A few years ago, many of us were still using those little 3.5 inch floppy disks to save our valuable information on. While these magnetic disks shielded in a flimsy plastic casing were the best and most portable option most of us had, they were far from perfect. At what always seemed to be the most inopportune time, our floppy disks would fail and/or loose our homework assignments for school, a presentation for work, or those important backups from our personal banking software. We struggled for a better way. While business relied on large hard drives and other forms of magnetic media such as tape drives to store their important information, the average joe had to keep packing around those lovely little floppy disks, hoping and praying that we wouldn’t crook our mouths the wrong way and ruin the floppy.
Thankfully, someone (namely Dov Moran in 1998) came up with the brilliant little idea of a USB thumb drive. You may know this lovely little piece of equipment by one of its many other names: Flash drive, pen drive, jump drive, thumb drive…the list goes on and on. But what has made these thumb drives so popular? Are they good for anything other that storage? How much information can they hold?
First things first, let’s talk about the wild popularity of thumb drives. For one, they are virtually impervious to scratches, dents, drops that plagued floppy disks, and to some extent, compact discs. I personally have washed (and dried) a thumb drive on several occasions, with no ill effect. (I personally would not recommend this as a testing point for your thumb drive. I didn’t set out to test mine that way and if I weren’t so forgetful, my poor little thumb drive would never have been subjected to such a test!)
Portability is another benefit that thumb drives offer that was sorely lacking in floppy disks. Everybody used to carry around their floppy in the back pocket of their pants; a disaster waiting to happen. Thumb drives easily slip in a pocket, or in most cases, come with a lanyard for hanging around your neck for easy access. Just be sure that when you purchase a thumb drive, don’t get one where the lanyard attaches to the cap! Your extremely rugged and portable thumb drive will do you no good if it falls off your lanyard and lands in the middle of the road. Not even a thumb drive can stand up to the pure force of a tractor-trailer.
Yes, thumb drives were originally designed as a portable storage device. But now, they good for so much more. Thumb drives have become popular with PC technicians as there are a lot of diagnostic tools that can be run from a thumb drive, even to the point of having an entire operating system that can boot from the thumb drive.
There are several programs (with more being added all the time) that can run from a thumb drive. U3, a company back by SanDisk and M-Systems, develops applications specifically formatted so they can be launched from a USB thumb drive. U3 provides development tools to companies that wish to make a version of their software that can be used from a thumb drive. The list of available software grows more everyday and includes everything from web browsers (Mozilla Firefox) to antivirus scanners (Avast!) and much more.
As advances in flash storage technology continue to break the barriers on storage capacity, thumb drives will continue to hold more and more information. And do it at an increasingly lower cost. A 2GB thumb drive today costs about what a 256 MB drive cost only 2 years ago. Drives as large as 4 GB are now available, with larger sizes not too far off in the future.
Personal storage certainly has come a long way since the days of the floppy. USB thumb drives are cheap, portable, reliable, durable, and hold much more information than any floppy ever dreamed of. For transporting your information from one place to another, there’s no better choice than a thumb drive. And with new technology, your thumb drive can almost be a portable resource, carrying your web browser, media player, photos and more right along with you wherever you go.
Michael Paul is the host/producer of the TechCast Weekly podcast, a weekly podcast dedicated to offering computer help and computer tutorials to everyday people. Visit http://www.techcastweekly.com to listen to the latest shows and great computer help and advice.
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