A USB flash drive, also known as a memory stick, thumb drive, or pen drive is an external and removable data storage device with an integrated Universal Serial Bus interface. It connects to a computer via a USB port. This portable storage device is based on flash memory. It is also one of the most common examples of solid-state storage. This article lists and describes the pros and cons or advantages and disadvantages of a USB flash drive.
Pros: Notable Advantages of USB Flash Drive
It was around late 2000 when USB flash drives became popular although it was first invented between 1999 and 2000. The eventual mass adoption of these storage devices has rendered floppy discs and compact discs obsolete. Part of their appeal is their small and compact form factor which has made them an ideal external storage solution for safekeeping files or transferring files between computers. They also have become more affordable and accessible over the years. The following are the specific advantages of a USB flash drive:
1. Inexpensive Storage With Several Capacity Options
The price of a USB flash drive ranges from as low as USD 2.00 to a high price point of around USD 10.00. The price is dependent on the storage capacity. The cheaper ones are available at 8GB to 128GB storage capacity options while the more expensive ones have capacities ranging from 256GB to 1TB. Advances in manufacturing and continuous high demand have increased the available storage capacity options while also lowering their production costs.
Products from manufacturers such as SanDisk and Samsung tend to be more expensive but offer higher quality and better warranties. Those from lesser-known manufacturers are more affordable but with limited to no warranties. Users can opt for cheaper USB flash drives for use cases that involve frequent file transfers while those who need a more dependable solution for longer-term storage should choose products from reputable manufacturers.
2. Universal and Compatible Across Different Platforms
It is also usable in most computers and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. There is a wide range of operating system support. These include mainstream desktop operating systems such as Windows from Microsoft, macOS from Apple, Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Debian, and mobile operating systems such as Android, and iOS or iPadOS. Note that the USB interface has become a standard port in modern consumer electronic devices.
This storage device also supports various file systems. These include the cross-platform and widely popular File Allocation Table file systems such as FAT32 and exFAT, Hierarchical File System or HFS Plus and HFS Extended used in Apple devices, New Technology File System, or NTFS of Windows, the third generation and fourth generation of the Extended FileSystem or ext3 and ext4 used in Linux, and the Universal Disk Format used in optical media.
3. Portable Form Factor and Very Convenient To Use
Another notable advantage of a USB flash drive is its small and compact physical dimension. A standard device is between 1.2 inches and 2.4 inches in length but some can even go as small as 0.4 inches to 0.8 inches in length. Most also weigh less than 10 grams and some weigh between 1 gram to 2 grams. Devices with smaller storage capacities tend to be smaller. Those with bigger storage capacities but with advanced hardware components can also be smaller.
Its portable form factor gives it an advantage over optical media such as compact discs since it is available in a range of storage capacities. It fits in a pocket or a small purse. Another benefit of using a USB flash drive is that it is a plug-and-play storage device with a drag-and-drop interface that does not require driver installation to be usable. It also does not need an internal or external power source because it draws power from the Universal Serial Bus port.
4. Durable Storage and Decent Write-and-Erase Cycles
Remember that this storage device is based on solid-state hardware technology. It is similar to other solid-state storages such as memory cards and solid-state drives. This means that it has a considerable degree of resistance from physical and internal hardware damage or shock due to accidental drops, vibrations, and dust accumulation due to the absence of moving parts. The flash memory cells are also enclosed in a protective plastic or metallic chassis.
Take note that a hard disk drive is more vulnerable to physical trauma while removable optical discs such as compact discs are susceptible to damages and data loss because of scratches. The general lifespan of a USB flash drive is about 10 years or more when stored and used under ideal conditions. Inexpensive variants have write-and-erase cycles of 500 to 5000 while the more advanced ones have write-and-erase cycles of between 100000 and 1 million.
