What is a Thumb Drive?

Posted By BrokenClaw on August 17, 2008

A thumb drive is a portable data storage device. In computer parlance, it is known as a USB flash drive, but it can be known by a variety of mix and match descriptive names such as USB key, USB memory key, key drive, flash key, compact flash key, or compact flash drive.

Sandisk Cruzer USB flash drive

The names come from the fact that the device is about the size of a thumb, small enough to be carried on a key ring, and plugs into the computer like a key. The device is plugged into a universal serial bus (USB) port. Once connected, your computer treats it like a removable “disk”.

The term USB drive is ambiguous, because it could also mean an external hard drive which is connected via a USB port. Out of context the term flash drive can also be ambiguous, because there are, in fact, specialized hard drives which use flash memory.

The technology of flash memory is just a printed circuit board, so it differs from the magnetic media of normal hard drives and from the optical media of CD’s and DVD’s. Flash memory requires no moving parts, similar to the computer’s RAM, but it is non-volatile memory in the sense that it requires no power to maintain it. The value of the flash drive is that it provides a simple means for moving data from one computer to another. From a practical standpoint, the flash drive put the final nail in the coffin of the floppy disk.

In addition to USB flash drives, flash memory is also used in the compact memory cards used in digital cameras and other portable media devices. As mentioned above, there are also “hard drives” built on flash memory.

Silicon Power USB flash driveMost people use a flash drive to carry individual files or projects between work and home, or between school and home. Carrying computer files from one computer to another is known by the tongue-in-cheek moniker of sneakerware. It is useful when a network connection, either by direct file transfer or via email attachment, is unavailable or inconvenient. Today’s flash drives have a capacity larger than a CD, so they can be used to transport virtually any computer project, other than high-definition video files.

Flash drives are easy to use and convenient to carry in a pocket or purse, or hanging on a lanyard or keychain. By the same token, their small size makes them easy to lose. Their penchant for being misplaced must be considered when using a flash drive for sensitive files such as business or medical data.

Applications can be designed to run directly from a flash drive, without being copied onto the hard drive. In fact, in some circumstances it’s possible to boot an entire operating system from a flash drive.

Be aware that flash drives present the same security risks as floppy disks of previous decades. That is to say, malware on a flash drive is easily transferred to any machine in which it is connected. Sandisk has developed a technology called U3 which causes a computer to recognize a USB flash drive as a CD instead of a hard drive. The advantage is that many people have their computer set to play CD’s automatically, so in this case your computer would automatically launch the program on the USB drive as soon as you connect it. The disadvantage is that this same technology could be used to launch malware from a USB drive.

USB flash drive noveltyNevertheless, USB flash drives are one of those technologies that increase in storage capacity while dropping dramatically in production costs. While they were once an expensive preference for computer enthusiasts, USB flash drives are now sold at the checkout stand as disposable impulse items. Their small size also means that manufacturers can implant them inside all kinds of novely toys, gadgets, and even jewelry, ranging from the useful to the silly.

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