Hardware / Storage Devices

Flash Drives are Taking Over

Flash Drives are Taking Over
Contributed by Mike Mackenzie
Date: 2006-07-11
Source: devhardware

Flash Drives are Taking Over

When I talk to customers at my work, one of the things they often tell me is that they have to use a few different computers during the run of their day, normally one at home and one at work. And some of them even have multiple computers in their household. One of the common questions they ask me is "What is the best way for me to carry around all my data?" As soon as I hear that question, I whip out my handy little flash drive.


Flash drives have been around for several years now. They all for the most part have the same primary function: to be small, portable storage drives. Users can simply plug a flash drive into an available USB port and have a new drive show up in My Computer. From that point, they're able to access data on the drive, or to write data onto the drive for transport to another computer. That's not the only things they are able to do; the data can be transferred fast enough to run files and programs directly off of the drive itself, and much more.


This is my PNY Mini Attaché 512MB Flash Drive. It is ultra compact, with an integrated cap which swings and covers up the USB end, protecting it from dust and other contaminants. It provides quick and easy transportation for important files.

A lot of people ask how much better are flash drives than recordable media, which is really a debate because they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Which one is better is really a hard question to answer; it all depends on how you plan on using one, and how often. So today we're going to take a look at flash drives to see how these small devices can be used to replace more standard recordable media, and what makes them such a threat to recordable media.

Flash Drives are Taking Over - Dissecting a flash drive


Take one quick look at a flash drive compared to a CD. Which one would you prefer to use to carry around your data? A side note: I had to throw away that disc because it was scratched when I picked it up. Who wants to lose their data? Not me.

Taking a quick look at a flash drive, you will realize the obvious; they are considerably smaller than recordable media. But what really makes up a flash drive? Is there a small hard drive in there or what? Some users would think so since it does show up as a hard drive, and not a floppy drive. When I dissected my flash drive, I found what a flash drive is really made of. Inside a basic flash drive there is a minimal amount of components. Some flash drives have additional features such as fingerprint readers and compression technologies built in. We're not going to get into those today.


Here my PNY Attaché flash drive has the USB connector, as well as a Toshiba flash drive controller. This tells the computer what kind of flash drive it is, its capacity, and all the necessary programming to make it function properly.

Every flash drive comes with the very basic components in order to operate. A standard USB plug is included every single flash drive; this is soldered directly to the PCB, which holds all the components that make up the drive.

After the USB connector is a flash drive controller. This integrated circuit relays information back and forth between the computer and the flash drive's storage device. The flash drive controller tells the computer what drive it is, its capacity, and where on the drive it can store the information.


The memory module is soldered onto the backside of the PCB. This NAND memory module is non-volatile and will retain its information, unlike system memory.

Most of the common flash drives have a memory bank on them; these are solid-state NAND memory modules. Unlike EPROM modules, NAND modules are much more affordable and make flash drives considerably cheaper. Similar to EPROM modules, NAND modules are non-volatile, which means that the drive does not need a power source to maintain data. It still offers fast read and write time, though not as fast as volatile DRAM, which is used for computer system memory. NAND memory modules provide better shock resistance than hard drives, which makes them ideal for portable devices like flash drives and battery powered MP3 players.

Flash Drives are Taking Over - Why should you use a flash drive?

When looking at the options for transferring data, most users automatically go ahead and pick up a blank CD-R. Most users at the very least have a CD Recorder drive in their system. The good old CD-R lets users handle 650-700MB of data per disc. In cases where users need to back up more than 700MB, their best option is to record onto a DVD-R or DVD Dual Layer disc. These discs give them the option of recording 4.7GB of data or 8.5GB of data onto a single disc. It does require users to have a DVD recorder in their systems. And even then, once you record the data, can you erase the data and write to it like new again? Unless you're using special rewriteable discs, you cannot.


Very small in size, flash drives can easily be carried around in pockets, or attached to lanyards or key chains.

One of the major drawbacks to using recordable media is that they are prone to scratching. A scratched disc cannot be played in the computer, it will simply give an error every time you try to copy data off of it. This is a potential disaster if the user has erased their system, or had no other means to back up the data. Along with scratches, another problem with CDs is transporting them. You need cases to help prevent scratches, which brings the size issue into consideration. Sliding a CD into your pocket is hard enough; protecting it with a case is even more of an inconvenience.

Transferring data using a flash drive gives you certain advantages. The drives themselves are incredibly small, a little bit larger than your keys. So flash drives can be transported many ways: you can slip one easily into your pocket, on your key chain, or around your neck using a lanyard (which a lot of drives come with). Some companies have even integrated flash drives into common devices such as watches, pens and Swiss Army knifes.

