by unplugging it at just the wrong moment), all your data will be lost.

USB Sticks have no moving parts, so they can’t break.

False.
I’ve seen many USB Sticks fail, sometimes it’s quite sudden and your drive will simply just stop working. There’s nothing you can do to save the data. If you’re really lucky and have a lot of money, you could get a professional to try to recover the data (costing you upwards of $10,000).
If you notice your USB Stick doing something odd like not being recognised by the computer or suddenly dropping out and not working until you unplug/replug it in, stop using it and buy a new one.

USB Sticks can’t survive a trip through the washing machine

False
They totally can (usually). If yours ends up through the wash, let it dry out for at least a few days (don’t even dare plugging it in until it’s 100% dry, inside and out). If you’ve got some silica gel (those little anti moisture packets), put it in an air tight tupperware container with it. Rice works too.
You can also get waterproof USB Sticks.

Buying a USB Stick

There’s a lot of different USB Sticks you can buy. Try to steer clear of the novelty ones firstly, they’re pretty much the cheapest USB Stick whacked into a fancy case.

Speed

USB Sticks range from very slow (2-3MB/s transfer speed) to really quick (over 100MB/s). Most USB Drives on the market are USB2, this means they’ve got a theoretical maximum speed of about 60MB/s (480mbit USB2), but you’ll most likely never see any over 35MB/s. The latest USB sticks coming out now are USB3 sticks, these ones have speeds of over 100MB/s (in theory) but you must have USB3 on your computer to use it (not all new computers even have this yet, so it’s unlikely you would have USB3).
Does the speed really matter?   Yes.  Take one of the better Kingston USB Sticks for example, it has 20MB/s read and 10MB/s Write. To copy a 1gb Movie onto the drive, it will take you almost 2 minutes. On the other hand, the Patriot SuperSonic at 70MB/s Write speed: 15 seconds (or, at USB2 speeds: 31seconds).
Basically: There are a lot of really slow drives out there, ones that make you want to tear your eyes out as it trudges along at 2-3MB/s (yes, there are a lot of drives this slow out there).

Size (Memory)

At the moment (June 2011), USB Drives go up to 128GB, this is pretty cool, but really expensive at the same time. The sweet spot is around 16gb ($35) or if you need something a bit bigger, 32gb to 64gb ($100 and $200).

Size (Physical)

This one is more important than you think. The USB Drive has to fit with other USB devices plugged in next to it (this is really, really important). There’s nothing more annoying than having to unplug a bunch of other devices so you can plug in your USB Drive.
Keep an eye out for the USB3 drives, I’ve only seen one that has a small enough footprint to fit next to other drives (the Patriot Supersonic Drive – See Image on Right).

 

Design

There’s a whole heap of different ways they build these things, fancy caps on the end, flip out covers, cool clicky bits to make it click into place… Most of them suck though.
The ones that click (you push the end until the USB bit is clicked into place) seem fine at first, but if you’re trying to get it into a tight USB port, it’ll click back.

Caps can (and will) get lost.

The swivel USB sticks are good because you can’t lose the cap, but I’m yet to see a decent USB stick (according to other attributes) in this style.

The screw cap USB Sticks take FOREVER to unscrew.

One of the best ones I’ve got has a normal removable cap, but the lanyard bit for it goes through the cap as well as the USB, so they can’t get separated.

The other thing to look at is the physical toughness of the drive, most of them are plastic, but you can buy rubber ones that are more shock proof and waterproof and metal ones as well.

Encryption

You can get some USB Sticks that use Hardware Encryption to encrypt the data on the drive.
In short: Don’t bother, unless you’re a crazy encryption nuthead, the encryption will only slow the drive down and increase the cost. I would suggest getting any USB drive and using something like Truecrypt (http://www.truecrypt.org/) to encrypt the data on the drive.

Warranty

If you’re going to spend over $100 on a USB drive, check the warranty! Most come with 3-5 year warranties.

Special “Bonuses”

Some USB Sticks ship with a thing called the U3 System (or something else, there’s a couple different ones), supposedly trying to make your life easier. 95% of the time it slows you down and annoys the crap out of you. If you’ve got U3 installed on the drive, go here for instructions on how to remove it (http://kb.sandisk.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/2550/~/removing-u3-launchpad-on-a-pc). If it’s not U3 and something else, google something like: Remove <insert name of thing here>
There should be some results on how to get rid of it :)

Where to buy

I typically get my USB drives online from places like PC Case Gear (http://www.pccasegear.com/) or UMart (http://www.umart.com.au).
Avoid getting ones from eBay, especially if they’re strangely cheaper than the other ones. There has been a lot of scams where they will sell you a USB stick saying 128gb, when it’s actually a 128mb drive with 128gb written on it (and some crazy tricks to even make the computer think it’s 128gb). See this page for more details on the scam (http://reviews.ebay.com.au/BEWARE-of-FAKE-1GB-2GB-4GB-8GB-USB-Flash-Drives-on-eBay_W0QQugidZ10000000000706427)

Cool Tricks for USB Sticks

Contact Info!

USB Sticks are really easy to lose and very hard to work out who owns it. Make a text file called “If Lost Open Me!.txt” and leave it on the USB Drive, include your contact details and phone number so whoever finds the stick can return it to you!

Autorun File Trickery

On Windows Machines, they will read a file called autorun.inf when you plug a USB Stick in, inside this file you can include details like the default action (Windows XP only), the icon and the name of the USB Stick (this is separate from the name of the drive and lets you give it longer, case sensitive names).
Note that this doesn’t work on fully up to date machines as Microsoft have disabled the functionality (what a buzz kill).
This has the added bonus of working as an indication that a virus is on your USB Stick: If you notice that your fancy icon and all that is missing, it’s likely that a virus has replaced your autorun.inf file. Go check it and make sure it’s not trying to run something else!
Also: If you don’t use this trick and you see a file on your USB called autorun.inf, get rid of it. Alternately, a folder called “System” is also a part of a virus, delete that too!
To make an autorun file for yourself, download this file and edit the autorun.inf file in your favourite text editor (leave a comment if you need help!).

BACK UP YOUR USB STICK

Seriously, if your only copy of your thesis, photos or any other important documents is on your USB Stick BACK IT UP NOW.
Always Always Always keep multiple copies of your data.
Things will fail, you are not an exception to the rule. If you’ve never had a data failure before, that doesn’t make you immune to them later.

 

Think I missed something? Got something to share? Liked the Article?  Leave a Comment below!

Ducky

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Redmond

    Nice post duk, very insightful. Well done!

    ///wr

  • duck

    Thought I’d add another note on this a year on…
    After deciding the Patriot Supersonic 32gig was the best USB stick around, I bought it, and used it absolutely flat out for a year. After that year, all the paint off it was gone, you couldn’t read the labels on it and I’d lost the cap….
    However, the stick did everything perfectly, up until it died :(
    I contacted Patriot for a replacement and they just said “Sure, send it back to us!” and within a week I had a brand new one as a replacement :D
    A 5 year warranty on them and they’re still incredibly fast and small (small as in only takes up one USB port, it’s a bit long but that’s never really an issue).
    Best USB Stick ever. :P
    http://www.pccasegear.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=55&products_id=18410

    Ducky

  • Grant

    I left my usb through the wash is it still gonna preform the same? As before and what about life wise

  • duck

    It’s really hit and miss, if the soapy water gets inside it, it can cause some damage.
    But you should always have your USB stick backed up anyway, so if it breaks you can replace it and copy all your data back on it.

    Ducky

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