REVIEWS / USB Flash Drive Reviews

USB drives put to the test

Régis Jehl
USB flash drives are taking over, but it can be difficult to decide which to pick from the huge range of models in all shapes and sizes. Some promise lightning fast data transfer speeds, while others come with bundled extras like games, music or movies.

Our reviews are based on practical tests that involve copying three sets of files onto each USB drive:

  • Excel spreadsheets: 100 KB each
  • Photos: from 2 to 5 MB
  • Large files: 256 MB each

We time how long it takes to copy the files to and from the flash drive, which we then convert into a speed in MBps.

We then consider the practical side of things, looking at the USB drive's general quality and the accessories included.

USB flash drives are as popular as ever, and there really is something out there for everybody. From flash drives the size of a thumbnail and no thicker than a credit card to virtually indestructible waterproof models, you can even find models that double-up as memory card readers.

Capacity, speed and accessories

The storage capacity packed into portable USB flash drives just keeps on growing. Today, the minimum is 1 GB and the maximum is 16 GB or even 32 GB. But how big is big enough? In general, it would seem that 2 GB drives give good value for money, but it does of course depend on what you want to store on it. If you're only going to be carrying around a few letters and spreadsheets, then 1 GB will probably be enough. However, if you're transporting bigger files like photos and music, then 2 GB or 4 GB drives will be more appropriate. Finally, if you've got a home cinema system with a USB port for reading DivX files, then we recommend you look for at least 4 GB.

Once you know how much room you need, you need to choose the right USB key. The most important factor is how fast it can copy files. The most advanced USB drives reach speeds of up to 21 MBps, while the least powerful can only manage 3 MBps. In practice, that can mean copying a 700 MB film can take anywhere from 33 seconds on the fastest models to up to four minutes on the slowest.

To stand out from the crowd, some manufacturers include accessories and extra features. There are also special applications that help you automatically back up files to your flash drive, or carry around your e-mail client and Internet favourites to use on any computer. Some also come with more traditional accessories like USB extension cables or lanyards. A more recent trend is including music, movies or other content pre-installed on the drive.

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