Besides being small, flash drives come in a wide assortment of capacities. Drives get as small as 16MB and at the time of this review have peaked at 8GB. Even with that much storage, they still remain the size of a small key chain.

Flash Drives are Taking Over - Using a flash drive

Flash Drives are Taking Over - Using a flash drive


When you insert a flash drive into the computer, Windows should automatically open the auto play menu. You can select any of the options to copy files, play files, or view a folder, which contains all the files.

To use a flash drive, all you have to do is insert the flash drive into an available USB 2.0 port and let the drive do the rest of the work. The flash drive controller built into the flash drive will begin communicating with the computer. It will tell the computer it's a removable disc drive, and how much capacity it has. Once this communication has happened on a Windows XP-based computer, the Auto play menu appears. You can select many different options right here, or you can simply open the folder to view all files on the drive.


The same problem with hard drives applies to flash drive. The drives are 512,000,000 bytes, and not 512MB. It's technically not false advertising; it's measured as 512 million bytes of data, not actual megabytes, which are 1024 bytes.

One of the major advantages flash drives have over CDs is that once the data is written onto the disc, you can erase each individual file if need be. On rewriteable media, you have to erase the entire disc in order to add new data (you can add more data if you select multisession disk). Erasing discs can be more hectic than anything else -- you have to copy off any data you want to maintain on the disc, erase the other files, and copy them back.

Flash drives operate just like a normal hard drive. You can go through the data on the disc and delete individual files one at a time; you can also add one file at a time. Your only limitation is capacity. The same problem as you have with hard drives applies; if you buy a 512MB drive, you will not receive 512MB of useable storage space. It's the old 1024 bytes is equal to 1MB dilemma; 512MB drive will show up as 488MB of usable storage because the drive is actually 512,000,000 bytes. The same thing occurs with larger capacity drives.


Transferring data to a flash drive couldn't be easier. Using the send to option, you can select the removable disc; no software is needed other than your existing operating system.

Transferring data onto a flash drive is very simple. Since it's just like saving your data onto a hard drive, you don't have to use any special programs in order to put data on the drive. If you were working in a program and you wanted to save your progress, you simply click save as, and in the menu you have to change the drive letter from its current location to your removable drive. And now you're done. Your data should automatically be added to the flash drive. Now you can take it anywhere and work on your existing file. If you were backing up files on your computer, you could use the Send To option when you right click a file; this will make a copy on the drive. All you have to do is select the removable drive and the data will be sent.

Flash Drives are Taking Over - Testing out flash drives

One of the advantages of flash drives is that they are very quick; using the high speed USB 2.0 interface, flash drives have the potential to transfer data much faster than a CD. But just how fast is the average flash drive? I am going to run a few benchmarks on my flash drive just to check out its performance in read and write speeds, and how many operations per second it can achieve.


In the File System Benchmark the drive performs decently, is an average speed drive compared to some of the fastest drives, which achieve around 16MB/s.

When I ran a file system benchmark on the drive, it achieved an average of 7MB/S. Some of the fastest flash drives achieve around 16MB/s. Physical hard drives have an average of 40MB/s and higher, which is certainly decent considering the typical size of a hard drive. Benchmarks don't always show real world performance. Transferring your data around itself is going to provide the best speed comparison.

The Pros and Cons of flash drives


  • Incredibly small, portable and fast.

  • Storage capacity is amazing, considering physical size.

  • Data is protected; scratch your drive all you want, as long as it's still in one piece, it should still copy off your information.

  • Drives are becoming more and more affordable.

  • Unique casing for flash drives can be personalized.

  • Some drives offer enhanced security with biometric fingerprint identification.

  • Non-volatile storage; if you get it wet, as long as it dries out for a day or two it should still work (but avoid getting it wet at all costs). Your results may vary.


  • Costs more than most recordable media.

  • Some flash drives are so small, they can be lost easily.

  • Computers with USB 1.1 ports degrade the performance of the drive, but still operate properly.

  • CDs are most popular for archival purposes.


After taking a close look at flash drives, it's safe to say that these things certainly can give recordable media a run for the money. They offer awesome performance and are amazingly small. They also offer ease of use and incredible flexibility, which makes them perfect for just about any user who is transferring data around from computer to computer. For archival purposes I'll continue to use recordable media or additional hard drives since they offer cheap mass storage and decent long time reliability.

Id like to thank everyone for reading our article on USB flash drives. They certainly offer an excellent solution for users on the go or users who need to copy data every once in a while. I hope everyone is looking forward to our next article up here on devhardware.

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