The Official Super Guide to USB Flash Drives

The Official Super Guide to USB Flash Drives

USB flash drives today are not only for storing digital data. You can also use them to run useful portable programs and even boot entire operating systems. In this official super guide we will show you just what you can do with USB flash drives and what kind of USB device is right for you. We will also give you some useful tips on everything from backing up your files, to keeping your data safe and secure as well as how to install third party software on your USB flash drive to use on any guest computer.

Discover just what you can do with a USB drive. If you have any questions about any of the instructions or info in this guide, please leave them in the comments section below. We will answer everyone individually and personally.

What are USB flash drives?

A USB flash drive is a compact portable device used to store digital data. It pairs a Universal Serial Bus (USB) interface with a flash memory data storage unit. USB flash drive are known by many other names such as jump drive, pen drive, memory stick, portable key, etc. The shape typically resembles a human finger or thumb, hence why it is also sometimes referred to as a thumb drive.

Technically, a USB Flash Drive is not a drive because the flash memory technology used in these devices is purely digital, meaning it does not contain any moving parts at all. NAND flash memory is non-volatile meaning it does not need power to maintain the stored information. These characteristics make USB flash drives less prone to physical damage and also makes them perfectly silent. The term flash indicates that blocks of data are erased and reprogrammed in a flash, rather than deleting them one byte at a time.

Types USB flash drives you’ll need

There are 4 basic types of USB flash drives you might need:

Generic

These are your most affordable, run-of-the-mill USB flash drives. They don’t come with any extra features and they’re not super fast, but they do serve as the backbone to the flash drive industry. If you need something small, quick, and cheap to store a few files from school or work with, then this is your best bet. Losing this kind of drive would be unfortunate, but not the end of the world. Buy the cheapest you can find, but try to go with well-known brands like Kingston, SanDisk, or Transcend. This should guarantee better quality.

High Performance

Flash drives that carry the label “high performance” are equipped with higher- binned flash memory chips and better memory controllers, which enable increased transfer speeds. If you have a need for speed and are going to use the device on a daily basis, you should go for high performance. It also means better quality and will last you longer than a generic model.

Secure

Secure flash drives typically provide hardware encryption via an additional mini processor. This way the flash drive can maintain better read and write speeds than generic drives secured with software encryption. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) can encrypt data with up to 256-bit. Access to the data is provided only after inserting the correct password. Some models even go as far as to self destruct, i.e. delete all data, after a wrong password was entered several times. You should opt for a secure flash drive if you frequently deal with sensitive data. Look for the label “AES hardware encryption” (or similar). A 256-bit encryption is to be preferred, but 128-bit is also ok.

Durable

These flash drives can have any characteristic of the above described, with one exception: a robust design. They are made to withstand extreme conditions, for example harsh temperatures, extreme kinetic shock, or high moisture. Durable flash drives are typically encased in rubber or metal alloy and may also be watertight. If you tend to carry important data on your flash drive and fear dropping it, throwing it into the laundry, or damaging it in some other way, you might want to invest in a durable flash drive.

Working with USB flash drives

A USB flash drive works a lot like any other external storage device. However, if you want to do more with than just store data, then you should set it up properly after you’ve purchased it. A USB flash drive is not like a hard disk in the sense that it has no moving parts. That being said, it’s still a device like any other which has the potential to break, get stuck or otherwise stop functioning when exposed to certain conditions or actions. In other words, you should never drop your USB flash drive, get it wet, expose it to extreme heat for long periods of time, or otherwise maltreat it.

Although USB flash drives are extremely portable because of their size, being small does come with its own risks like anything else. Like your keys, the remote, or your ear rings, USB flash drives can get lost rather quickly. Try to carry it with you on a lanyard around your neck or attach it to your bag. You should treat a USB flash drive with extreme care and watch it like a hawk.

If for any reason you get your USB flash drive wet, do not try to reconnect it to your computer. An electrical shortcut will certainly destroy the hardware and data on it. Dry the device manually as best as you can and then store it in a dry and moderately warm place for at least two days. You could also use a blow dryer at low or no heat. When you are sure that the residual liquid has evaporated, you can try using it again.

Formatting your USB flash drives

All USB flash drives are formatted in FAT32 by default. This allows for the cross-platform compatibility of the device. FAT32 does limit the storable file size to 4GB though. If you would like to store larger files on your flash drive, then you should reformat it to NTFS. This file system is supported by all Windows and Mac operating systems as well as Linux distributions. NTFS is not supported by embedded devices, including televisions and media players. If the USB flash drive will be used on a Windows computer only, I recommend using the exFAT file format. It was designed for flash drives and ensures best performance.

Before your format your USB flash drive, back up any data stored on the device including any software that came with it. Then go to:

  1. > Start
  2. > Computer

Then right click on your USB flash drive and select:

  1. > Format
  2. > File System
  3. > Allocation Unit Size

The last portion will depend on the average file size that you wish to store on your USB flash drive. The larger the files you want to store on there, the larger the allocation unit size should be. If you’re not too sure, simply go with the default setting. Click start to confirm your intent to format the flash drive, and then wait until the formatting has been completed.

