USB flash drives are convenient little gadgets. I remember the days when we were using 1.44 MB floppy drives to move things around. What a pain those were! The capacity was pitiful, giving rise to utilities designed to split up a single file among multiple floppies. Then CDs became the norm. CDs offer much higher capacity, but they do not operate like a hard drive. They are also pretty slow. DVDs offer even higher capacity, but you are still dealing with all the restrictions (and annoyances) of optical media.
USB flash drives are so much better. Today, they offer respectable capacities. USB 2.0 makes them pretty fast. The BIOS of many motherboards even has the capability of booting from a USB drive. They are more dependable then optical media because they cannot be scratched. They are more dependable than even hard drives because they have no moving parts. So, there are a lot of possibilities for these little sticks.
Below, I will go over the most useful uses for your USB flash drive.
(1) Moving Files Around
This one is really obvious and goes without saying….so let me explain. Unless two computers are on the same network and sharing files, it can be a pain in the butt to move a file between them. If the files are small, email is usually a good way to go. For really large files, email may not work. CDs and DVDs are one way to go, but unless it is rewritable, you’re essentially sacrificing a whole disc just to move a file. USB flash drives are much more convenient. Move files between your PCs. Even carry some of your important files around with you. Since almost any computer running Windows today can recognize and use your USB drive without any further setup, you have ultimate portability.
(2) Having a Portable Computing Environment
Some software is designed such that it can be run exclusively from a USB flash drive without needing to use the hard drive of a host computer. PortableApps is one such way of doing this. PortableApps is a free suite of programs that are designed to run totally from your USB drive. It includes programs such as Firefox, GIMP, Filezilla, OpenOffice, Thunderbird, Audacity, and more. All open source, and all hacked slightly so that they can operate in a self-contained environment. This means that you can use your own computing environment, with all your data, on any computer anywhere. Just plug in your USB drive and up comes your computer.
PortableApps is also updated quite often.
(3) PC Troubleshooting
Another useful way of using a USB drive is by loading on a bunch of diagnostic utilities for PC troubleshooting. Then, you can troubleshoot any PC you come across by sticking in the USB drive and running the diagnostic of your choice. This is commonly done by PC technicians. Need to do a virus scan on a computer without antivirus installed? Just move your personal favorite antivirus utility from the USB drive and run it (perhaps AVG). You can also store the rescue/recovery data for a PC on a USB drive and use it whenever you need to fix an ailing PC that won’t boot properly.
(4) Booting Your Computer
Many motherboards in use today are equipped with BIOS that can boot from a USB drive. To take advantage of this, you will need to enter your BIOS and change the boot order so as to put your USB drive in front of your hard drive in the sequence. Then, you can install an operating system to your USB drive. This is sometimes referred to as Live USB. Now, obviously, you will not be able to install a copy of Windows in this fashion. Windows is too big and is not designed to run from a USB drive anyway. However, there are some smaller, portable versions of Linux that can fit on a USB drive, such as Puppy Linux or Damn Small Linux.
(5) Using Windows Vista ReadyBoost
ReadyBoost is a technology only available in Windows Vista which allows a USB drive to be used for caching in order to boost performance of the PC. It basically takes some of the active system files that are randomly called upon and caches them on the flash drive. ReadyBoost employs a logical system on the drive to make access very quick and the end result is that requests for data from the USB drive are said to be 80-100 times faster than a hard drive. To use this, you just plug a compatible USB drive into a Vista-powered machine. The AutoPlay dialog will provide an additional option for speeding up the system. Select that option and you will get a Properties dialog window for the drive with an extra tab for ReadyBoost. Windows will test the drive to see if it is up to specs for ReadyBoost. For a USB drive to be ReadyBoost ready, it needs to be over 256MB, have an access time faster than 1 ms, be capable of 2.5 MB.s reads and 1.75 MB/s writes. It is also recommended that the USB drive be 1-3 times larger than the amount of system memory. So, for example, I have 2 gigs in my desktop. I should have a USB drive that is at least 2 gigs in capacity.
(6) Sew a Pattern Hi-Tech Style
OK, I wanted to throw one in here that is just off the wall. Let’s enter the world of sewing. Yes, many modern sewing machines today have USB ports on them. You can use the USB drive to put software updates onto the machine. You can also transfer patterns to the machine for automatic creation on your fabrics. Yes, it is the old time world of sewing merged with the world of technology.
The PCMech.com weekly newsletter has been running strong for over 8 years. Sign up to get tech news, updates and exclusive content - right in your inbox. Also get (several) free gifts.