Flash Drive Buying Guide

In a ‘flash’: How to buy flash drives?

One can best describe the flash drive as a miniature external storage device that reads and writes to flash memory. These are also known as thumb drives, again due to their small size, and because of the fact that they measure about the size of an adult thumb. They have been universally accepted as the preferred medium of storing data due to their portability and reliability, replacing floppy discs by and large, which were larger and didn’t offer much storage space. Talking of compact discs, flash drives score over them since there’s no need for a ‘writer’ ; any port that supports this drive can be used to transfer and write data. The more recent Solid State Drives, the latest version of data portability, are also not preferred as much, since they are much more expensive, besides being bigger in size and bulky.

A significant majority of flash drives sold in the current times come with the male ‘A’ type USB plug, so as to enable connectivity to almost every computer or laptop manufactured in the previous decade.

Types

There are different kinds of flash drives available to give more choice to the user as per his/her preference and usage requirements. According to a broad categorization, they come under the following ‘heads’, so to speak – Novelty, Ultra Durable, Generic, High Performance and Secure.

Out of these, Generic flash drives are the most commonly sold. Essentially, they don’t have any special feature, and are meant for basic use. Affordable and relatively durable, they are always encased in plastic, and are not the fastest when it comes to data transfer.

High Performance flash drives can be identified with a simple sign – their name will have a suffix like ‘extreme’, ‘ultimate’ or ‘express’. They are essentially drives which use high binned flash memory flash chips and better memory controllers so as to facilitate enhanced transfer speeds.

Ultra Durable flash drives are not necessarily fast, but their actual utility is the fact that they are virtually indestructible! Usually, Ultra Durable flash drives come in a rubber or metal encasing, for data protection against sudden bumps. They might also have a waterproof seal for the USB cap. Some models are so fortified that they can even withstand drops from great heights on to the concrete surface, have no detrimental impact whatsoever on the data even if they are ‘accidentally’ washed! They are also heat resistant to extremely high temperatures, as well as the crushing force of automobiles.

Secure flash drives are the ones that offer hardware encryption so as to protect data that is very critical and/or secretive. A co-processor is utilized to employ the encryption algorithms, which allows the drive to maintain reasonable levels of read and write speeds, in comparison to generic drives that are used with software encryption titles. The security gateway, so to speak, can be in the form of a user name and password, combination locks, or biometric fingerprint scans, for more advanced models. Some Secure flash drives also include tamper evident designs, self-destruct sequences and centralized remote management. While purchasing a Secure flash drive, it is important to check the specifications; the drive must have at least 128-bit AES encryption. It is also important to register the drive with the manufacturer in case a software update or recall is required.

Novelty flash drives, the classiest and most visually appealing of the lot, are models that have a unique design or additional features. For instance, some drives can be encased inside a ball point pen, while others can have Swiss Army knife attachments.

Speed

The speed at which flash drives read, write and transfer data depends on their version, i.e., when were they released? As of now, USB 3.0 flash drives are the fastest, with transfer speeds as high as 5 GB per second, although a USB 3.0 port is required, which is present only in the latest range of PCs and laptops. As a rule of thumb, smaller files that are less than 1MB in size have the tendency to slow down the transfer speeds. Basically, the transfer speed is a measure of uninterrupted file transfer of large files.

Some of the old high performance flash drives use Single Level Cell (SLC) memory instead of Multi Level Cell memory. These are up to 16 GB in size and have enhanced writing speeds for smaller files, simultaneously boosting the endurance level of the flash drive. However, SLC memory is more expensive when it comes to implementation, and also gives less storage space for the die area. Also, as the demand for more memory capacity increases, the demand for these kinds of flash drives has dropped. In order to compensate for the loss of the SLC memory, companies have come up with innovative techniques like the use of custom drivers and quad channel dual controllers.

Formatting

The format in which one should format the flash drive essentially depends on what kind of usage exists for the same. A majority of the flash drives available in the market today are pre formatted as FAT 32, so as to facilitate cross platform compatibility across Linux, Windows and Macintosh. However, this formatting scheme also means that files with size in excess of 4 GB can’t fit into this formatting type. In order to make this happen, one should format the flash drive to NTFS, which also offers more reliability. It is supported by all versions of Windows since Windows NT / 2000, and thanks to the NTFS-3G project, it is also supported by Linux and Macintosh.

However, in case one wants to use the flash drive in conjunction with televisions or media players, the NTFS format is not supported on these devices, since it is a proprietary system that is owned by Microsoft. The exFAT file system is another option one can resort to. It is a format that is optimized for flash drives, and is available on all Windows operating systems since Vista SP1.

So that’s it, a round-up of all the points one needs to know before buying a flash drive.

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