Removing USB flash drives

To safely remove your USB flash drive, close any open drive folders and all files or programs stored on the device, otherwise Windows will refuse to eject it for fear of corrupting your files. From there, go to the notification area of the taskbar and look for the USB icon. Click on the icon and wait for a little window to pop up next to it. Then click on the device you wish to eject and wait for the confirmation that it is now safe to remove the hardware.

If for any reason this method fails, you will receive an error message that the USB mass storage device could not be removed. If this occurs, try this instead:

  1. Close the device folder and all documents or applications running on the device.
  2. Try ejecting it again.
  3. Close all programs that could potentially access the device.
  4. Try to eject it again.
  5. If you still cannot eject it, reboot Windows and remove the flash drive after you were logged off.
  6. If the issue persists, check whether any installed software on the device continues to connect to Windows. This could be a portable security or backup software installed on the device. Check with the software manufacturer whether this problem is known and how it can be stopped.

To prevent loss of data and extend the life of your storage device, you should never unplug your USB flash drive without first ejecting it through the Windows taskbar.

USB flash drive password protect and data encryption

To protect yourself against identity or data theft, you should encrypt you USB flash drive as well as lock it with a password. If for any reason your USB flash drive is lost or stolen, data encryption software will prevent unauthorized access, or at the very least, make it extremely difficult. For any encryption or password protect program you use, make sure you follow the company’s directions carefully since the potential to destroy or lose your data permanently if something goes wrong is very real.

In this guide, we will use TrueCrypt as an example. We do not claim any liability however for any data loss or data corruption as a result of following our directions. TrueCrypt is an advanced encryption tool that helps you secure your data quickly and easily. The TrueCrypt download comes with a User Guide that contains a beginner’s tutorial with detailed instructions as well as screenshots. Unfortunately, TrueCrypt and many other encryption tools require administrator rights to work. Hence I will introduce another tool in more detail.

Rohos Mini Drive comes with a portable disk browser, which doesn’t require administrator rights once the USB flash drive was set up. The only limit is that the encrypted container can’t be larger than 2GB. Here is a brief guide through the setup process.

  1. Download and install Rohos Mini Drive.
  2. Run > Rohos Mini Drive from Start Menu.
  3. Click on > Setup USB Key.
  4. Rohos will automatically detect a plugged in flash drive. Click on > Change in case it detected the wrong one. You can also > Change the disk size, partition letter and partition image file.
  5. Specify a password and click > Create disk.

Do NOT forget your password. It is the one and only key to your encrypted data. Forgetting your password means you can forget about your encrypted documents as it will not be possible to retrieve them.

  1. Click on > “Rohos mini.exe” in the root folder of your thumb drive.
  2. A password prompt will come up. Enter your password, and click > OK.
  3. Go to > Start > Computer to find the mounted Rohos disk among your other partitions.
  4. Now you can work with Rohos. Your files will be encrypted on the fly.
  5. When you’re done, right-click the Rohos icon in the start menu notification area and select > Disconnect the disks or > Exit & Eject Media.

If you think password protection alone would suffice, try USB Secure. It will not encrypt your files. Like Rohos Mini Drive it doesn’t require administrator rights to be used. The website provides a Flash Demo that illustrates the entire setup process and shows how to use the tool.

Using USB flash drives to lock your computer

Guess what? You don’t need a password to lock your computer. All you need is a flash drive! That’s right, it’s literally can be used as a digital “key” to lock and unlock your operating system.

Predator is the program of choice for this cool feature.

  1. Download and install Predator.
  2. Towards the end of the installation process you need to create a password and key.
  3. In the > Preferences window you can also set up monitoring settings and the alarm.
  4. Click > OK to save your changes.
  5. Manually run Predator.
  6. When you now remove the USB drive, the screen will be locked.
  7. When you re-enter the flash drive the computer will unlock automatically.
  8. In case you selected > Always required for the password, the window below will appear. Quickly > Enter password to regain access. However, this will defeat the purpose of saving time compared to simply hitting Windows + L to lock your computer.

You can always unlock the computer screen with your regular password. While your computer screen is locked, simply hit any key like the spacebar several times and the password screen will show up. It’s good to know you won’t get stuck in case you forget or lose your hardware key.

Unfortunately, if you fail to enter the correct password or connect your USB flash drive, the program will voice an alarm. The only other way to shut it off is to turn off the computer completely. When you boot your computer and log into your account, Predator will launch automatically. But you can manually stop the program through the taskbar icon before it locks up your computer.

