The USB Flash drive has replaced the floppy drive, the Zip disk and other portable data devices in today's PCs. Prices for drives range from a few to hundreds of dollars for the same storage capacity. Drives in the 32 gigabyte range are now available. When choosing a flash drive for your personal or business use, there are several factors to be considered as all flash drives are not created equal.
A flash drive is a flash memory storage device coupled to a USB connector. This allows simple and fast communications between the flash memory and the computer it is attached to. The USB 2.0 standard is capable of transferring data at a much faster rate than the memory of even the fastest flash drive. Therefore, the limiting factor in flash performance are the memory components used to assemble the drive.
Low cost flash drives are assembled from memory components that are bought on worldwide spot markets. The overriding factor for this type of memory is cost. However a potential buyer should concern themselves with more than just cost. The NAND type memory used in flash drives has a limited number of useful cycles. Every time you write to the drive you are reducing it's life span. Within this type of memory there are different design types. Multilayer (MLC) memory is inexpensive and easy to find. Most low-end flash drives use this type of memory. The tradeoff to using this kind of memory is speed and life span. Higher performance single layer memory (SLC) costs more but has greater speed and potentially 10 times the life of the MLC memory.
Buying the right flash drive for the job requires assessing what the drive will be used for. If the main use of the drive is to download a file or two from your computer every so often, then cheap drives will suffice -- especially if you are not concerned with long term data reliability. More common these days is the use of flash drives to run applications and store ever-changing data. Under these circumstances, faster read and write speeds and long life are essential.
Today, there are essentially 3 tiers of flash drives, in terms of speed. The low end drives are usually unrated for speed since they are typically assembled from whatever parts are available on the open market. Transfer speeds of 3 MB/s are probably the average for this class of drive. Different manufacturers use different terms to describe higher speed drives. Some will use terms like 200X while others will use language such as Ultra High Speed. There is no standard way of describing these drives and the consumer should read the manufacturers information carefully to determine what they are getting. The next tier of drives, often labeled as high speed, have a transfer rate in the range of 20/10 MB/s The first number being the read speed and the second the write speed. Drives labeled as Ultra high speed or somewhere in the 160-200X range will have speeds of 30/20 MB/s. Of course, as speed and longevity go up, so does the price and for a given capacity the ultra high speed drives can cost 10 times or more what the low end drives do.
If you are running any kind of application on your flash drive or are using it as a place to store changing data, then buying a faster drive with a long life span will save you money and aggravation in the future.
Another factor in buying a flash drive is security. The fact that these drives are small and easy to move around also makes them easy to lose. For this reason, a lot of business and government users require some sort of encryption be used when flash drives are part of a data processing solution. Encrypting a flash drive can be as simple as using a encryption program to secure the drive. See our encryption page for more information on such software. The problem with this approach is that it ties the drive to machines that have the proper software and keys to decrypt the drive when you want to use it. Manufacturers have stepped up and provided a multitude of secure drives to consumers, businesses and government. At the lowest end, the drive contains some sort of password which opens up the drive for use. These are fairly inexpensive solutions but are not really suited for casual applications. Higher level drives use built in hardware encryption to completely encrypt the entire drive. Using Government grade encryption on some of these devices makes them totally secure. This type of drive, combining fast speeds, long life and hardware encryption is the most expensive type available. However, for serious business use, they are worth the price.
At the right are examples of a regular, high speed and hardware encrypted flash drives.