Cons: Key Disadvantages of USB Flash Drive
The small size and compact form factor of a USB flash drive come with drawbacks. It is also not the most ideal solution for long-term safekeeping of files due to its inherent lifespan issues and known physical vulnerabilities. Other solid-state storage devices such as an external solid-state drive, Secure Disk or SD card, and MultiMedia Card or MMC have advantageous applications in certain use cases. A hard disk drive is also the most ideal option for long-term storage and data back needs. Below are the disadvantages of a USB flash drive:
1. Vulnerable to Hardware Damages and Data Corruption
The solid-state hardware design of a USB flash drive does not mean that it is not vulnerable to other causes of physical and internal hardware damage and possible data corruption or data loss. Its small and compact form factor means that it can be fragile and can suffer internal damage from physical impact. Most are also not resistant to water damage. The same portable form factor also means that it is easier to misplace or get stolen than larger storage devices.
Exposure to extreme ambient temperature and internal overheating when in operation or due to the introduction of a higher voltage can also damage the internal circuits and cause hardware failure. The integrity of stored data is also vulnerable to strong magnetic fields from numerous sources such as powerful magnets and electromagnetic equipment. This is because digital data are encoded and stored as electrical charges within the flash memory cells.
2. Variations and Limitations in Speed and Performance
A USB flash drive can rival internal and external SATA and SAS hard disk drives in terms of read and write performance speeds but it is not on par with advanced solid-state drives based on non-volatile memory express protocol and M.2 form factor nor it can rival even older solid-state drives based on SAS interface. Several factors affect its read and write speeds. These include the version of the USB interface, the type of flash memory, and the flash drive controller.
The USB C and USB 3.1 specifications are faster than the older USB versions with a read speed of between 100 MB/s and 800 MB/s and a write speed of between 50 MB/s and 500 MB/s. However, even with a high-speed USB interface, the actual read and write speeds are dependent on the type of flash memory. A device with a SLC or single-level cell is faster and more durable but more expensive than a device with a triple-level cell or quad-level cell.
3. Lifespan Issues Due to Limited Write and Erase Cycles
Another disadvantage of a USB flash drive is its limited write and erase cycles. This drawback is also present in other solid-state storage devices or flash storage. There is a finite number a user can write and erase data on these storage devices. Nearing the limit can result in more noticeable performance issues and reaching the limit would lead to overall hardware failure. This comes from the fact that flash memory cells degrade with each write and erase cycle.
More advanced flash memory cells such as single-level cells and double-level cells have longer write and erase cycles. However, unlike hard disk drives, the fact remains that there is still a limitation. Frequent use and large file transfers can shorten the lifespan of a USB flash drive. Those who want a more reliable storage option should choose the more expensive SLC or DLC variants. Hard disk drives are still ideal for longer-term data backup and archiving.
4. Main Security Concerns and Overall Data Integrity
The security of using USB flash drives has been put in question. Some organizations have barred their people from using these storage devices. Take note that a particular device can be infected with viruses or other types of malware that can spread to other computers and the entire network. It is also worth noting that not all devices have native encryption features. Furthermore, because of its small and compact size, data can be accessed or stolen without permission.
Remember that one of the main disadvantages of a USB flash drive is its limited write and erase cycles or the finite number a user can write and erase data. It is also still vulnerable to internal hardware damage due to improper handling. This means that it is unsuitable for storing important data or files for longer periods. The risks to individuals and organizations emerging from possible data corruption and data loss are too high to depend on this storage device.
Takeaway: Pros and Cons of USB Flash Drive
Opting to use a USB flash drive should be evaluated in terms of the specific applications or use cases. The aforementioned advantages make it ideal for storing data or files for temporary use or for the short term, transferring files between computers or file sharing, and booting a computer. However, as a device for backing up and archiving data or files, it is not the most ideal because of the risks involved. Transferring large files using this device also shortens its lifespan and use cases that require frequent data writing and erasing increase the likelihood of hardware failure. It is also not suitable for storing or transferring unencrypted but sensitive data or files because it is more susceptible to being misplaced or get stolen. The best storage option depends on the specific needs and priorities of users. It is important to consider factors like storage capacity, portability, performance, security, and cost when choosing a particular storage device.