Securely wipe data from your flash drive

Some companies and schools loan out USB flash drives to their employees and students. If you find yourself in this situation, you may want to wipe out all the data from it securely before you return it. Or maybe you just have an old flash drive lying around and you want to donate it. In either case, just deleting your files off of the drive won’t entirely get rid of your personal data. The files are still on the USB flash drive believe it or not and fallen into the wrong hands, your data could potentially be at risk.

Disk Redactor is the perfect tool for this job. You need to manually delete all files that you don’t want to leave on the flash drive – which you’d basically be doing this anyways. From there, Disk Redactor will overwrite all the free space to remove any traces of files that were ones stored in its place. Disk Redactor will not actually delete any existing files stored on the drive. It will only clear the free space.

Keep in mind that you should backup your data before wiping your flash drive with Disk Redactor. Even though only free space should be cleared, you should play on the safe side in case something goes terribly wrong.

  1. Download and install Disk Redactor.
  2. Launch it from the Start Menu.
  3. Click on > Wipe Disk to select the drive you would like to wipe. It will start instantly.

Recommended portable apps

Sometimes during your business travels or college days you’ll have to use public computers. We all know what it feels like to work without administrative rights. You’re basically completely shut out from all your programs and essential software. You’re stuck with whatever default programs that were installed on these internet cafes or public libraries. Wouldn’t you like to use your own programs and maybe even run some of your stuff safely without any worry about getting virus infections on your flash drive?

Portable apps were made for just that reason. The allow you to run applications directly from your USB flash drive instead of the computer so that you can bypass the administrative access completely. You don’t even need internet access from some of these more basic programs. But you can also store your personal information, such as emails, bookmarks, and personal settings here as well.

To get started with Portable Apps Software, you can visit PortableApps.com. Otherwise, check out some of these popular portable apps below:

ClamWin Portable – A lightweight, portable free antivirus

ClamWin Portable is the popular ClamWin antivirus built for USB drives, so you can have a portable antivirus with you to scan and remove harmful malware anywhere. Not to mention you can use it on any computer without having to deal with installation and using personal information.

This portable application features high detection rates for both viruses and spyware, along with regular virus database updates for the most thorough scan possible. The ClamAV team regularly updates their virus databases to include any new viruses or variants immediately after they appear.

KeePass Password Safe Portable – Secure passwords right on a USB drive

With its straightforward interface, KeePass Portable is different from the traditional password managers on the market not only because it has been adapted to run off of portable usb flash drives, but also because it offers flexibility in handling it, high security and the ability to store a seeming unlimited number of passwords.

EraserDrop Portable – Erase all your files permanently and remotely

The EraserDrop Portable App is an easy-to-use, secure data removal tool. It incorporates a drop target (a floating icon on your desktop) so that you can drag-n-drop files quickly and easily to erase them so they cannot be recovered.

Database Browser Portable – Connect to any data base and export or modify it while on-the-go

Database Browser Portable is a simple software tool that lets you connect to any database and browse, modify, export, or print data – as well as run SQL scripts. It comes as a portable app so you can work on all of your databases on-the-go and straight from a USB flash drive.

And this is just the beginning. Check out the PortableApps.com Suite which gives you a complete collection of tools, including a web browser, email client, office suite, calendar / scheduler, instant messaging client, antivirus, audio player, games, password manager, PDF reader, backup utility, an integrated menu, and all of that is preconfigured to work portably. What more could you ask for? Oh that’s right. It’s all free!

Speed up your computer with virtual memory on a USB flash drive

You can increase the system performance of your computer with the help of a trusty USB flash drive. To do so, you just need to allocate storage space from your flash drive to the system for times when your RAM (physical memory) is used up to its capacity. Rather than stashing data on a standard pace hard drive, Windows can use the much faster flash memory to read and write data (virtual memory) and free up your RAM. This will super charge the overall responsiveness of your system. So you can work a lot faster on there. It’s a simple, fast work around that doesn’t cost much, just a USB flash drive.

Windows 7

On this version of the Windows operating system, the feature is actually called ReadyBoost. You can access this feature through the properties menu of your USB flash drive. Just go to:

  1. > Start
  2. > Computer
  3. > Devices with Removable Storage

Right click your USB flash drive and then:

  1. > Select
  2. > Properties

In the properties window, switch over to the ReadyBoost section. There you should find that you can dedicate the entire device to ReadyBoost or just reserve some space for your system speed. Select Apply to save the changes and wait as ReadyBoost configures your cache.

Under “Computer” you will subsequently see the blocked out space. In case you decide to reserve only part of the USB flash drive’s capacity, you can use the remaining space to store data. Windows 7 can handle up to eight flash drives and a total of 256 GB of virtual memory.

Keep in mind that not all USB flash drives have the required performance characteristics to work with Windows 7 ReadyBoost. You will see a respective message if that is the case.

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Vincent Clarke

Vincent Clarke is the Universal Serial Bus (USB) Guru for USBtips.com. When he's not writing tutorials and catching up on the latest USB news, Vincent is busy preparing his next blog post and answering USB questions from his readers and subscribers.

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